Answered With A Question Mark: Researcher Reflexivity in Geek Spaces

BY STEVEN DASHIELL

Graduate school has in many ways blessed me with what I call a researcher’s eye, or the ability to view the world in an ethnographic fashion.  That doesn’t mean I envision myself as some sort of Jane Goodall constantly around subjects of study from whom I am disconnected on many levels. Yet having an “anthropology sense” like Spiderman’s “spider sense” that won’t turn off can lead to deeper cultural understandings on a personal level.  Because my anthropological identity involves studying linguistic features, I am always curious about what people say, how they say it, and how they position themselves in their narratives.  Lots of what I want to (and end up) studying comes from my exposure to my own social networks, many of them geek-ish.  As we all know, the world of geek culture is filled with undiscovered topics rife for study, meaning our own social spaces can provide us topics that can benefit from our critical eye.

Why We Study

An important thing to consider about social scientists who study all things geek is their motivation to turn a critical eye to the topic.  While there is an expectation a researcher has some interest in his topic, in geek spaces a significant number of researchers are themselves self-identified geeks who align themselves, personally, to their topic.   In The Role Playing Society (2016) Liberoth and Trier-Knudsen very correctly pointed out something that affects the study of role playing games: virtually every academic who studies the RPG phenomena not only participate in the games they study, but did so prior to beginning their research. We study the culture because we are the culture.   As geek and geeky researchers, we can have a more nuanced and critical eye in part because we are highly knowledgeable of our topics: we have been consumers before we applied our theories through participant observation.

We study the culture because we are the culture.

This stark reality raises a big question: what do our preconceived beliefs bring to our scholarship? There are definite benefits to being a part of the reference group you wish to study.  You, as the researcher, know where to look to find appropriate respondents.  You already understand the subcultural social structure. You are, in many ways, “one of them,” so there can be fewer barriers to buy-in of your research and cooperation within the participating community.  This level of access can be beneficial in the long run, but does that same foreknowledge color the researcher’s view in a way that might be harmful to the research?  Is there more value coming to a scenario not knowing, and letting the subculture teach you? How many of your research questions have you presumptively answered, subconsciously, through your own experiences ahead of time?  And lastly – how much of your research is not about the phenomena, but about you as the researcher/participant and the phenomena?  Anthropology investigated these questions a great deal in what has become to be known as the “reflexive turn”, or the era in anthropology when there was concern about not only how much anthropological scholarship was perpetuating a Eurocentric, colonialist and androcentric model, but also how those researchers doing work were not looking inward to assess their culpability.  In his work Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology, Bob Scholte reminds us “intellectual paradigms, including anthropological traditions, are culturally mediated, that is they are contextually situated and relative…if anthropological activity is culturally mediated, it is in turn subject to ethnographic description and ethnological analysis“(Scholte 1999: 432).  Our scientific perceptions are the result of our socialization and exposure; so even if we are strangers to the culture that we analyze, we bring our cultured, critical eye to bear on what we study.  The objective for the anthropological researcher should not to create a perfect ethnography, but to present work in which its imperfection, as a result of cultural mediation, is a point of discussion.  Anthropology should, according to Gertz, “adjust itself to a situation in which its goals, its relevance, its motives, and its procedures all are questioned“.  Thereby, “not knowing” isn’t the issue – the quality of research is more about the “course correction” you can make through reflexivity.

 

Being Reflexive

The God Trick in Action

In the social sciences, we talk a lot about reflexivity and self-reflexivity.  According to Pierre Bourdieu (1992), all researchers come to their work with biases; these biases are the products of cultural understandings based on upbringing.  On every conceivable level, these biases affect research – the development of research questions, the persons we interview, the things we write down or don’t.  The problem is that the positivist nature of our study infers that our anthropological training has endowed us with objectivity—that we can go into situations and throw away these biases.  This practice is what feminist theorist Donna Harraway (1998) calls the “God Trick,” a sense that we can stand outside of research, or culture, and be completely objective. A significant amount of early anthropological work (and ethnographic work in the Chicago School of thought) operated from this premise.  The problem, of course, is that it isn’t true.  Sherry Ortner (2006) is correct when she says, “people make history, but history makes people.”  Identity is very much a social construct, sensitive to life chances, networks, and environment. It is impossible to stand outside of culture, because one is a part of culture.  There is a relationship between individuals and their culture, a tie that reinforces agency, or the ability to act, but links that agency to the effect of the social world around that individual.  And by “individual,” we do not only mean the person who is studied, but additionally those of us who conduct studies.  We affect culture by just looking at that culture.

Self reflection is ongoing – we should be constantly asking ourselves “is this about me” through both our reliance on the observations of others and our recognition of the effects of sociocultural structures on us as individuals.

Thinking along Ortner’s lines brings us back to Bourdieu, whose interpretation of reflexivity is not to throw your hands up in disgust, but to work to recognize how much of you is involved in your research.  How are your experiences impacting your questions?  Self reflection is ongoing – we should be constantly asking ourselves “is this about me” through both our reliance on the observations of others and our recognition of the effects of sociocultural structures on us as individuals.  This call to question our motivations is evident in geek academic spaces.  The aforementioned piece by Lieberoth and Trier-Knudsen, for example, looks at various studies and academic investigations of role playing games and notes virtually all of them showing positive outcomes of roleplay, such as “role players were better students” or “role players were less likely to be depressed”.  The researchers hypothesize that this is, in part, due to the desire of researchers (who are themselves gamers) to counter the bad press spread about Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games during the “Satanic Panic” period in the 1980’s (Byers 2016; Laycock 2015).  While most of the hysterical beliefs, evidenced in such movies as Mazes and Monsters (1982), were unfounded, there might be an underlying desire for researchers on the subject to punctuate the panic to be overblown: to say “so there”. This focus on what are deemed “positive” reflections of the subculture allows the anthropologist to serve the role as “hero”.  Quoting Susan Sontag on her interpretation of Levi-Strauss, “The anthropologist, as a man, is engaged in saving his own soul, by a curious and ambitious act of intellectual catharsis“ (1965).  Similar to the way Sontag believed Lev-Strauss reduced cultures to “hot” and “cold” societies, those researchers who provide overly positive pictures of geek subcultures essentialize outcomes as “good” and “bad”. Polarizations like these give rise to different perspectives of social responsibility in terms of our research.   Charles Hale, for example, sees the work of anthropology as a critical place where research can initiate change through “activist anthropology” (Hale 2006).   For other social researchers, we recognize it is far more complex than that dichotomy.  Bourgois’ (2009) investigations of drug culture didn’t paint “bad guys” or “good guys”, or himself as a savior with all the answers.  He attempted an even-handed approach to dispassionately view a different subculture. Sitting in the grey area of social research allows us to not judge the cultures around us, but be fair arbiters of what we see.

This focus on what are deemed “positive” reflections of the subculture allows the anthropologist to serve the role as “hero”.

Looking at these two sides of the issue of reflexivity causes a collective uneasy groan in those involved with ethnographic work in anthropology, which is the reason why conversations about reflexivity in research become so uncomfortable.  Further, we come to realize reflexivity (understanding how we complicate our research) and objectivity (our ability to scientifically stand outside of that research) can at times cross over.    Some researchers are blunt about our presence invalidating, to a great degree, our ethnographic findings (LeCompte and Goetz 1982).   How reliable could those data be if our own perceptions affect what we are seeing (which is potentially compromised simply because we are there)?  Will reflexivity help in weeding out “researcher-induced distortions”?

We must also remember that the inward search of reflexivity is not objectivity, or the sense that we can stand outside of work with a critical analysis.  As Harraway said above, and those involved in the reflexive turn assert, “true” objectivity isn’t possible, as ones presence and background affects and informs work.  The best we can hope for is a stronger sense of reflexivity, digging deep to find the answers that we want while understanding our impact on what those answers appear to be.

 

Problematizing the Space

The issue becomes more tangled when we have to look at elements of these geek spaces that are more complex in their social dynamics.  Sometimes our own personal troubles in navigating geekdom justify our investigation and identification of more detrimental actions; we seek “controversial” because we’ve been exposed to “controversial”, no matter how fleeting, in subcultural settings. It isn’t surprising, for example, that someone who has been exposed to bullying in gaming might want to study that phenomenon.  However, persistent discussions in popular culture and social media – rather than our own experiences- might also drive us to do the research, and lead us ask the questions of “why” and “so what.”  The horrible experiences of #Gamergate, for example, did not start the issue of sexism in gaming spaces, nor was it the beginning of research of the topic.  However, when this issue and the ensuing fallout was shown outside of the subculture (punctuating through additional stories how rare the circumstance wasn’t), scholarship on the topic of sexism and androcentrism in gaming increased exponentially.  Again, because these geek spaces are “ours”, many social researchers feel uniquely poised to investigate the negativity, and provide some deeper observation, constructive feedback or potential solutions for awful circumstances.  Those of us in gaming, comics, and other geek communities have definitely felt a sense of duty to act, which tragically comes back to Sontag’s “anthropologist as hero”.

Those of us in gaming, comics, and other geek communities have definitely felt a sense of duty to act, which tragically comes back to Sontag’s “anthropologist as hero”.

For many of us, however, there is a moment of reflexivity, or self-reflexivity, about our own involvement in those communities.  Have we been blind to the negativity?  Have we implied consent by silence?  Have we unwittingly encouraged poor behavior in these spaces?  Even though I do not study comics fandom, I had this severe moment of crisis when I started to realize how obnoxiously sexist many vocal parts of the community have been. Recent articles bemoaning the “diversity” and “political correctness” surrounding a new batch of heroes in the Marvel comics universe became increasingly evident as “dog whistle” or coded racism and sexism.  The arguments of “White male pity” and “kowtowing to the social justice warriors” started to mask what many in the comics industry saw as the real problems (event fatigue and senseless killing off of characters).

Source: @Chiparoo

No matter how much this sexist, racist, and androcentric behavior seemed “new” to me, the social researcher in me knew that it didn’t just spring up; these sentiments always there.   I have been to countless comic book shops and several conventions.  I’ve involved myself in thousands of bar, bus, and airport discussions on issues within the comics fandom.  How is it that I, a social scientist who studies gender no less, could be as blissfully ignorant of the andocentric and sexist sensibilities lying beneath comics as I had been?  Why was I not consciously aware of these behaviors: not as moralistic outliers, but social phenomena that occur in every subculture – as comic fandom isn’t immune to structural issues.

Have we been blind to the negativity?  Have we implied consent by silence?  Have we unwittingly encouraged poor behavior in these spaces?

Looking on the Bright Side

The fact is many geek spaces are populated by people who are alternative thinkers, and while a number of geek subcultures have been normalized to a great degree, a fair number of 20th century geeks lived on the fringe and fell into what we would call countercultures.  It isn’t hard to remember the days of the 1980s when comic book  and fan conventions were stereotyped and lampooned as convocations of single, socially awkward men who lived in their parents’ basements and dressed as characters from Star Trek.  Fast forward to the 21st century, and a host of Hollywood A-listers are hoping to come to the San Diego Comic Con, and even those who aren’t on panels can be seen on the floor, flaunting their geekdom as it is now “hip”.   Because many of the women and men who populate these subcultures have been subjected to some degree of marginalization for their social choices (something I refer to in my dissertation research as achieved marginalization, different than the ascribed marginalization one is subjected to due to involuntary memberships, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation),  the sense is that geek spaces “get it”—they would not only be hyper-sensitive to the more odious elements of culture, like racism and sexism, but would be in some sense be more vigilant towards it.

What we know is that beliefs of sensitivity to marginalization because of being a part of the “out group” don’t pan out.

What we know is that beliefs of sensitivity to marginalization because of being a part of the “out group” don’t pan out.  At best these beliefs are wishful thinking (and at worst, delusional) because subcultures commonly share the values, good and bad, of the dominant culture.  However, our internalized assurances that “these things couldn’t happen in geek spaces” leaves us all blind to implicit issues that pervade these locales.  Our research, and the reflexivity that is part and parcel of our research, makes the issues of sociocultural inequalty glaring, and should cause us to wonder about our own complicity in the sexist, racist, or homophobic behaviors and sentiments that we encounter.

We investigate geek spaces like comics, roleplaying games, and fan-zones, we critique them, but we should never forget that in doing so we are also investigating and critiquing ourselves.

If the 1980’s cartoon GI Joe taught us anything, it is “knowing is half the battle.”  In my belief, our intimate knowledge of anthropological theory and method is one of the gifts of reflexivity in social research. Yes, we investigate geek spaces like comics, roleplaying games, and fan-zones, we critique them, but we should never forget that in doing so we are also investigating and critiquing ourselves. In order to eventually fix something, we have to first know what it is, and understand why it is happening, to prevent it from occurring again.  We can’t blame ourselves for the creation of these negative and counter-productive elements of different corners of geek culture. As members and researchers of the culture, we are potentially perpetuating these behaviors through minimization, dismissiveness, and our own biases.  However, armed with research skills and reflexivity, our ethnographic research will be an important step in understanding and confronting these elements. The ability to view the world not from an objective stance, but from a “grey area” of research gives social research a unique standpoint and voice- it is incumbent on us, as researchers, to not give up that chance to speak to what we see.

Steven Dashiell is a PhD student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in the Language, Literacy, and Culture department. His dissertation research investigates masculinity constructs and cultural identity of male students who were in the military. His research interests involve the sociology of masculinity, popular culture, narrative analysis, and linguistic anthropology. He has presented his work at several conferences, including the Popular Culture Association, the American Men’s Studies Association conference, Eastern Sociological Society meeting, and the American Sociological Association. In addition to his doctoral studies, Steven works for Johns Hopkins Universityas a Research Outcomes Coordinator. Beyond the military, Steven has done research on Bronies, role players, and card gamers. He can be reached at steven.dashiell@umbc.edu.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant Loïc J. D. 1992. An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambrige: Polity Press.

Bourgois, Phillipe. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. Oakland: University of California Press

Byers, Andrew.2016. “The Satanic Panic and Dungeons & Dragons: A twenty-five Year Retrospective” from The Role Play Society: Essays on the Culture Influence of RPGs edited by Andrew Byers and Francesco Crocco. pp. 22-45.

Hale, Charles.2006. “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 21(1): 96–120.

Haraway, Donna.1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

Laycock, Joseph. 2015. Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds  Oakland: University of California Press.

LeCompte Margaret D, Preissle Goetz Judith. 1982. Problems of Reliability and Validity in Ethnographic Research. Review of Educational Research 52(1):31–60.

Lieberoth, Andreas and Trier-Knudsen, Jonas.2016. “Psychological Effects of Fantasy Games on Their Players: A Discourse Based Look at Evidence” from The Role Play Society: Essays on the Culture Influence of RPGs edited by Andrew Byers and Francesco Crocco. pp. 46-72.

Ortner, Sherry B. 2006. Anthropology and social theory: culture, power, and the acting subject. Durham: Duke University.

Scholte, Bob. 1999. “Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sontag, Susan.1963, “A Hero of Our Time” The New York Book of Reviews. November 28.

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About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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