My current research interests focus on meaning-making, identity-creation, and social cohesion in marginalized groups, with a particular interest in identifying the mechanisms that are responsible for social cohesion. Although currently situated in what could be considered “positive” subcultures, my intent is to develop a lens through which to investigate socially deleterious subcultures as well. My research agenda creates space for undergraduate and graduate students to participate and publish, as well.
Areas of interest: culture, group behavior, social movements, emotion, inequality, qualitative methods, theory, social psychology
Several years ago, at the Gen Con gaming convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, I met a blaster-carrying stormtrooper who, below the midsection of his white, molded armor, wore a grey plaid kilt with knee-high white socks. I later met more stormtroopers—but when I mentioned their kilt-wearing kin, they sneered: he was not a real storm trooper.
Neither were they. They were adults; cosplayers, each wearing $1,000 or more in plastic armor and carrying fake weapons. Cosplay—from costume play—refers both to the costume and to the activity of dressing as a character, often from comic books, science fiction/fantasy print genres, board and video games, television shows and movies, and the Japanese art forms manga and anime. Individuals that engage in cosplay may do so in small, local groups, or they may attend gaming, comic book, or other types of conventions (collectively called “cons”) that attract tens of thousands of participants. Gen Con, for example, celebrated its 51st year in 2018 with a record attendance of over 60,000 unique attendees, and other cons are even larger. Cosplay has become an important part of these cons, and many have incorporated cosplay into their official agenda. Cosplay is a thriving, growing, international subculture, and yet sociology has largely ignored the phenomenon; very little has been published on cosplay, and most of what exists focuses only on manga and anime, which represent a sliver of the broader culture.
Cosplay culture values diversity, equity, and inclusion in both principle and practice, and centers around a three-part paradox: (1) cosplayers simultaneously sublimate their identity (to the character) and often (2) presenting themselves as a more “authentic” identity, all within a subculture that is (3) largely denigrated by the dominant culture as juvenile and strange. It is this tension between personal and social identity, boundary-work, and belonging/social cohesion that most interests me. In addition to sociological research and publications, this project has the potential to support other research projects both within and outside of the social sciences. Preliminary research suggests, for example, that questions of body (such as body image and disability), gender and sexuality, race, class, mental health, culture, art, language, and diversity/inclusion would all be valuable lenses through which to view the cosplay community. For example, cosplayers frequently breach racial and gender boundaries in their cosplay, thus blurring established boundaries, effectively creating a new, bounded culture in which acceptance of difference is a core value.
My current interest in identity and belonging in the cosplay subculture grew from my dissertation research on social cohesion within the deadhead community. Dead and Still Grateful: Deriving Mechanisms of Social Cohesion from Deadhead Culture focuses on mechanisms that create and maintain social cohesion, with Deadhead culture as the empirical lens. For over 50 years, Deadheads—fans of the rock ‘n’ roll jam band The Grateful Dead—have created and participated in temporary communities connected over time and space by a distinct set of values, norms, language and economy. Drawing on interviews, surveys, and seven years of participant-observation, I concluded that identity, ritual behavior, and religion function as mechanisms to create social cohesion within the Deadhead community. I then used that data to induct a set of mechanisms to be tested against future research.
Religion: Durkheim ( 1995) argued that the development of both society and religion are tightly bound up with one another. This chapter shows how Deadheads actively seek collective effervescence at concert events, feel a sense of belonging to something that is larger than themselves, and use the resulting symbols to reinforce their membership in the culture. Cohesion is thus accomplished through the religious experience and through utilizing cultural symbols in everyday life.
Ritual: Ritual is a powerful contributor to social cohesion. This chapter applies Collins’ (2004) Interaction Ritual Chain Theory to ritualized behavior that occurs both within the Deadhead community and its gatherings, and in everyday life. This ritual behavior creates strong positive cultural associations and symbols that encourage social cohesion.
Identity: Identity-work functions at the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels within Deadhead culture. This chapter applies, and then combines, core theories of the structural social interaction school of identity theory. Social-structural classification and resource allocation influence the potential to become a deadhead; performance and reinforcement of role-identities influence the likelihood that an individual will re-enact the role-identity at a later time; and finally, emotional processes bring the individual’s social behavior in line with social expectations. I show how these theories can be combined to explain the social change inherent in the development of the Deadhead addiction support group called the Wharf Rats.
Mechanisms: Working across religion, ritual, and identity, and using an inductive approach, I arrived at several mechanisms at work in deadhead cohesion. These are arranged according to and Hedström and Swedberg’s (1996) typology of mechanisms: (1) situational (macro-level) mechanisms include internal and external constraint; (2) individual action (microlevel) mechanisms include self-transcendence, self-reinforcement, and self-talk; and (3) transformational (micro-level to macro-level) mechanisms include group maintenance and disruption.
This work has implications for several sociological disciplines, such as group behavior, social movements, and culture, as well as social cohesion, religion, ritual, and identity theory. Through a combination of ethnography and luminous description, my dissertation provides a detailed analysis of social cohesion within a specific culture, creates a basis for comparison to other cohesive groups, and contributes to the sociological understanding of social cohesion in general.
Smith, Stacy L. 2017. “Gender Stratified Monopoly: Why Do I Earn Less and Pay More?” Teaching Sociology 45(2):168-76.
Smith, Stacy L. 2019. “Marianne Weber and #MarchForOurLives.” In Forgotten Founders and Other Neglected Theorists, edited by C. Conner, D. Dickens, and N. Baxter. Lexington Books.
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Smith, Stacy L. “It’s like you get issued a totally different set of ears”: Applying Interaction Ritual Chain Theory to the Deadhead Subculture.” Submitted to The Sociological Quarterly, November 2018.