Stalking for academic research

In what world is stalking a research “subject” acceptable? I would hope that you agree that such a “methodology” is never acceptable. As academic researchers, we must ensure that the privacy of our research participants is never invaded, that their identity is never revealed (at least so far as possible), and they we never do them any harm. When you stalk someone, you invade their privacy and you certainly do them harm. One would hope that the “researcher” who conducted this study would have known that. Maybe he did and just didn’t care.

In the numerous research projects I have conducted to date, ensuring that I am ethical with my research participants is always a priority for me. I am confident that I never did anything in any study to compromise the safety of a participant, or to cause them harm. I ask you again: In what world is stalking a research “subject” acceptable? Let’s ask the author of this article. It’s called: “Saved!” by Jena Malone: An introspective study of a consumer’s fan relationship with a film actress.

I think you all know what you’re about to read here.

For the “study”, the “researcher” developed an obsession with this woman, built a shrine to her in his home, spent several hours of his life devouring her films, had numerous pictures of her (included in the article), delved very deeply into her private life, and kept a diary and a “contemporaneous dataset” about his “relationship” with her – which, incidentally, stacked up to nearly 200,000 words.

He started off his description of this “relationship” with the following statement:

I still remember the day in April 2005, when I saw Jena Malone for the very first time. Her lovely smile and her beautiful eyes captivated me so much that my entire body was filled with the same prickling warmth that I feel each time I fancy a particular girl/woman.

If you, too, are picturing the archetypal peeping tom in a trench-coat, then you’re in good company here. He goes on to say:

Though I felt sexually attracted to her, my initial interest and admiration for Jena Malone was mainly based on her work and achievement as an actress. But the nature of my emotional attachment to her changed after suffering another major disappointment in my private life. As I hadn’t been on a date for a long time, I was filled with an enjoyable and arousing feeling of excitement, anticipation, happiness and nervousness mixed  together, when a nice girl finally agreed to go out with me.

What the actual fuck is wrong with you?! Is anyone feeling sick yet? Yes, you’re still in good company.

The whole narrative reads as if it were complied by a confused and horny teenage boy indulging his fantasy. But it wasn’t; this is a “study” by a grown man whose obsession is being passed off a piece of academic research. It is published in a respected academic journal. I’m finding it difficult to express just how unbelievable it all is.

OK, let’s breathe and start again.

So he never actually met the woman, and presumably he wasn’t hiding in the bushes outside her house with a flask and pair of binoculars, but that does not make his obsession any less disturbing. Stalking as a activity takes many different forms, particularly now with the increase in internet use and our unlimited access to other people’s lives (if you know where to look, wink, wink). This case qualifies as stalking just as much as any other. Perhaps she didn’t know she was being stalked (many women don’t, as it happens) but she was. This man knows everything about her life – intimate details about her past, her finances, her family and her upbringing. He’s no “fan”; he’s a repulsive obsessive. That he attempted to disguise this obsession as academic endeavour, and cynically used a theoretical framework to “explore consumerism”, does not make his obsession any less reprehensible. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even try to mask his motivations half the time!

Anyway, frustrated with having to live my lonely life as an involuntary single again, I started to seek romance and love from a very different source — Jena Malone.

My mind is well and truly boggled.  But creepiness, aside, this “study” has been published as a piece of  academic research. That is incredibly damaging to the academic research community. Cataloguing teenage masturbatory fantasies is not academic research. That is not what we do. Using theoretical terms to “introspect” on your teenage masturbatory fantasises is not academic research. That is not data. And stalking someone, whether in person, on the telly, online, or anywhere else, is not academic research. People like this give the rest of us a very bad name and I for one would like to see the publication of that article challenged.

The article ends:

This experienced ‘bond of emotional closeness’ can at times be strong enough to elicit a feeling of ‘personal friendship’ within the consumer or, in some way, even a feeling of ‘love’ towards the admired celebrity … that can express itself in a parasocial relationship. It also provides an explanation as to why fans sometimes feel enormously disappointed, when their most desired dream of actually meeting the adored celebrity in person comes true, because the celebrity turns out to be a different person in private life or just can’t live up to the (perhaps unrealistic) imaginary person that the consumer has created in one’s own mind.

Jena Malone, are you scared? I would be.

12 responses to “Stalking for academic research

  1. I remember trying to get my head around the fact that I could conduct a long, involved research project and not draw any reasonable conclusions, I could even disprove my own hypotheses, but I’d still get marked for it. But the absolutely crucial caveat to that was that I must respect the fundamental research principles, the most important of which were ethics and sampling. It seems that whoever allowed this research to go ahead or to be published forgot that.

    • Exactly. Research what you want, find out what you can, but stick by the principles. There are very good and important reasons why we don’t pretend to give people electric shocks etc. in research now.

      I’m still reeling, too, that this “study” happened, and that it was published is incredible!

  2. One day I’ll tell you about a paper I heard at an academic conference where the researcher told us how he (for oh yes, it was a man) used a picture of a real 20 yo woman as his avatar in Second Life. Apparently, as her picture was on the WWW, it was OK for a 40 yo lecturer to pose as a 20 yo. He picked a very attractive young woman, and played her out as sexually available blah blah blah. It’s depressingly predictable, isn’t it? And I have to sit on a committee with the tosser, who doesn’t see that what he did was exploitative and sexist.

  3. I think any kind of serious academic/journalistic research on a specific subject has the tendency to become an obsession, and if that subject is a living person, it would probably feel a bit weird, even stalkery. I’m thinking of some of the strange people who’ve dedicated their careers to chronicling the minutiae of Bob Dylan’s life and work; or Norman Sherry, who pretty much destroyed himself writing the official Graham Greene biography.

    But leaving aside the sheer creepiness of the Malone-stalker project, I can’t see how the writer could maintain any kind of critical objectivity. It would be like an author writing a thesis about his own novels; which would only have any value if it became some sort of meta-thesis about what it’s like to read and criticise your own novels (rather than being about the novels themselves). Similarly, I think the Saved! thing would make an interesting/valid *subject* for an academic text, even if it’s not valid as a text itself. But it would have to be written by someone else… who might in turn become obsessed with the stalker. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    • Tim, I agree that researchers can become obsessive about a topic – it’s almost a necessity in academic research – but the critical objectivity you mention is essential. We always have to maintain a distance from our research data and our research subjects in order to remain critical. So that’s certainly an issue.

      And while it is common practice indeed to research an individual for a biography or a news story (or, say, a case study of a serial killer for academic research), the criticality and detachment is still fundamental. Where the “Saved!” project is deeply problematic is that (1) there is no criticality at all; (2) the “findings” are presented in a disturbingly predatory way; and (3) the author is doing nothing more than attempting to disguise his obsession and his fantastical “relationship” with this woman as academic research. It is neither academic nor research, and it is very worrying that he has been allowed to do this “project” and that it’s been published as a contribution to knowledge.

      I think the creepiness of it is very obvious indeed, but the laughing stock that it makes of the academy is must less apparent on a first take.

  4. Pingback: In brief: women to be vaginally probed before abortions (via thinkprogress) « tenderhooligan·

  5. Seriously. Didn’t anyone think to just tell him to stop because he was being creepy? Didn’t anyone read the paper and say “you know what, this is a bit weird, we’ll have to decline”.

    Incidentally his name is quite unusual and a quick google of Markus Wohlfeil shows that his Facebook page is pretty open. His work contact details and academic history are available alongside some pictures of him and his obsessions. Top Tip: If you’re going to be a creepy stalker then change your name to John Smith so it is harder to track you down.

    My firm do financial tracing and investigation as part of the product range and given someone’s name and date of birth, or just an unusual name, it is very easy to find details about someone. Address and previous addresses, work history, credit history, family ties, company directorships, etc are all publicly available if you know where to look. This is great if you have a legitimate reason to find someone but it is a bit concerning if you’re at all conscious of creepy stalkers or, you know, privacy.

    • Well, this is what I can’t get my head around. And, even if someone did point out that the project was “questionable”, and someone *must* have, how was it published?

      That’s what I meant by ‘know where to look’. I, personally, wouldn’t know where to start with that sort of investigation (and I don’t want to) but it’s quite easy to do, I sure.

  6. I assume you delete any comment that disagrees with your post, because there surely must’ve been a few! I know most bloggers perpetrate pseudo-scandal for attention in order to gain attention in an over-saturated arena where literally any idiot can broadcast their views, so I shouldn’t waste my time replying, but here we go…

    How is this stalking? No privacy of Jena Malone has been invaded. In fact the article is more about him than her. Furthermore, ALL of of the Jena Malone information he uses is publically available (hence your grumbles about ethics can be well and truely forgotten about). He is a fan of a celebrity for god’s sake. That is to say she releases this information because she WANTS her fans to consume it! Indeed, I imagine that she would very much appreciate having such a dedicated fan who has seen all of her movies and collects her (publically released and promotional) photos. I wonder if you would consider it stalking if it were a female researcher investigating David Beckham. Actually – I don’t need to wonder. You gave your sexism away when you wrote “Perhaps she didn’t know she was being stalked (many WOMEN don’t, as it happens) but she was”. Yes, because only women get stalked don’t they? OK, many more women get stalked than men, but either gender can suffer from it. Dare I say, you don’t supply a very OBJECTIVE view! (assuming objectivity exists, which seems to be your belief in reading the comments).

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