Self, Structure and Agency

Anthony Giddens, in The Transformation of Intimacy, states that “the self today is for everyone a reflexive project—a more or less continuous interrogation of past, present and future” (Giddens 1992, p. 30). This further establishes the “self” as more important than the “community” in a consumer society, but it also implies that we as individuals have the nous to reflect upon our actions in a wider context. Reflexivity (see also Sandvoss 2005), and its indicative subjectivity, may be a utopian way of viewing fandom as a creative and boundary-breaking endeavour. Matthew Adams (2006), in line with Lois McNay (1999), argues that reflexivity as a creative possibility is “founded upon pre-reflexive commitments originating in the social world, which shape that possibility” (Adams 2006, p. 517).

Thus, creating one’s own world to escape the reality of social and political boundaries is only a possibility within the existing system (that is, world order), limiting the potential of fandom as a force for social, cultural and economic change. This is closer to Pierre Bourdieu’s (2010) habitus theory, in which social and cultural capital is determined by external factors, like, for example, class. Scholars such as Henry Jenkins (1992) have found Bourdieu’s ideas limiting and too deterministic, but in a society that seems to have readily accepted capitalism as the per-default ideology to adhere to, and neoliberalism as its most natural expression, it is perhaps a somewhat idealistic interpretation of the capability of fans and fandoms. There is little doubt, however, that fandom is an effective strategy to cope with everyday life (as in the mundaneness and everydayness of routine consumerism) and can also be a powerful means for individuals and groups to cope with adversity and exclusion. In a world increasingly controlled by global corporations—and where we are served entertainment through a top-down model (despite the “YouTubisation” of media engagement)—the main question is possibly whether or not “alternative” lifestyles, subcultures, tribes and fan communities offer anything other than providing individuals with a sense of meaning and belonging. This voluntary segmentation gives corporations, brands and businesses ample opportunity for targeting niche markets and entering into otherwise “closed” communities. While the long tail concept (Anderson 2006) can be viewed as proof of increased customer power in the twenty-first century, it is likewise an opportunity for companies to spread their net further through the commodification of the alternative and “independent,” and through immersing contraculture into the mainstream—effectively rendering contraculture impossible.

The habitus is learned from an early age and reflects a shared social and cultural context—but even if one is taught how to behave and react, the formation of habitus remains largely unconscious (Bourdieu 2010). There is little room for reflexivity in habitual behaviour, since the competencies developed are not conscious, which means they cannot be consciously mastered. Therefore, entering a higher social “sphere” is by default extremely difficult, since “the reproduction of ‘classed’ identities happens via unwitting determinancy” (Adams 2006, p. 514). Although Bourdieu, through the complexity of his work, opens up for the possibility of self?reflexive practices, these are predominantly associated with requirements within a particular field (such as academia or science) and thus form part of the “habitual game” played within that field. This means that standing back from a field and consciously reflecting on the workings of it—and fully understanding everyone’s role within it—may at times seem possible, as the controlling effect of habitus preserves the status quo. McNay (1999), in her work on gender and habitus argues that one of the reasons for the persistence of gender restraints is that we all act as “agents,” to use a term utilised by Bourdieu (2010) to describe individuals and groups operating in a field or domain, within a broader system made up of rules and structures of which the agent is unaware. It is a pessimistic world view, but one that explains—along with Jean Baudrilliard’s (1998) ideas surrounding the “vicious circle of growth”—why social and economic injustice largely prevail, and why gender equality is still such a contested territory. It is, to an extent, easier to comprehend in light of the overwhelming dominance of capitalist values in the Western world. However, the current system relies on the view that the individual is capable of shaping his or her own future, and that we are not surrounded by invisible predetermined structures. As Debord (1995) and Baudrilliard (1998), among others, have pointed out, consumer capitalism is built on this very principle—that individuals are driven by their pursuit of happiness and enjoyment. The popularity of self-help books, and the foundation on which a vast proportion of business management literature is built, is in Bourdieu’s universe based on false premises. Unfortunately, Bourdieu’s ideas—along with those of Debord, Baudrilliard (and to some extent Karl Marx, whose ideas the former are indebted to) are not deemed fashionable in business studies, and they are certainly not welcome in a world where everything is possible as long as the individual will power and determination is there. Thus, success and failure can be ascribed to the individual, and individuals are less likely than groups or communities to forge change. Margaret Thatcher’s statement from 1987, that there is “no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher Foundation n.d.), seems to summarise much of the content of contemporary business and management literature.

It was mentioned above that to fit into a field or domain, it may be possible to “play the game,” which indicates that it is possible to con?sciously and voluntarily accumulate skills or currency to affect one’s own position and status within that field (or one’s children’s position)—and to possibly even enter a different field. This is possibly where the hybridisation of structure and agency, or habitus and reflexivity, comes into play. However, it can be argued that the hybrid is formed within the larger system of constraints referred to by McNay (1999) above, thus skewing the hybridisation more towards structure than actual agency. As Adams (2006, p. 517) puts it: “reflexivity is bounded in advance by the limits of social structure as embodied in one’s habitus.”

There is no such thing as a strict dichotomy of audience and media, and audiences are not necessarily out to shape their own experience and co-create media content. Groups of fans are certainly not always groups of disadvantaged individuals, although the popular image of fandoms gives this impression, and this was possibly reinforced by early fandom scholars who wanted to see fans and fan communities as agents of transformation (see, e.g., Sandvoss, 2005, p. 156).

There may have been an overestimation of the capabilities of cults or fans to challenge the existing social order. Several studies since the turn of the twenty-first century have highlighted how in “organized fandom, as in the cases of cultists and enthusiasts, social hierarchies are constituted and fan activity becomes itself a form of distinction, discrimination and preservation of existing power structures within society” (Sandvoss 2005, p. 156). Sandvoss also argues that choice of fan object cannot be directly linked to class, or representations of class, which indicates that instead of “functioning as a practice of subversion, fandom, through the adaptation of existing social hierarchies in a subcultural context, further cements the status quo by undermining the role of class as a vector of social change” (Sandvoss 2005, p. 156). This, as we saw earlier, is something that many fans themselves are largely oblivious to.

The millennial generation is said to be sceptical towards messages of consumption, but at the same time they are also more likely to be fans of brands (Luttrell and McGrath 2016). They are more conservative, and more dependent on their parents—and studies of university students indicate that they are less independent and require more guidance from tutors compared to earlier generations (Twenge and Campbell 2009). At the same time, they are impatient consumers with high demands on service and experience quality. When it is highlighted that they resist advertising that is too blunt, and that they do not take a company’s word for its excellence (but require “fans” of that brand or company to point out its advantages, thus rendering it more authentic and worthy of their endorsement), it is difficult to understand how this would indicate a greater sense of independence or autonomy. The whole discussion of “millennials” is paradoxical and filled with inconsistencies and contradictions. The emergence of millennials is closely linked to the spread of digital media, and the normalisation of social media as a vehicle for communication and self-representation (and understanding of the world— a majority of Americans get their news via Facebook, as indicated by Gottfried and Shearer 2016). With the close connection between mil- lennials and their parents, perhaps we are all millennials, as it would be presumptuous to argue that people born before 1980 are excluded from most Web 2.0 discourses and that it is only people born after 1980 that are fully connected and integrated in virtual realities.

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