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28 May 2023updated 31 May 2023 5:07pm

The science of fandom

What communities devoted to hero-worship tell us about the psychology of belonging.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Pop culture fans have long been derided. In this magazine in 1964, Paul Johnson wrote that, “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.”

Of course, the adoring Beatles fans Johnson described were predominantly young women and teenage girls. This cultural sexism isn’t just historical. Writing for GQ in 2013, Jonathan Heaf portrayed the crowd at a One Direction concert as “an ocean of 20,000 wide-open mouths, hundreds of pleading white eyes, 40,000 palms raised skywards, a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates with every impish crotch-thrust from their idols’ plinths”. The writer left the gig early, unwilling to further endure “the shrill sonic boom of a whole generation of women coming of age”.

This writing is hugely patronising. It is also, writes Michael Bond, an example of the “common ethnographic error in trying to judge the norms of an in-group by contemplating it from the outside. The first impulse of those who don’t understand a culture has often been to rage against it.”

Fans is Bond’s exploration of why people join fandoms – communities that follow particular sports teams, celebrities, musicians and fictional characters – and what these groups tell us about the human need for connection. The term “fan”, derived from “fanatic”, was coined in 1884 by the baseball executive Ted Sullivan to describe the devoted followers of his sport. In common parlance today you can be a “fan” of almost anything – I am a fan of eating my lunch as soon after midday as possible – but Bond, a former New Scientist journalist whose book The Power of Others won a British Psychological Society Book Award in 2015, focuses his gaze on more traditional communities of enthusiasts. He meets Jane Austen aficionados who dress in Regency-era clothing to visit the red-brick house in Chawton, east of Winchester, where the novelist spent the last eight years of her life. He goes to a “fan studies” conference and listens to a presentation by Atlin Merrick, who has written more than a million words of fan fiction, most of which is about Sherlock Holmes.

He even turns to those who work to promote a “more balanced view” of the much maligned Richard III, whom history remembers as a “ruthless Machiavellian” complicit in the deaths of numerous relatives. Members of the Richard III Society “do not categorise themselves as ‘fans’ of Richard”, Bond writes. “They prefer to see themselves as part of an academic reappraisal of their hero. But their attitude towards him and the dynamic of the group have much in common with other fandoms… They are united by a feeling that a terrible injustice has been done to Richard’s name, and a desire to set the record straight.”

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Each of these groups, Bond concludes, shares the same motive: “They are on a search for meaning, and they are prepared to give a great deal of themselves to find it.” Humans find solace in each other – this is why we have evolved to live in groups – and gravitating towards people who share our outlook is “human psychology at its most elemental”.

[See also: The battle of the Bob Dylan fans]

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Belonging to a collective can affect our behaviour. Alongside interviews with fans and academics, Bond includes details of revealing experiments, such as one carried out by the psychologist Mark Levine at Lancaster University in 2005. Levine met with 45 Manchester United football fans and, after talking to them in his lab, sent them on a walk around the campus. He had arranged for a jogger to fall down in front of them. When the jogger wore a Manchester United shirt, the fans were three times as likely to come to his aid than when he wore a Liverpool shirt, or a plain top.

Levine then ran the experiment a second time, with a new set of Manchester United supporters. This time, in his introductory brief, he encouraged the group to think of themselves not as Manchester United fans specifically but as football fans in general. Under these conditions the supporters proved equally willing to help the jogger whether he wore a Manchester United shirt or a Liverpool shirt. But when the jogger sported an unbranded shirt, far fewer from the group assisted him. Group identities – on which fandom relies – are powerful, and highly influenced by context.

Group identities have also played a part in some of the darkest moments in history. Bond cites the January 2021 storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters as an example. But early on, he admits that his book “errs on the side of Pollyanna”. He insists that group psychology doesn’t have to lead to intolerance, and that the sense of belonging that being part of a group provides is a more powerful force for good than bad. He meets numerous people who have found a home in fandom that they never had in the mainstream, including devotees of Star Trek (“Trekkies”) and Doctor Who (“Whovians”), and notes that during the Soviet era, the English band Depeche Mode grew a significant following in eastern Europe among those who sought “an alternative means to channel their frustration with the status quo”. In Russia the group became more popular during perestroika, their modern electronic sound associated with the brief promise of political freedom.

Bond has an enjoyably airy tone: “The mute button seemed particularly challenging,” he observes when attending a Zoom meeting of the Richard III Society. “Despite multiple sightings, Elvis wasn’t available for interview,” he notes, introducing his conversation with an impersonator. But he is too willing to group all kinds of communities under the “fandom” umbrella. In a chapter on what it is like to be a “therian”, someone who believes they are an animal trapped in a human body, he writes that, “Therians are on a quest for identity, meaning and a sense of belonging, just like Janeites, Trekkies and Potterheads.” This is true, but he could be describing anyone who joins any kind of community group.

Sections on Caesar, a communications technician who identifies as a coyote, and Blayz, who lives with the permanent sensation of a muzzle and fangs, are fascinating. But their condition is not akin to fandom, which is all about looking to a person or activity outside of oneself in order to find fulfilment within. The chapter is a curious inclusion that weakens Bond’s otherwise convincing view of fandom as a wide-ranging, multifaceted phenomenon that brings people from all kinds of backgrounds together.

Michael Bond is a sympathetic reporter of fandom. He never patronises – unlike the GQ writer on that One Direction audience – and wears his academic research lightly. But there is almost nothing here about his own experience of fandom. In recent books on devotees of music in particular, such as Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls (2019) and Jude Rogers’ The Sound of Being Human (2022), the authors’ own dedication to the cause has been reflected in their vibrant writing.

[See also: How Busted defined the moody teen pop of the Noughties]

Bond mentions that in the 2000s he was in a band with Lizzyspit, a solo artist whose fans’ obsession eventually ended her online music career. In a brief conclusion, he describes having been a “devoted” fan of the rock group the Police as a teenager. Yet that is all we hear about these matters. It’s a shame, because drawing more on his own experiences of fandom would have enriched Bond’s otherwise astute analysis: for a book about enthusiasms and eccentricities, Fans is curiously lacking verve.

Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging
Michael Bond
Picador, 256pp, £20

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation