Fan studies represents a nexus where economy and culture intersect, especially when cultural production crosses national borders. Some scholars seek to explain this phenomenon primarily using socio-economic lenses, while others stress the importance of understanding fans in ways that fans understand themselves.
In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett delineates two impulses related to consumption by fans:
The word ‘consumption’ indicates participation in a commercial process, but since ‘to consume’ means to digest and exhaust it also implies a kind of using up. We can therefore separate two intricate meanings for the same word: to be part of ‘economic’ consumption means to participate in a financial transaction a a buyer, while to ‘culturally’ consume is to meaningfully examine a particular media product. (20)
Some scholars see fan activity primarily as economic consumption. Duffett recognizes the link between fandom and commodification: “Fandom does not escape or resist commodity culture. Instead consumption facilitates fans’ contact with media products. For some writers, this almost means, however, that fandom is primarily about consumption” (21). Koichi Iwabuchi extends this to the study of fans of cultural products that traverse national boundaries: “Studies of fans should attend to how the persisting dominance of the neoliberal and (inter-)national framework has limited the development of transnational dialogues” (94).
However, scholars like Bertha Chin and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto view the emphasis on “the neoliberal and (inter-) national framework” as a de-emphasis on other, equally significant aspects of fandom: “While arguably satisfying at the level of critique, and absolutely relevant in our understanding of the political implications of transnationally circulating media, the trans/national overdetermination of this perspective ultimately tells us little about what actually attracts and motivates fans; an understanding that, we argue, is absolutely critical to any nuanced discussion of how fandom works across borders”(97). In fact, Duffett goes on to proffer a view of fans that goes beyond financial transactions: “Fans are more than consumers because they have especially strong emotional attachments to their objects and they use them to create relationships with both their heroes and with each other. . . . Fans are networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers and more” (21).
What I find useful in placing Duffett, Iwabuchi and Chin and Hitchcock in conversation with one another is the possibility of developing a complex lens that recognizes both socio-economic and fan perspectives. In my work on global K-pop fans, I seek to understand how fans see their own fan activity and how they make sense of the global culture that they consume. Iwabuchi stresses that the consumption of popular culture must be read through a lens governed by social and political factors. I would further suggest that this include looking at the socio-political context of producers, consumers and the cultural product itself. In other words, how Japanese fans consume Korean popular music (or K-pop) differs from how their counterparts in the United States consume it. These sets of fans have different historical relationships to Korea and its culture, and thus make meaning in different ways.
At the same time, I find Chin and Hitchcock’s centralization of emotion and fandom, the ways that fans understand the object of appeal and the consideration of factors such as gender, useful. The authors make the astute observation about the implications for women when emotion is shunted to the wayside in academic discourse: “As both scholars and fans, we are hardly immune to the pleasures of the fan object, and yet there remains a level of shame attached to the notion of being a fan, particularly if one is female” (95-6). If this happens when the researchers are female, how much more so when the fandom is predominantly female.
Chin, Bertha and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10.1 (2013): 92-108.
Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 97-96.