Thursday, June 16, 2005

Researching The Simpsons Audience

Posted by AmishThrasher at 11:03 pm
Hmmm... donuts!
What do they make of Homer?
After each of the themes in my literature review, I have presented a number of questions, or areas, that I believe need to be addressed in further research. The over-arching question is ‘How do adult audiences use The Simpsons?’, with sub-questions of ‘What are perceived values in The Simpsons?’ ‘How are characters in The Simpsons used, and narratives read, in reference to identity, families, and merchandising?’ And, finally, ‘How has The Simpsons reshaped adult perceptions of animation?’

My work is preliminary research into The Simpsons audiences, and adult animation in general. Throughout the literature review, much of the previous work has theorized that The Simpsons is a text that is either ‘post modern’ or very much open to interpretation. Given this, my research will utilize qualitative methodologies, and emphasize techniques that will allow for openness in allowing participants to share their experiences of the text. The primary aim of my research will be to provide a base for future audience research, and grounded theoretical work, into The Simpsons. This will allow for future research that is either quantitative, or more specific in targeting areas addressed in this project. The aim in doing so is to allow for further research and theory that can either challenge, support, or expand upon previous theoretical work; and to sketch out a basic understanding of how and why the young adults sampled interact with texts like The Simpsons.

To gather this data, I propose using three methodologies: first, questionnaires; secondly, interviews; and thirdly, focus groups. In this essay, I will focus on how we will go about this data gathering element of research. After garnering this data, the research project will move into a phase of discourse analysis.(1) However, prior to describing how each of the 3 methodologies will be carried out, I will first explain some of the logistics behind such research. Noting the academic tendency for long titles for research projects, the working title for this research will be ‘The Simpsons: Public Research into Individuals Negotiating Gender, Family, Identity, Ethnicity, and other Local Discourses’ (herein abbreviated to ‘The S.P.R.I.N.G.F.I.E.L.D. Project’).

As a logistical exercise, the hiring of research assistants will be an issue of critical importance to The SPRINGFIELD Project, particularly in the latter interview and focus group phases, as well as for any later discourse analysis. Familiarity with The Simpsons is an important trait; as Robert Burgess noted “In the course of my own research I found that teachers and pupils often asked me for information during the course of interviews. I was asked about my biography, about my previous teaching experience and my views about schools and schooling just as I posed questions to teachers and pupils."(2) Burgess also noted that “In addition to issues of gender and personal experience, a number of other overt characteristics of the interviewer are involved in these situations – age, social status, race, and ethnicity”,(3) and “Many racial and ethnic cultures are distinct from middle class white cultures with the result that this difference may impede communication between the researcher and the researched."(4) For this reason, each of the 4 identity categories we are investigating (women, Christians, gay / bisexual / transgender men, and an ethnic community discussed in The Simpsons) will need at least two researchers who identify themselves as being members, as well as two (for each) who do not. We may need more, or less staff, depending on how many categories applicants identify themselves as belonging to. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to this staff as the ‘Nominated Official Helpers in Observing Media audiences Employed for Research in the Springfield project’ (herein referred to by its acronym, ‘N.O.-H.O.M.E.R.S.’).

We will use volunteer / convenience sampling for the questionnaire phase of the research. This sample is to be obtained at La Trobe University, over a one week period, however I will allocate it 2 weeks because if 2,000 surveys cannot be handed out in a week at La Trobe, it may be necessary to repeat the process at other universities. Potential volunteers will be notified via announcements at lectures, posters on notice boards, annoying chalk messages on campus walkways, and NO-HOMERS approaching students in the Agora. These will point all self-identified Simpsons fans in the student body to a table set up in the Agora, where the questionnaires will be handed out. Our 2,000 questionnaires – with sequential reference numbers for organizational purposes – will be handed out in this manner. Such volunteer sampling represents a relatively fast and cheap means to distribute questionnaires to potential participants.

Two disadvantages of this sampling methodology are the ethical considerations necessary, and the fact that it would be difficult to extrapolate data from this sample. The most obvious ethical dilemma to overcome is how to reward participants for volunteering without encouraging people to participate against their will. In my case, participants who take a questionnaire are under no pressure to return it, but those who do receive a free pink donut (in reference to an early Simpsons episode). As shown in Appendix A, persons not willing to divulge their names or contact details (or answer any other question) may remain anonymous, however such anonymity makes it virtually impossible to withdraw a questionnaire afterwards. In contrast, those who fill out contact details on the further research consent form (regardless of whether they decide to participate in further research – see Appendix C) may withdraw their questionnaire at any time within 9 weeks of signing the form.

The second disadvantage with this sampling methodology is with extrapolation of data. Because our sampling methodology only includes those willing to volunteer, it would be inaccurate to claim, for example, “48% of the adult Simpsons audience at La Trobe University like Homer Simpson because he is ‘stupid’”; many of those who chose not to participate may feel otherwise. Similarly, our sample (students at La Trobe University) may be unrepresentative of the broader population, thus claims extrapolated from our sample’s responses may not be true of the broader population. Were we interested in making such statements, we would have to use a different sampling methodology. However, The SPRINGFIELD Project is instead interested in making statements like “A common discourse within our sample is Homer Simpson’s ‘stupidity’ as an endearing trait, and thus point may be worth further research consideration”. Thus, this second disadvantage is not a major concern for us.

The next major issues are the technical considerations of the survey itself. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “In choosing question types, consideration should be given to factors such as the kind of information which is sought, ease of processing, and the availability of time, money, and personnel."(5) Given the aims of the project, the questionnaire (Appendix B) makes extensive use of open questions, which “…allow respondents to answer questions in their own words;”(6) an example being question 2. One disadvantage of such questions are that “…processing problems arise from the need to create a coding frame to interpret a variety of responses."(7) As we are already going to create coding frames as part of our discourse analysis, this is not such a significant issue. A second problem is that “…they are more demanding than closed question both to answer and to process."(8) I have attempted to mitigate this somewhat through an extensive use of filtering questions. These are used to “…ensure that respondents answer only those parts of the questionnaire that are relevant."(9) Filer questions, like question 5, “…direct respondents to skip questions that do not apply to them>"(10)

A prototype pilot questionnaire is included as Appendix F. Based on suggestions on my pilot questionnaires (several of which were given out to family and friends), I made several amendments (especially with regards to layout) on my final questionnaire.

All received questionnaires will be stored in safes, and will not be allowed outside the research room. The safes used in this project, and the lock to the research room, will require at least two keys to open – the first of these keys for each safe being held by myself, the second being held by a relevant NO-HOMERS member. Upon being received, these questionnaires will be held in a safe for unsorted questionnaires. These will then be sorted into 3 further safes – one for those who chose to remain anonymous, the second for confidential questionnaire participants, and the third for those wishing to participate further. Finally, these will be further sorted by demographics information, for the purpose of either interview / focus group sampling (those wishing to participate further), and analysis (those who do not).

In other words, The SPRINGFIELD Project will utilize ‘multistage sampling’ to obtain our sample for the interviews and focus groups. This multistage sampling methodology is described by the ABS as proceeding where, “At the first stage, large groups or clusters of members of the target population are selected. The clusters are designed to contain more members than are required for the final sample."(11) For us, the first sample will be questionnaire respondents. “At the second stage, members are sampled from the selected clusters to derive the final sample."(12) As noted earlier, filling out the further research consent form (Appendix C) allows participants to be contacted, thus enabling them to participate in the interview section of our research. In doing so, participants obviously waive their right to anonymity, but we will ensure confidentiality of their identities. In confidentiality, I mean that no-one outside the NO-HOMERS staff will have access to their personal details, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. These contact details will be incinerated upon completion of The SPRINGFIELD Project. “If more than two stages are used, the process of sampling within clusters continues until the final sample is achieved."(13) Using the demographics section of the questionnaire, we will sort the sample into groups of people of interest for various interviews. Given that sorting and filing 2,000 responses is a time consuming task, I would give this process itself 2 weeks, with a further week to arrange interviews, and focus groups.

The next phase will be the interviews. For the reasons stated earlier – the lack of other audience research in this field and the arguably subjective nature of the text – I have settled on unstructured interviews. As noted by Burgess, “The unstructured interview is rarely conducted in isolation; it is often part of a broader program of research and draws on the knowledge that the researcher has of a social situation.”(14) In our case, the questionnaire, having NO-HOMERS staff close in demographics to the interviewee, as well as common viewership of The Simpsons will be the basis of the interview.

In the interview, I (or a NO-HOMERS member), after reading the interviewee’s questionnaire and arranging an interview time, would begin interviews using 3 methods. The first method I would utilize is to ask questions based on the interviewee’s responses to the questionnaire; probing further into the answers they have already provided us. Given the questionnaire is a mixture of knowledge / filtering questions and opinion / value questions, the first method will produce more in-depth questions of this type.

The second method I would utilize is a modified form of Freudian ‘free association’, where the interviewer would ask the interviewee a question like “What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of Homer Simpson?” and, based on the answers to each of these, the interviewer would proceed in asking related questions. Given free association’s background as a psychotherapeutic tool, it seems as excellent framework through which to pose questions of experience (both within and outside the Simpsons audience), and how it has shaped their reading of the program. However, it is foreseeable that an interviewee may share an experience that places the interviewer in a difficult moral dilemma. You will note that my informed consent forms do contain provisions to break confidentiality and contact a third party if researchers have a reasonable belief that a participant may cause harm to themselves or others. It may also be appropriate, in some circumstances, to provide a participant with information on where to seek professional help. While this may not be an issue during the interviews, it may be worth proceeding with some caution. A list of terms that may begin such free association sessions is provided in Appendix E.

The third method is to present two similar items, and ask the interviewee what they perceive as being the similarities and differences between the two, and using that as a starting point for further questions. This is a contrast question in its most basic form: compare A to B. Depending on the individual, the comparisons may center on either sensory or value, similarities, and differences, between A and B. Some examples of items that may be presented include a piece of Simpsons merchandise and an equivalent product that is not a piece of Simpsons merchandise, pictures of two Simpsons characters, or a picture of a Simpsons character and a non-Simpsons cartoon character.

The other important considerations with interviews are length, good interviewing technique, and payment. While I will place a 50 minute time limit on interviews, it is conceivable that most interviews will range from 10 to 50 minutes. The length is contingent on factors like interviewee responsiveness, and whether any interesting lines of questions emerge. These same factors will also impact our focus groups, which will be run within the same 50 minute time limit. Another important consideration here is the researcher’s interviewing technique; by appearing engaged, not interrupting, not forcing opinions on interviewees, and generally minimizing interviewer effects, a longer and more fruitful interview may be promoted. However, regardless of interview length, all interviewees and focus group members will receive the same amount - $40 – in exchange for participation. While this amount will not induce anyone to participate against their will, it will reward those who do participate.

In parallel to these interviews, we will also run 16 focus groups of 5 people each (80 participants in total), with the aim of seeing whether group ‘identity’ leads to a significantly different socially constructed meaning. First, we will run two focus groups for each of the four identities we are investigating (women, gay / bisexual / transgender men, Christians, and an ethnic minority discussed in The Simpsons). By ‘an ethnic minority discussed in The Simpsons, I mean an ethnic community that has been featured in a primary discourse of a Simpsons episode (for example, the Jewish background of Krusty The Clown has been the primary discourse in several episodes; therefore The SPRINGFIELD PROJECT may chose the Jewish community as the ethnic background to explore here).

For each of the 8 identity focus groups, we will also run a focus group of participants who do not belong to the identity of its focus group we are examining. So as a control group to the 2 Christian focus groups, for instance, we will run 2 focus groups of people who do not identify themselves as Christian. As a stimulus for discussion, the identity group and its respective control group will be shown an episode that features a dominant discourse about the identity group. As a stimulus for the second of each, we will show an episode where the identity group is not the focus of the episode. The note-taker and moderator for each group will be a NO-HOMERS member who identifies themselves as being a member of the identity or control group they are moderating (or note-taking) for. Focus group questions are presented in Appendix D.

These interviews and focus groups will be tape-recorded for later transcription, and the interviewer will also take some notes during the interview. Interviewees will most likely be people who are unavailable at the times allocated for focus groups. Naturally, the number of these interviews is subject to the number of questionnaires received back and participant availability. Beyond this, the number of interviews will ideally be 15, with more possible if there are a large number of particularly interesting questionnaires. In these interviews I will attempt to garner a cross-section of respondents based on demographics information.

A problem in the focus group phase is that a particular group may have little or no response. Alternatively, people who do belong to a minority group may fear putting down personal details that provide a written record of their identity as a member of a minority group. Such a fear may be fuelled by fear of negative repercussions from within a community from being a regular viewer of The Simpsons, or from the widespread latent and (sometimes) manifest hatred presented against minority groups in contemporary Australia. Indeed, such responses would be quite understandable if they were to occur, and thus the ‘two key’ procedures described earlier are of utmost ethical importance to avoid such potentially sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

If, for any of the reasons described above, a community is under-represented, there are three courses of action that we can take. The first is to use snowball sampling in an attempt to seek out further members of a community. The second is to make more specific efforts to reach that particular community; perhaps outside La Trobe University. And the third, and perhaps most viable option, is to drop that line of enquiry from our interviews and focus groups; ‘putting it off’ for a future research assignment.

While this interview and focus group phase may well be completed in 2 weeks (10 working days, for 15 interviews and 16 focus groups means a rate of a little over 3 a day), I will allocate it 4 weeks to allow for any withdraws afterwards, as well as time overruns. Given the questionnaire time (2 weeks), sorting time (2 weeks), contact time (1 week) and interview time (4 weeks), I have decided to give participants a period of 9 weeks from when they sign their informed consent form in which they may withdraw participation at any time. Due to the sunset clause in the further research consent form, participation cannot be withdrawn after 9 weeks. With data collection through 3 techniques complete at this point, we can begin the difficult task of data / discourse analysis.

So how feasible is the research described here? While the logistics of this research itself are manageable, perhaps the largest stumbling block is cost. The largest costs incurred during the course of this research include printing questionnaires, buying 2,000 donuts, interview participation fees, labor costs for the NO-HOMERS, specialist computer software costs, equipment hire (including tape recorders and safes), and stationary. These costs may well end up in excess of several thousand dollars, and being able to meet these costs will be a deciding factor in the viability of research. In some circumstances, some of these costs may be reduced – for instance, a chain like Donut King may be willing to supply 2,000 donuts as a promotional offer, or may sell us the donuts at a bulk purchase price. Some NO-HOMERS staff may well be existing La Trobe faculty, or willing to participate as part of a PhD course. However, unless either the university, government, or private parties are willing to fund this research, it may very well be economically unfeasible. In conclusion, given adequate funding, I believe that The SPRINGFIELD Project would certainly be a worthwhile exercise to undertake, to further understanding of adult use of animation.

1 Discourse analysis is NOT one of my three methodologies, and is beyond the scope of this essay.
2 Robert G. Burgess, “In the Field”, Routledge: London, 1984, p. 105.
3 ibid.
4 ibid.
5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, “ABS – An Introduction to Sample Surveys: A User’s Guide”, A4PS, 1999, p. 10.
6 Ibid., p. 12.
7 Op. Cit.
8 Op.Cit.
9 Ibid., p. 16.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., p. 28.
12 Ibid.
13 ibid.
14Robert G. Burgess, “In the Field”, Routledge: London, 1984, p. 106.