The Track and the Field, or Studying What You Love

By Amanda Draft 

This blog entry began as I was sitting in an airport en route to Montreal for roller derby; specifically, the International Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) Division 1 Playoffs. As a top-level skater working as an academic studying my own subculture, the ongoing struggle of balancing these “competing devotions” (Blair-Loy 2003) is so central to my life that it has become the focus of my dissertation research. This is not the first time that I have had to use Tetris-like precision to make it work, nor will it be the last.

Modern roller derby is most likened to what Robert Stebbins refers to as “serious leisure,” an activity that often requires the same levels of devotion and resources as a professional work career without the financial benefit. No one in derby is paid to skate, but by completing my dissertation on the sport, the line between “leisure” and “work” becomes very blurry.  Furthermore, a tendency exists for academics with pre-existing ties to certain subcultures, such as music (Haenfler 2006; Wood 2006; Moore 2007) and sport (Wheaton 2000; Broad 2001), to conduct ethnographic research within their own communities, though initial immersion may be spurred by the research (Sands 2002; Wacquant 2004). Within derby, the trend is the same.

While all research is embodied to some extent, my role as a complete participant in my Master’s research on embodiment in derby made this salient and exhausting, as others studying and playing the sport have experienced (Breeze 2014). Simultaneously, I learned the roles of researcher and athlete in a sport that was still struggling to embrace the concept. Similarly to Wacquant’s account of “the craft getting pounded in (2004:91)” as he typed field notes with numb hands and throbbing body pain, I would fight mental and physical fatigue while writing my account of another bone-jarring late night practice, repeating the process up to 6 times a week during the heavy travel season. The cost was well worth the pay-off; by being a skater myself, the complaints and triumphant remarks from skaters about our bodies made more sense, as I was living these alongside them.draft-photo

When I began the project as a rookie, I learned and eagerly believed in the sport’s ideologies of acceptance, that anyone could be taught to be a derby skater regardless of skill, size, or experience. As a sociologist, my job was (and still is) to remain critical. The resulting auto/ethnographic project on the sport examined various  discourses surrounding bodies espoused by derby participants. The derby community (including myself) proudly claims that “size doesn’t matter,” contrasting it vividly to many other women’s sports, such as gymnastics and ice skating, that require a narrowly-defined body type for ideal performance.

However, other discourses uncomfortably coexist and even contradict this ideal: a push for “serious athleticism,” and a “bigger is better” counter-argument to unrealistic standards of thinness that works in the reverse. Most academic derby research is critical of the sport, and with my work, I run the risk of “spoiling” an activity I love (Rossing and Scott 2016), of airing “dirty laundry” of a sport already struggling for mainstream acceptance, carrying feelings of both betrayal and pride as I continue to participate.

Within the postmodern turn, we exist within contradiction and multiplicity, and derby is no stranger to those concepts (Pavlidis and Fullagar 2013). For the moment, there is a thin, broken line between where “research” ends and where “derby for derby’s sake” begins. I settle for both: marveling at the newest top-of-the-line derby skate boot while wondering how the skater who designed it finds time to clean their house between practice and work.

Amanda Draft is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. She is currently completing her dissertation on life course-fit among roller derby participants. Her research interests include gender, sport, the body, and subcultures. Her article “Sizing Up Skaters: An Interrogation of  Body Discourses in Elite Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby” is forthcoming in Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal.

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