Beth Singler is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge specializing in the social anthropological study of New Religious Movements online. Combining traditional fieldwork with digital ethnography, Beth explores the new definitions of self that multiply on the Internet. Her PhD is on the Indigo Children, an idea in the New Age Movement, but she has also written about Wiccans, Jedi, Scientologists, pop-culture religions and various online subcultures. She has her own blog at http://bvlsingler.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter via @BVLSingler.
“…we cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything” (Punch, 2005:187)
I think I remember breathing out an actual sigh of relief when I first read these words in Punch’s Introduction to Social Research (2nd Ed.). Finally, there in black and white on the page, the permission not to do EVERYTHING, be EVERYWHERE, or to capture it ALL! With my PhD this has been a lesson I have had to learn, and learn quickly.
My thesis looks at an idea from what is still broadly known as the New Age Movement by academics (but not so much anymore by insiders, but there you go). The Indigo Children are thought to be a generation of special, spiritually evolved individuals here to change the world according to New Age narratives. Even though I study New Religious Movements, the Indigo Children do not form a church, they don’t have recognisable and repeated rituals. They don’t wear particular clerical outfits. They aren’t formed into associations with established hierarchies or logos. What they do do is call themselves Indigo Children (or Crystal, or Rainbow, or Blue Ray – there are many versions but I’ll stick to Indigo for now for clarity) and talk about being Indigo online… a lot.
A Google search done just five minutes ago reveals 809,000 results for the words “Indigo Children”. The first year of my PhD was about just getting to grips with the multitude of sources of information on this subject. There are web pages by groups and individuals, there are forum boards, there are blogs, there are Facebook groups and pages, there are Twitter hashtags, there are Instagram pictures, Youtube videos, online archives from magazines and newspapers, online tests to see if YOU are Indigo, Meetup groups, tumblrs, memes, petitions, questions, answers, seekers and experts…
My first year was also spent writing a very, very speculative document called a ‘registration exercise’: a sample chapter, an outline, a bibliography, but most importantly, a methodology. This is to show to internal examiners that I know what I am doing and that I have a plan for the next two years of my research and a methodology that really stands up to scrutiny. Almost a year of fieldwork later and I think I could throw most of that methodology out of the window.
For a start, I would now say that I was back then trying to work from within a positivistic, scientific framework that I adopted out of an unconscious desire for legitimacy. ‘Let’s gets some numbers, some facts, some real HARD data’ says the internal wannabe scientist while the social-anthropologist mumbles about acculturation and socialization through participant observation. So I ended up with a methodology where I said I would look at X forum everyday and take Y number of screengrabs and repeat until I had REAL data. Well, the multiplication of X by Y gave far too much data…. and that was just one source.
All in all there was just too much. So I rethought my approach. Would I capture everything? Probably not… no, definitely not. It was just not possible. But I could approach the subject much like the individual seeker does. In my interviews with Indigos I asked them about how they had come upon the idea of the Indigo Children and where they had looked for more information. They described stumbling upon it, or being told about it by someone who thought they might be one. And then they wandered through the wilds of the internet reading some sources, missing others, meeting some Indigos and chatting to them, missing others. They had a seeker’s methodology that didn’t necessarily tell them everything but told them enough. So I picked up this approach and followed what was interesting rather than what was comprehensive. My supervisor talks about fieldwork as a form of apprenticeship and had I listened more closely I might have got to the same conclusion earlier… Through my fieldwork I feel like I have been through an apprenticeship in being Indigo (am I one? I remain neutral but open-minded). But more than that, I have been through an apprenticeship in doing academic research, which is really the aim of the PhD after all. And I really feel that in doing this apprenticeship I am closer to stopping apologising for not being a ‘real’ scientist.