Thursday, May 24, 2012

Travel Prep and Rat Pucking

This afternoon's study break (because even super geniuses need to think about something else after eight straight hours of reading academic articles) was spent getting things together and making a final packing list before I am off to my first field research site next weekend. My garb is all washed and ready to go. The tent is in the basement, bit will not be put in the car until the day before I leave because the trunk leaks. I purchased my season pass to this faire online earlier this week. And after a minor shopping trip for things like batteries for my digital recorder and bottled water for the camp-out portion of this expedition, I should be ready to go.

I'm pretty excited. Opening weekend of this faire is marks the beginning of the season for many people in this region of the country. It is traditionally a kind of reunion for the pirates I have fallen in with. We will be getting a large group together at a state park campground at a lake near the faire site. Research-wise, it's an opportunity to observe ren faire people together, but outside the faire environment itself. But personally, I also think it promises to be a great deal of fun. But it's okay, these pirates are used to seeing me scribbling in a notebook by now.

Rat Pucking, 2011
Yes, that red blur flying through the air is in fact a pucked rat. 
As a small preview, this photo is from this particular faire last year. It's a game, a sport really, called "rat pucking" (pronounce your Ps), in which a long stuck is used to, puck a bean bag rat down the length of the main street through the village. There are rules about hotting obstacles or patrons, and a limit on the number of strokes one gets before they're out. Each pucker chooses a "catty" (like caddy but with mice) who runs after and guards their rat from other players (and occasionally mischievous children). Distance counts; and there is a bucket of some kind the rat has to land in at the end. As far as I can tell, this game is unique to this culture, perhaps even to this faire (I will have to ask someone about that). There are norms of play, and what goes on among the audience (non-players) during the game. And I look forward to studying this and other colorful experiences in a little more than a week from today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lots o' Loot

Alpha Kappa Delta
Sociology Honor Society
I had to try to get some kind of pirate reference in there, even if it is just the title.

This afternoon was the Awards Gala for the Sociology and Anthropology Department here at Ohio University. Lots of really awesome people got some recognition for some excellent work, both in research and teaching, as well as hard work done by undergraduate and grad students. And, as you can see, I was inducted into the Alpha Kappa Delta Sociology Honor Society.

And there's more good news. I have been awarded the Shelly Fund, a research grant set up by Robert and Ann Shelly to support sociology graduate students in the collection of original data for their master's thesis. This award, which is for $900, will go toward covering the costs of travel and other related expenses as I start my field research. It's not nearly my whole budget for this project, but it sure helps! And I'm honored that they chose me and my research.

Speaking of field research--it starts in just two weeks! June 2 is opening day for my first faire site in this project. I'm pretty excited. I want to be more excited, but I still have more than two weeks of classes left this quarter, and the requisite papers to write, projects to complete, and tests to grade (for my GA gig), not to mention getting ready to teach my own SOC 101 class starting June 18. This is going to be one epic, nerdy summer for me. And I like it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Road Thus Far

Okay, so the title sounds like something from the "since last season" opening of some adventure show. In a way, that's kind of what this is.

A long time ago, in a galaxy kingdom far away... No, that's not exactly right either. The "kingdom" in question was right here, sort of. I spend many years, before college, doing all kinds of geeky things like reading fantasy novels, watching science fiction movies and TV shows, and playing RPGs (role playing games to the uninitiated); and I spent a lot of time with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). But I had never been a "tourist" in the Middle Ages until I attended the Maryland Renaissance Faire back in 2003. The whole interacting with an audience, many of whom were in street clothes, was a little weird to me because the SCA doesn't have that. Yes, my friends and I went in garb (meaning medieval clothing/costume). Yes, many people mistook me/us for those people working there. Yes, we just sort of played along because that's how the "game" becomes fun. I went twice that season--the second time because there was a pirate group performing. You knew it would become about pirates sooner than later.

A couple years later, I attended the Connecticut renfaire with some of my siblings. It was interesting to note the difference in how people interacted based on who was or was not in garb.

Then, I went to college. I studied sociology. And I started dragging my college friends with me to renfaires. Although a few of them needed less dragging, but more on that later.

By mid-afternoon of the first day at this latest faire, I was forming hypotheses and research ideas. I met a man who is what we in the sociology biz call a "bridge" in the social network context, meaning he was connected. The guy seemed to know just about everyone! So I made friends, and over the next year of occasional online communication, I got him to agree to being a guide of sorts for some research I began doing into the renaissance faire subculture. I was introduced to LOTS of people--booth workers, cast members, "playtrons" (meaning patrons who play along and come in character/garb).

I wrote a paper and gave a presentation about renfaires and medieval re-enactors/re-creationists for a class in Deviant Subcultures. I think by that point I was considered a junior at Shawnee State University. (I did finish that bachelor's degree in three years, so it was the year in the middle.) That was what really set me on this path. I found myself asking so many questions about renfaires, the people, the relationships, the "rules," the customs. I could spend years researching this and never run out of things to study, which is probably a good thing since it's what I'm writing my master's thesis on.

By the next year's faire season, several of my friends and I had formed our own "pirate crew" as we had seen with my afore-mentioned cultural guide. Watching the process of creating personas, getting costumes together, choosing names, and creating a collective group identity with the crew has been interesting in itself, especially when my crew teamed up with some other renfaire pirates to form an "armada" of sorts. (All in good fun, I assure you. No actually pillaging has occurred.)

In participating, while observing, I have gotten to know people and built raport that would not have been possible for a researcher walking in wearing "mundane" (non-medieval/renaissance) clothes carrying a clipboard and asking a lot of questions that lead participants to feel like they're being examined under glass and poked with a stick. But that is a tale for another day...

Disclaimer: BTW, this blog has no affiliation with the SCA or SSU (except that the latter did give me a BA in Sociology). Stuff I write here should not reflect on them, in case they decide it matters. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Kickstarting" Field Research Funding

I've launched a small fund raising  project through Kickstarter to help cover travel costs for my field research on this thesis. I will be travelling to various sites, conducting interviews and collecting data. But, as we all know, gas is not cheap! (And really, that's the largest expense on this thing, along with things like food and batteries for my recorder.) So I'm hoping to supplement some of the costs through the generous donations of friends and other interested individuals.

When I say that every little bit helps, I mean it. The minimum donation is $1. Of course, I hope contributors will feel able to go for more than that. But helping with this does have a few small benefits, among them is the satisfaction of knowing that you contributed to an academic endeavor. (And if you happen to be a fan of renaissance faires, it will be that much cooler.)

Renaissance Faire Thesis Research

Please, click the link and take a moment to help out a grad student trying to do a little research. And...there are pirate photos in my funding proposal video.

Thanks to everyone who contributes, and to everyone who shares the link. You never know who you know who might be able to help too.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Research Questions and Relevant Literature

This may be a little boring for those of you who are only looking for "No sh!t, there I was" stories or pictures of pirates. However, since you made it past the first sentence, I'm assuming you might have an more scholarly interest in this project. So here's a short description of the project, including some of the main research questions and a very short reference to some of the relevant literature. I won't make you read my whole lit review (even if it were done, which is it soooo not). Here goes...

Studies of social deviance have pointed to retreatism into subculture as an adaptation which allows for more authentic identity expression. This study will examine how the renaissance festival setting offers a context for non-normative identity performance within a carnivalesque setting in which the construction of shared fantasy is the basis of social processes. It will also ask how social strain combined with the influence of popular media may influence participants toward retreatism in the subculture as a social setting in which they can find meaningful interaction with others who share their social paradigm and romanticized version of history.

This study seeks to answer several questions relevant to existing scholarly literature in the fields of sociology, performance studies, and fandom and leisure.

How is the shared fantasy of romanticized history constructed at renaissance festivals and within the “rennie” subculture? Fine (1983) addresses the social construction of shared fantasy in role playing games. The similar element of an idealized historical context exists in both settings, as well as many of the popular cultural influences which may inform participants’ performances of self and shared meanings of interactions. Kirol-Evans, in her book Renaissance Festivals: Merrying the Past and Present (2009), considers the intrasticive nature of this social setting in which the 21st and 16th centuries exist simultaneously, giving a rich description of both setting and performance with particular attention to the variation in levels of immersion. Themes of play (Huizinga 1950) and social construction (Berger & Luckmann 1966) also inform this study.

How do participants become interested and involved in this subculture? Both Korol-Evans and Cramer (2010) explore the medieval re-creationist subculture, describing the initiatory process of becoming involved and what factors influence that process. Experts in social deviance, Becker (1963) and Agnew (1997) both offer insight into deviant subculture involvement.

How is identity performed in the renaissance festival setting? What influences the construction of these presumably alternate or non-normative identity performances, and how do they differ from identities performed outside the festival or the subculture? Goffman’s classic, The Performance of Self in Everyday Life (1959), is the canonical basis for studies of social and identity performance, and provides a theoretical basis for exploring the variation in front stage and backstage identities and interactions. However, as appears to be the nature of this subculture, the fantasy element in identity performance (Fine 1983, Korol-Evans 2009, Cramer 2010) leaves many questions concerning how these fantasies are constructed, how they manifest at the renaissance festival, and even why this social environment in particular is so conducive to their expression.

And to what degree participation in renaissance festivals and affiliation with this subculture affect participants’ lives outside of the renaissance faire? Korol-Evans and Cramer discuss the juxtaposition of “real life” to the immersive world of the festival setting. And deviance theorists such as Agnew and Becker provide a framework for examining social strain and outsiderdom, respectively. However, questions remain unanswered as to how participation in the renaissance festival as a social setting affects participants’ lives outside the faire and during the off season. 

Agnew, Robert. 1997. “The Nature and Determinants of Strain: Another Look at Durkheim and Merton.” Pp. 27-51 in The Future of Anomie Theory, edited by N. Passas and R. Agnew. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. The Free Press, New York.
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor Books.
Cramer, Michael. 2010. Medieval Fantasy as Performance. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Fine, Gary A. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Huizinga, Johan. 1950. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Korol-Evans, Kimberly T. 2009. Renaissance Festivals: Merrying the Past and PresentJefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Ahoy! and Well Met

Capt. Emeleth MacCreedy
of the Mist Reaver
My name is Heather Dumas, Em to my friends, and I'm working on a master's degree in sociology at Ohio University. I'm about to embark on a research project that will culminate in my master's thesis.

If geeks are people who are super passionate about their hobbies, and nerds are really academically minded, then I'm a geek nerd. (Or as one friend put it, a "gnerd.") I am really interested in what sociologists call deviant subcultures--but not so much the criminal element as those fringe groups of people who like to live life, or at least part of it, a bit differently. Many of the groups I like to study usually have some element of dressing in some rather weird clothing and/or in some way portraying a persona that is not the one the everyday world sees...usually. This is how I ended up studying the people at renfaires. That's short for renaissance faires, and the extra "e" is an intentional use of the old fashioned spelling used by members of this subculture.

Yes, that's me dressed as a pirate, "Captain Emeleth MacCreedy," since it is customary to take on a renaissance era persona while at faire. (You were here for the pirates after all, right?) This is a participant observer study, meaning that I get to jump right in there and play along with everyone else at the faire. I've actually done a little research on renfaires before, as an undergrad, and have developed a network of informants, as we call them in this academic discipline, who have graciously accepted me as part of the crew, as it were. You'll hear more about them later, since they are the real stars of this show--they're who I'm writing about--the cast, playtrons, boothies, and other rennies.

This blog is to keep interested parties informed of my progress, and to let my friends read about those adventures which will never make it into the academic article that is the final product of this research. My field research will take place starting in early June and continue through late October. I'll be interviewing people at faires, along with taking lots of notes and photographs (pictures are sometimes worth a thousand words in field notes). More on that later. Until then... Wind in yer sails!