The Art of Non-Conformity

I’ve been guzzling books lately, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the non-fiction set that surprises me, as I’ve never really had an interest. That’s what Twitter and blogs are for. But The Art of Non-Conformity has been on my Amazon wishlist since the week it came out, and in a rash book-buying-extravaganza a couple of weeks ago, I received a copy. I just finished reading the last page. Here are my thoughts.

First, from a design perspective, the book is gorgeous. It feels good in your hands with its textured matte cover and raised print title. The branding evokes a sense of the 19th Century with its combination of serif and sans-serif, slab and the like. It just whispers, “I’m going to be a charming read. Take a chance. Pick me up.”

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. – Dale Carnegie

The book is peppered with inspiring quotes such as the one I pulled from page 60 of the paperback book. I’m a quote junkie, so point to Mr Guillebeau again. More importantly, this book highlights how a man who didn’t graduate high school managed to graduate with two bachelors degrees and a masters, travel the world (I believe he’s made it to over 100 countries), and start a revolution of people doing what they love and not allowing the naysayers to win.

I needed this book. I’m working full-time, and that’s great, because one of my goals once I graduated grad school was to build up my savings. I’ve almost reached my goal and I haven’t worked a full year yet. I wanted to replace my lemon of a car, Beeker, and I managed to do so without a car payment. I wanted to publish my historical fiction novel that I had put aside in order to do well in graduate school, and I did.

I needed this book to make it explicit to me that I’m already living a non-conforming life. Guillebeau gives the standard tips of not watching as much television, of not checking into social media as often, of getting out into the world and experiencing life. He emphasizes the importance of determining what it is you want out of life, because that is what will help you determine all the other decisions you have to make.

I still don’t know exactly what it is I want out of life. People tell me I have time to figure that out, but I disagree. The sooner I figure out what I want, the sooner I can start making decisions that will get me there. It’s not an end-all-be-all moment, for sure. And what I want out of life could certainly change. Which seems to be the point.

The subtitle of the book is “Set your own rules, live the life you want, and change the world.” It sounds ridiculously optimistic and naive, yet, Guillebeau’s doing it. And I, being a maker as well as a thinker, want to do the same. So thanks, Mr Guillebeau, for inspiring one more person to continue toward the long-tail goal of living the life she wants, whether it fits the norms of society or not.

Busy Week, Busier Weekend

I spent this past entire week working on a presentation that I gave yesterday at the local Instructional Systems Technology conference. I was freaking out for some reason, and literally did nothing but prepare my slides for the presentation. I move quickly through my slides, so I wasn’t surprised that I had 75 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Other people thought I was insane until I actually went through my presentation.

It was super well received, which surprised me. My question-answer session was challenging, but I handled it really well. I mean, I thought the questions were manageable, but people afterwords told me they were really tough questions. One of my questioners told me I should pursue a PhD with my topic, and that my topic should be my dissertation because it’s timely and meaningful. And  I think I would, I do love this topic and my research, I just need to learn how to create and stick to a routine that makes sure I eat and sleep properly. Life as a student for essentially 20 years has ruined me.

Anyway, people who had never seen me present before, but have been friends here on campus, saw me do my thing and were impressed. I video recorded the entire thing using my FlipCam Ultra, so when I get time (ha!) I’ll post it to Vimeo and link it to you guys.

There is a reason behind my madness over Steampunk. And other academics are recognizing it. Yay! Also, I want to thank Chad, Burr, Yujia, Xuan, Nate, Lynn, Ammar, Gopi, and Vidya for attending my presentation session. Having familiar faces in the audience was comforting, and those of you who asked questions asked some really good ones!

I also had an informal meeting with the other research capstone students yesterday. They helped me with my current problem, which is that I think the methodology I outlined for analyzing my interviews is the wrong one for me. I really enjoyed speaking with people, and soaked their enthusiasm, and I’m beginning to see patterns. However, I don’t relish the idea of analysis because I feel the methodology I chose sucks out the enthusiasm that defines Steampunk.

My research peers suggested that I listen to my interviews again as if I were listening to a story. Where are the climaxes, the lulls, the plot twists? This definitely works for me much better because I am a narrative soul, and when describing the interviews to my thesis adviser I was narrating, rather than reporting. As such, my plan is to listen through the five interviews I have, prepare for my interview tomorrow, and write insights onto Post-Its so I can ask people to help me with an affinity diagram. The affinity diagram will help me abstract the main insights, and strengthen my theory.

In the meantime, I should stop blogging and continue grading my third of 55 undergrad reports. The joys of being a teaching assistant! Later, kids.

Interview Subjects

It occurred to me that I’ve never really outlined who I hope to interview. At least, not on the blog. I’ve set up a LiveJournal account to get insight into the huge LiveJournal Steampunk community, so I’m going to post the same basic introduction here that I posted there. For posterity’s sake and all that jazz.

I’m looking to speak to the following groups of persons involved in the Steampunk culture:

  • Artist
    Skilled in imaginative, non-functioning art meant for personal satisfaction
  • Cosplayer
    Skilled in creating imaginative fashion, assuming a fictional identity while dressing the part
  • Commentator
    Interested in reporting trends, new projects; the “town criers” of the community
  • Inventor
    Skilled in imaginative, potentially functioning art meant for experimentation and/or exploration
  • Merchant
    Interested in receiving payment for services and/or products
  • Scholar
    Interested in studying the phenomenon of Steampunk itself

What is the goal?

The goal is to create a holistic academic understanding of the act of creative appropriation, specifically, how involvement with Steampunk reflects and/or influences your personal identity. A potential outcome could be a design framework to help professionals design for such opportunities.

I hope to observe and/or interview at least two-to-three persons from each of the previously mentioned categories. I hope to observe the creative practices of artists, cosplayers, and inventors. I intend to interview all categories of persons. If you happen to live within 100 miles of Bloomington, IN, I would love to observe your creative practices, if possible.

Methodology for Analyzing Interview Data

I’d like to blog about some of my insights in terms of commonalities and differences between the four interviews I have completed. The goal, of course, is to determine the reflexive nature between personal identity and the act of creating/appropriating an object into one’s life.


Most important at this point is how I’m analyzing the interviews. Because interviews are qualitative data, my job as a researcher is to make sense of, and interpret, the information in terms of the meaning my interview subjects bring. Through my interpretation, I should be able to make abstracted connections between the interview subjects. This will help inform the nuances of my proposed design guidelines.

I’m using a four-point methodology of each interview, as follows.

Initial Background Reading

Upon finding the person and getting their interest to interview with me, I read whatever is available about them online. This is to help me understand who they are and to categorize their involvement with Steampunk.

Upon categorization, I look over my questions to determine which would be more applicable to the person.


The interviews are held over Skype, GTalk, and phone. I am recording them using my FlipCam Ultra so that I can burn the data to DVD-Rs for archiving. The discs are labeled as P#, the number being the cumulative number of persons I contact, in the order I contact them. This helps ensure privacy, as the identifying data relating to P# is held elsewhere.

The interviews begin with me telling the subject a little about myself and my study, so they have some context and feel comfortable with me. I then invite them to speak about themselves, first just in general, and then as the interview goes along, more specifically relating their personal history with Steampunk.

This means that I ask questions that relate to how the person found Steampunk, why they are interested in it, etc. As a researcher, I attempt to find connections between their other hobbies/habits/professions that don’t have anything to do with Steampunk, in order to determine how Steampunk works (or doesn’t work) as a case study for the subject’s personal identity formation.


After the interview, I look over my notes and copy the interview data to DVD-R discs. I leave the data for a day or two to distance myself from the person and my memories of interacting with them. I return to the data to transcribe the audio into a transcript so I can look for patterns.  When determining patterns, I ask such questions as:

  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their personal history?
  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their personal interests and hobbies?
  • How does their involvement with Steampunk relate to their profession, if at all?

Comparative Analysis

As I synthesize patterns of information, I relate the patterns across persons and categories of persons. How do the insights from the merchant interview relate to the insights from the cosplayer interview? What about the inventor interview insights? How do they compare and contrast? What can I learn by the similarities and differences?

Then I abstract out to the community and culture. How do the actions of the individual help shape the community? How is this relationship reflexive, i.e. how does the community help shape the actions of the individual?

All of this leads back to how the creative act of appropriation reflects personal identity and how personal identity is reflected in acts of creative appropriation.

Definition of Identity

According to my (albeit limited) readings, identity is a hot topic in the psychology, sociology, anthropology, folklore, and other realms of study. This makes sense, right? Because how we define our sense of self  potentially defines how we see/interpret/comprehend the world around us; it colors our actions and scopes our interests. Identity and sense of self are big. However, I’ve come to realize that identity is in no way the same thing as sense of self.

Identity is a representation of that self, as far as I can tell, but not the self itself. If you get what I mean.

Common definitions

All that aside, I’ve begun working on my definition of identity, the same way I went about doing it for appropriation. So first, the common definitions of identity are as follows:

  • Merriam-Webster: (1a) Sameness of essential or generic character in different instances. (1b) Sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing : oneness. (2a) The distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality. (2b) The relation established by psychological identification.
  • The Free Dictionary: (1) The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known. (2) The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. (3) The quality or condition of being the same as something else. (4) The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity; individuality. (5)  Information, such as an identification number, used to establish or prove a person’s individuality, as in providing access to a credit account.
  • Wikipedia (philosophy): identity (also called sameness) is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from entities of a different type. Or, in layman’s terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different.
  • Wikipedia (social science): an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.

According to these definitions, identity is about the individual; about the unique properties, qualities, characteristics that make one autonomous. Okay, I can go with that.

Academic definitions

Then I started looking at more academic sources of information.

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Your identity in this sense consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties). Presumably it is one you have only contingently—you might have had a different identity from the one you in fact have—and one that you might have for a while and then lose: you could acquire a new individual identity, or perhaps even get by without one.
  • According to Markus and Kitayama [1], self has two major “constructuals,” you can have an “independent” view of the self, or an “interdependent” view of self, which can “influence” and “determine” the “very nature of existence” (224). Essentially, it boils down to this (as found in summary table on pg 230):
    • Independent: internally-defined through thoughts and feelings, separate from social context, bounded and stable, determined to be unique, etc
    • Interdependent: externally-defined through status and relationships, connected with social context, flexible and variable, determined to fit in, etc
  • Oring [2] has a similar idea as the common definitions by stating that “personal identity is shaped from experiences that are unique to the individual as well as from those common to a collection of individuals” (212).

I have two books coming from Amazon that should also help me define identity: Hebdige’s book on subculture, and Turkle’s book on identity in the age of the internet. So I’m excited to read those.


In the meantime, while waiting for these books, what are my thoughts on (personal) identity? Well, it seems to me that identity must and is interdependent as well as independent. When alone, I think, see, interpret myself and my actions as one way. However, once in a social setting (i.e. I am no longer completely alone), I begin to interpret my thoughts and actions in ways I assume others may interpret them. As such, my identity and understanding of myself shifts.

That said, I agree that identity is a collection of characteristics, skills, qualities, etc, that make one an entity, as with the common definitions. Since I also agree with the academic definitions about interdependency, especially as we are never truly alone but are members of the culture in which we live, my definition of identity must keep this in mind. There is something to be said about having a collection of qualities, experiences, etc, which are unique to an individual but also to a community of individuals, as Oring states.

Working definition of identity

All right. So it’s now time for me to bite the bullet and determine a working definition of identity. I am mainly focused on personal identity, rather than individual identity or communal identity, though they do have influencing roles, so there is that. I do believe identity is about being unique, yet influenced by the community/culture. So my definition of identity, in terms of this capstone project about the overlap between identity and appropriation, goes something like this:

Identity is the unique set of experiences, qualities, characteristics, thoughts, behaviors, etc, that recognizably define an individual or collection of individuals, and the relationships occuring between them.

Phew. Here’s hoping that Hebdige and Turkle have definitions that similarly relate! Those of you who took the time to read this massive post, what are your thoughts? Those of you who have a stronger anthropology, folklore, psychology, and/or sociology background, am I on the right track? What are the seminal papers on identity and the self in your field?


  1. Markus, H., and Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. In Psychological Review 98 (2), 224-253.
  2. Oring, E. 1994. The arts, artifacts, and artifices of identity. In The Journal of American Folklore 107 (424), 211-233.

Uh oh. Personal Identity?

It has just occurred to me that I never defined what I mean by personal identity. I am giving a status presentation on Tuesday at 7 PM, and it is Sunday at 7:45 PM. How many papers can I read about personal identity in order to form my own definition while also working on a presentation, attending class, and being an AI?

Hi. I’m Binaebi Akah, and I get sh!t done.* So don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Just had to admit to the world that I kind of forgot to crystallize oh, I don’t know, a half of my project.


If you have any papers, names, etc, that could help, please send them along!

*I do this by going into homework-berserker-mode for a specified amount of time where I accomplish more than seems humanly possible and then pass out in bed for approximately the same amount of tme. You do not want to get in my way when I do this. You do, however, want to take video as I roar about town on my dirigible, my brass goggles glaring in the sunlight as my scarf whips behind me.