Psychology students, professor study furry community

A pair of psychology students and their professor are helping members of the furry community tell their tale.


            Dr. Rebecca McHugh, assistant professor of developmental psychology, and two of her students, Mikayla Brinker of Cyclone and Anne Frick of Chambersburg, spent four days in July at Anthrocon, a convention held each year in Pittsburgh celebrating depictions of anthropomorphized characters.


            Since then, they have studied the conversations they had with participants at the convention. Frick presented their research methods at the Penn-York Undergraduate Research Conference last month, and all three are working on papers about the community they met at the convention, the largest annual gathering of furries in the world.


            The furry community is a fandom of cartoons, animation, puppetry, illustrations and writing that involve animals with human attributes, but there is a common misconception about the furry community - that it involves a sexual fetish.


            For that reason, those in the furry community guard their privacy and choose carefully to whom they reveal their interests. It made Anthrocon the perfect place for McHugh to conduct research.


            McHugh's research interests lie in what psychologists call “visibility management” -- when, how and why people choose to reveal certain stigmatizing elements of their lives to others.


By its very nature, however, it is difficult to study how people reveal hidden characteristics because those people are hard to identify and find. A convention setting provided a chance to meet such people.


            McHugh was familiar with Anthrocon from having lived in Pittsburgh, where the convention takes place annually. Here, she thought, was a chance to study 7,000 people who may or may not be “out” as furries at home.


            As students interested in pursuing master's degrees in psychology, Brinker and Frick had both asked McHugh about the possibility of doing research with her. When McHugh agreed, the three designed the study they would like to do, and the students got a front row seat to dealing with details such as getting necessary approvals.


            The three worked with Anthrocon organizers and another group of researchers who had been conducting quantitative research at the convention for several years. They had to have their research approved by the university's Institutional Review Board, which regulates the ethics of dealing with human research subjects.


            When they arrived at Anthrocon, the three split up to interview individuals. They asked people how and why they came to the convention, what got them interested in furry culture, who in their lives knew about their interest and who didn't and why, and if they had any advice to those coming into the community.


            They then conducted a group session that was so popular, Frick and McHugh led separate discussions while Brinker spoke with those outside the session who had not been able to get in.


            What they found, the researchers said, was a warm and creative community that defied some of their own misconceptions.


            Many participants develop their own “fursonas,” fur characters, and some workshops at the convention revolve around acting or making costumes. The 1,000-costume fursuit parade is a convention highlight. Participants also dress in their fursuits for photo sessions inside and outside the convention hall.


            Another group of conventioneers focuses primarily on art, and there is a giant hall of vendors selling sketches, paintings and sculptures as well as costume parts such as suits, ears, tails, clothes or badges for fursonas to wear.


            After the convention, Frick received a summer undergraduate research project grant that allowed her to work for the rest of the summer transcribing the team's interviews and creating a database. As she transcribed, she tagged information that could be added to the database or mapped in a way to show trends.


            One trend that showed up was “CSI,” as in the popular television crime drama, which ran an episode in 2003 portraying furries as sexual deviants who wanted to have sex in costumes. Many of those interviewed said that the airing of this episode was when and how misconceptions about the community became mainstream.


            Brinker is working on a senior capstone project using the interview database. She is interested in how people chose to construct their fursona and whom they have told about it.


            McHugh is working on papers for research journals and hopes to return to Anthrocon in 2018 to conduct more interviews, possibly with Brinker and Frick.


            The two undergraduates said the experience designing the research, shepherding it through the approval process, conducting interviews, transcribing, and cataloguing the results leave them feeling prepared for graduate school.


-- Anthrocon images courtesy of Flickr page Exkhaniber.