The Fan, The Scientist, and the Poet: An Experimental Ethnography Intro

In my last blog entry, I suggested the slightly wacko idea that we start thinking about a “unified field theory of marketing.” The term comes from the hard science field of physics, and it refers to a type of field theory that writes all of the fundamental forces between elementary particles in terms of a single, unifying field. Nicolas Tesla, that ambitious giant of physics and invention, coined the term as he was trying to unify Einstein’s theory of relativity with the theories of electromagnetism. Truth is, it’s sort of a fool’s quest, but a productive one. A lot of progress in modern theoretical physics has come because people are trying to see the patterns that unify the different forces and fields. There’s really no reason why there would be a unified field—things don’t have to unify. And for a consumer researcher, there is certainly no reason why we need to be making such universal generalizing statements in theoretical form. But there it is. I still think it will be very interesting and stimulating to try.

As a first step, I’m going to travel the time tunnel to the beginning of my thesis dissertation, where I began to grapple with these kinds of questions. Not only did I do an anthropological thesis in the field of marketing, which was a bit of a stretch and certainly a risky move (I didn’t actually realize how risky it was when I did it, I should note, but that is a different story), but I also wrote it as an experimental ethnography. That means I wrote it as an ethnography that experiments with language and narrative form to convey its depiction of a culture (some relevant references for this are Clifford and Marcus 1986, Denzin and Lincoln 1994, Marcus and Cushman 1982, Marcus 1994).

As Carole Rambo Ronai (1995) demonstrated in her work, there is a great deal of experimentation taking place in postmodern ethnography due to the need for ethnographers to address the so-called “Crisis of interpretation” where anthropologists and sociologists tried to confront the postmodern realization that they needed to deal honestly with the fact that they were engaged in the textual representation of reality as fact. My thesis utilized a variety of textual forms, such as scripts, academic narrative, photographs, direct interviews, —even poetry —to offer a “layered account” in which many points of view are presented to the reader as representations of lived experience. Some systematic introspection and emotional experience were used as well as abstract conceptions, propositional forms, dream-fragments and fantasies in order to “create a layered account and make accessible to the reader as many ‘ways of knowing’ as possible” (Ronai 1992, 1995, p.397). I began and ended the thesis in scripted form because:

“The script format solves many of the problems of conventional scholarly papers and articles: it deprivileges the omniscient author and reduces the dominance of the analytic voice; it makes it easier to communicate emotion and mood as well as ‘facts’; and it acknowledges openly instead of trying to hide or apologize for, the constructed character of social scientific data” (Schneider 1991, p. 303).

I later tried to keep some of this spirit of experimentation in the journal articles I send our for review. That idea didn’t work, and the work I published from my thesis took on a much more conventional form: diagrams and academic text. I shopped the manuscript around a few publishers to try to get it published in its entirety, but it was a fairly tough sell, particularly because of the experimental nature of the writing that didn’t fit into any existing format. It doesn’t really appear “Scientific” but more like something else, something between art, philosophy, and science. Here is the way the thesis opened. A lot of these themes I will return to as I struggle in this blog with the idea of a unified field theory in the coming weeks and months.

Here it is, unedited:

* * *

Setting: A television sound stage. The sounds of hammers, drills and saws are evident as a work crew is rushing to construct a set that looks like a hotel lobby. Extras dressed in a variety of T-shirts, and a few colorful costumes, mill about. A large videoscreen hovers in the distance. Overlooking this scene, seated around a small meeting table, on three directors chairs with their names on them, are The Scientist, The Poet, and The Fan.

The Scientist, a greying eminence, is a tenured Scientific Realist, firmly convinced of the value of generalizable and falsifiable theoretical statements, although incisively aware of their limitations.

The Poet, an elegantly aging hippie, has studied neo-Marxist, postmodern and poststructural literature since the 1960s. He is a radical and a revolutionary who is as critical of traditional “scientific” methods as he is of modern industrial capitalism. As Poet-In-Residence he often teaches his university students that our writing style, the way we use language to represent knowledge, can be a tool of either oppression or emancipation –his two chief fascinations in life.

The Fan is very knowledgeable about Star Trek and a wide number of other science fiction and media texts. By day she is an instructor working for a large community college. She has also been active in the Star Trek fan community for almost two decades.

The Poet (flipping through the script): (Clears his throat). Where are we?

The Fan: Page thirty-four.

The Scientist: I thought it was thirty-five. The beginning of thirty-five.

The Fan: Where we start to talk about Star Trek fans, the different types that the fans say exist, right? (pauses). That’s the bottom of page thirty-four.

The Poet: Okay.

The Scientist: I see. (Closing script with a look of mild disgust). Okay.

The Poet: So that’s the first section. Can we see what this first section is trying to accomplish then? To set up the whole scene. Show the protag entering into the three areas. Provide some upfront groundwork about cultures. About community. Right? Do we think that’s the way to go?

The Fan: I think what people will want is more description of fandom and less theory. This should be a portrait of what it means to be a fan. To come in like a stranger would, and to get to know fandom by simulating actually being there, as much as that’s possible.

The Poet: An evocation, I agree. At least at first.

The Scientist: But to what end, though? You can’t simply provide a whole bunch of description and then leave it lying there.

The Poet: (smirking) Why not?

The Scientist: Look. This script needs a lot more work, believe me. The reviewers will cut it to shreds. And the reason is simply that empirical observations are worthless without a theoretical structure to hang them upon.

The Poet: So what do we do?

The Scientist: Well it needs to begin with a description of what we’re studying here –cultures of consumption. Define it first, upfront. Cite past literature. Use that literature to devise a priori theories. Describe the methodology we’ll use to collect data in order to test those theories. Deal with the bloody sampling and representativeness issues which have been completely ignored in this document, despite all of my prior screeching about them. And then, after we’ve done all of this, then we can begin to introduce some empirical data, in the form of observations of the culture.

The Poet: You just don’t get it, do you? You just asked me “to what end”? and I’ll ask you the same question back. To what end, huh? Who’s going to benefit from this if we do it your way? (looking at The Fan). Will the fans?

The Fan: Might be of some interest to a few of them. If they can get through the first few sections. But, yeah, I see your point. Sounds like they wouldn’t even be able to read it.
The Scientist: Oh please. The research subjects won’t benefit. We’re trying to contribute to a base of legitimate knowledge here. This is science, my friend.

The Poet: My God, I hope that’s not all it is. (sighs). Look. I thought we agreed on a compromise solution. A new approach for this. It sounds to me like you’re back-sliding!

The Fan: Okay. That’s partly why we came up with that term hypermodern, right. The idea being that this study’s method and focus are neither modern nor postmodern, but something that selectively combines elements of the two.

The Scientist: Hypermodern has always sounded a bit too much like “hype” to me. Like you’re trying to sell something. To make a pitch. Like a commercial. I can, however, see the research focus coming from it. An objective, empirically-based concentration on the effects of the mass media.

The Poet: Subjective, subjective. Mass media images seem real, and they’re taken to be real by people. And that affects people lives. The mass media are capitalist tools, no doubt about it. They are part of the oppressive institutions surrounding the marketing of technology and the technology of marketing. Haven’t you even read Chomsky, damn it?

The Fan: (to The Poet). But people are smarter than you’re giving them credit for here. We don’t really have to tell them –oh, look, it’s another commercial, beware, beware. Someone wants you to buy their product. So what else is new? People are smart enough to defend themselves if they don’t want it.

The Poet: I’m not as convinced of that as you seem to be. And that’s why I say we have an obligation not only to describe things but also pay attention to the mass media as a magnificently manipulating marketing machine. Popular culture as not only the background music of our lives, but the inner voice incessantly whispering in our ears, the tune we can’t stop humming.

The Scientist: That’s a useless, subjective focus and you know it. This research is based on participant-observation, and that’s fundamentally, inescapably, realist. We are inscribing real events involving real people and trying to find our their real interpretations. We’re collecting qualitative data, but that doesn’t mean we have to turn all fuzzy-headed and obscurantist when we analyze it. What we should be doing is using it to generalize, finding lucid, latent patterns and ideas that might be useful to the entire field of consumer behavior.

The Poet: No. You’re totally completely absolutely one hundred percent wrong. If you’d ever bothered to read postmodern and especially poststructural critiques you’d know that and I wouldn’t have to keep repeating myself. You honestly cannot assign one interpretation of “reality” predominance over the infinity of others –what is “really real” is indecipherable. This work will never be capital-T truth.

The Scientist: For once you’ve said something I can agree with. In scientific realism, certainty is acknowledged as impossible. And that’s especially true when we’re talking about a rapidly changing social phenomenon like fandom.

The Poet: Hurrah. Another point for me. All we can say about this work, all we can truly say, is that it’s a really real simulation of reality. So it’s experimental. It plays with language. It’s unstable in some ways. Lots of what I’d call parenthetical material. It invites the reader to construct their own meanings and conclusions.

The Scientist: (glaring) That’s ludicrous. We want to fix our meanings and conclusions as clearly as we can by defining our terms precisely and doing a thorough job of analysis. Otherwise we’ve said nothing but “blah blah blah.”

The Poet: (almost rising out of his chair) Are you denying the innate polysemy of language? (raising his eyes). What are you doing in an interpretive study, then? Go find yourself an experiment. Lord, give me strength.

The Scientist: Why are you so extreme? It’s contingent. It’s all contingent. Under what preconditions does this or that statement hold? We just need to specify the preconditions.The Fan: Boy, boys. I don’t think we’re going to resolve this one. There’s going to be some tension here and I guess we’re each going to have sections that reflect one of our concerns more than the others. I suppose we’ll each have our clear wins and our losses, and a lot of gray areas in between. So I think we need to talk about the bigger goal here. Like how do we judge this thing once it’s done? Last time, I asked if we could think about this? Any thoughts?

The Scientist: The criteria, the criteria. (reaching inside his jacket pocket for something). Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve decided to keep in mind these, um, five essential qualities throughout the ethnography. All based on scientific realism. All grounded firmly in objective thinking. Applicable to qualitative data analysis. They will gain this document the respectability of being based in science, in legitimate science.

The Poet: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get on with it already.

The Scientist: (Pulls out a sheet of paper. Begins reading.). First, the ethnography should be grounded in data. That’s very important. The general statements need to be supported by data. Second, the text should be innovative. What I’ll be looking for is constructs, conceptualizations, themes, ideas, frameworks, models, even narrative forms that give researchers new ways of looking at behavior. . . and experience. And the next one is that those constructs, conceptualizations, and so on should be useful to others in the scientific community, to be applied to other research issues and contexts. And next—

The Poet: That’s unreasonable and you know it. That’s generalizability. How are you supposed to determine that a priori?

The Scientist: It can be judged whether those constructs and so on are capable of being transferred to other contexts. Capable. Whether they have the potential to be useful to others. That’s all.

The Fan: Can we just let him finish so we can get on with things? You’ll have your turn.

The Scientist: Thank you. The next one says that the text should be coherent. Each interpretation or theme should be fairly free from unintentional contradictions. And finally my fifth criterion is that the text be literate, in that it recognizes, cites, and is knowledgeable of relevant literature and traditions –it builds on the scientific base of knowledge.

The Fan: Okay. Good. Well, mine are pretty simple. I’m interested really in the portrait and descriptions of the fan community. That it’s extensive and well-done. So all my criteria relate to showing insight and being convincing. I’ve split those concerns into three general categories, but they’re all closely related to one another. The first I call being persuasive, which is really just being convincing in every way –the method used, the information presented, the usefulness to the field. Convince me that you know what it means to be a Star Trek fan, and that you can describe life as one. As well as the science stuff. The next one I call being resonant, by which I mean that the reader feels a sense of connection to the phenomenon, or the people, being studied. It can be an emotional connection. Kind of a like with a good TV show or novel you have this strong sense of really having met these people. This next one is really close to the last one, and I call it having verisimilitude. A ten dollar word. It means creating a lifelike simulation of reality. In other words, I’ll ask myself does the portrayal of a convention remind me of the conventions I’ve been at? Does it capture it in words? And that’s it.

The Poet: Well I have to say first that I’m disappointed in both of you.

The Fan: I’m not really surprised.

The Poet: No, really. You most of all. Because don’t you realize fans are being preyed upon? I mean, assume for a second all that Star Trek merchandise out there isn’t just being made for the absolute good and betterment of humanity, then, like, wouldn’t we all be better off if we made people aware of this?

The Scientist: (To The Fan). He is so extreme, isn’t he?

The Fan (To The Poet): Again, I think you should give people the credit to be able to decide for themselves how to spend their money. And their lives.The Poet: You’re missing the point! You’re assuming power equality, when there’s none there. Okay? That minute to minute information barrage from the mass media overpowers people’s capacity to choose, and the capitalist industrial system that they’re locked within severely limits the choices they can make. What kind of freedom is that?

The Fan: Do you have criteria you’d like to share with us?

The Poet: Do I ever. All right, listen up, because here they come. (Peeling a series of restaurant napkins from his pocket, arranging them in front of him on the table). Okay first, and foremost, is the quality of praxis –the document must try, repeatedly try, to inspire and empower people’s actions to make their society better.

The Scientist: That’s hogwash.

The Fan: Let him finish.

The Poet: Next, the text should be hyperspectival. That’s a little term I’ve coined to refer to looking at the role of the mass media and its technologies in people’s construction of their sense of social reality, such as community and so on. That’s pretty obvious because this is already focused on the media and—

The Fan: Go on. Next criteria.

The Poet: Spiritual.

The Scientist: What?

The Poet: Spirituality. The text must acknowledge in some parts of it that there is an innate human urge to transcend, and even to transform ourselves by contact with the sacred.

The Scientist: You’re kidding, right? Do you mean the text should offer something like transcendence? Transcending one’s limiting conditions, or the conditions that are perceived as such?

The Poet: Why be afraid of the word…spiritual? It’s got a lot longer history than science. And my last criterion, contestability, is drawn from poststructural scholarship. Contestability means that we present several perspectives within the text –kind of like we’re doing right here—we leave it open-ended, open to alternative interpretations.

The Fan: But I see a problem in that. Your contestability criterion clashes with The Scientist’s coherence criterion.

The Poet: That’s because his is oppressive.

The Scientist: Yours is fluff.

The Fan: Okay. Another tension within the text. Fine. We’ll have to live with it. So, can we agree to judge by all of these criteria. To keep them in mind. Even though we’ve got our own key concerns, our pets. Can we try to build this ethnographic production so that it keeps touching on these key bases?

The Scientist: All right.

The Poet: I guess.

The Fan: So now we can tell our first-person tale about being involved in a culture of consumption. Communities of consumption. A personal journey and a quest. It’s not just about Star Trek fans, or even about fandom itself. It’s about discovering what it means to be a consumer at the dawn of the Millennium, in a capitalist culture. It’s about the relationship between mass communication technologies, commercialism and marketing, and the reception of consumption objects such as popular culture television shows and their merchandise. (Pauses. Looks at The Poet.) So, you’re the writer. How exactly should we start it?

The Poet: Well, I’ve been thinking that we should start it like a classic anthropological book, with our entrée. But done in a very self-aware fashion, because one of the points we want to make is that there is no beginning and end to these cultures, no real entrée or exit, just internal decisions about intensification and distancing of the self. So let’s start it very self-consciously, and kind of casually, with a hackneyed old writerly cliché.

(Stagehands begin loading props on stage. The interior of a silver Subaru chaser, a compact car, with its windshield wipers swishing. Several mannequins and actors dressed in T-shirts, street clothes and some costumes. Television monitors showing Star Trek episodes.)

The Fan: And then lots of detailed descriptions of the fan community. Not stereotypes of nerdy consumers wearing latex Spock ears. Showing them in action as real, thinking, community-building people. Convincing. Persuasive.

The Scientist: And I insist we break fairly soon for some theory –some structure, some useful and literate analysis to layer onto the description.

The Poet: We can have this thing speak to fans, and to marketers, and to consumer researchers, and to everyone else if we don’t let the whole thing get watered down with corporate marketing concerns. We can still, subtly maybe, make people realize just how close they sometimes get to becoming cogs in some great exploitative marketing machine.

The Fan: Give us some credit. Please. Shhh.

(Lights dim on the director’s chairs. The videoscreen smoothly levitates forward into position at the top of the stage. The lights rise)


Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, ed. (1986), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln (1994), Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ellis, Carolyn (1991), “Sociological Introspection and Emotional Experience,” Symbolic Interaction, 14, 23-50.

Marcus, George E. (1994), “What Comes (Just) After “Post”?: The Case of Ethnography,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, ed.

Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 563-574.

—– and Dick Cushman (1982), “Ethnographies as Texts,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 11, 25-69.

Ronai, Carol Rambo (1992), “The Reflexive Self Through Narrative: A Night In The Life of an Erotic Dancer/Researcher,” in Investigating Subjectivity: Research On Lived Experience, ed. Carol Ellis and Michael Flaherty, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 102-124.

—– (1995), “Multiple Reflections of Child Sex Abuse: An Argument for a Layered Account,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 23 (4), 395-426.

Schneider, Joseph W. (1991), “Troubles With Textual Authority in Sociology,” Symbolic Interaction, 14, 295-319.

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