For a fleeting moment, I am blind. Standing frozen in the dark, I am afraid to take even a single step while waiting for my pupillary light reflex to kick in. Happy voices murmur in the deep darkness that envelops me. As I begin to dimly make out my surroundings, I look up to a black sky with a billion celestial objects bisected by the Milky Way and circumscribed by the mountain peaks that surround me. Another moonless, mid-summer night and I’ve returned to the field to continue a multi-year ethnographic study of North American avocational astronomers at their annual “star party.”
For those unfamiliar, star parties are ritualized stargazing events sponsored and hosted by recreational astronomy clubs that bring participants together in remote locations to observe the night sky. Part science, part party, star parties serve as a way of connecting with others around a telescope. Beyond simply forms of serious leisure, star parties also serve as venues for informal learning and opportunities for community-building.
Dark Nights, Red Lights
Smaller star parties typically draw a dozen or so observers and are often organized for the financial benefit of local astronomy clubs or school groups. These are typically only one-night events. Larger star parties can last a week or more and attract dozens or even hundreds of participants from across the country and around the world. Many of these larger star parties are annual events that have become part of the cultural landscape of amateur astronomy in the United States and are more than just stargazing. At larger star parties, it is increasingly common to have events scheduled during the daylight hours that include exhibitions of home-made telescopes and telescope-building, scientific lectures, astronomical equipment swap meets, tours of astronomical observatories, and even fundraising raffles. Sociable, but controlled, participants’ behavior at star parties is strictly regulated by rules established by the organizing group which dictate nearly every aspect of the star party from the times one is allowed to run electrical generators to where participants can park and drive to what kinds of lights (red lights only) are allowed on the star party grounds after dark. Consumption of alcohol, while not prohibited, is discreet. Under these conditions, star parties thrive even if they really have little to do with the contemporary scientific work of astronomy.
What Am I Learning?
Several years of data gathering via participant observation has taught me much about how the North American avocational astronomy functions as a community of practice. This report, however, examines just one of the preliminary conclusions I’m currently exploring: forms of participation and authority.
Participation in a star party is ostensibly achieved simply by showing up, paying the registration fee, wandering out onto the observing field, and looking up. Before long, some gregarious telescope owner will likely ask if you would like to take a peek at the rings of Saturn, M33, the Triangulum galaxy, or the star cluster Coma Bernices through his or her telescope. The social nature of the party breeds amity and sharing of equipment and information. However, the forms of participation demonstrated by individuals at star parties can be complex. For example, while star party participants are predominantly white, well-educated, upper middle-class males, the darkness and intentional social nature of the event seems to transcend conventional boundaries of race, class, and gender, allowing education, age, and experience to play more central roles in participation and forms of authority at star party events.
Full and active star party participation involves a subtle process of social interaction that requires participants to skillfully negotiate issues of practical and knowledge-based authority. Scientific knowledge, educational achievement, and professional astronomer status holds high value, but there are few professional astronomers in attendance. Absent such conventional status markers, it is up to the participants to sort out who’s who. Often this comes in the form of understated interpersonal challenges. These challenges of another participant’s technical knowledge can be as subtle as asking, “Do you know what that is?” or “Have you ever seen that before?” as someone looks through the telescope eyepiece at a celestial object. Many first encounters begin with recitations of what might be called one’s “observational achievements.” That is, short monologues of celestial objects they’ve observed, how long they’ve been stargazing, and other sorts of astronomy-related personal stats. The goal of such interactions seems to be to establish your astronomical authority as quickly as possible.
In some cases, authority emerges more through practice than principle. As a result, some star party social interactions are often no less exhibitions of technical or practical expertise than they are intellectual information exchanges. The functionality of a homemade telescope or the relative quality or clarity of the images those telescopes produce are just as fundamental a basis for the negotiation of authority as are intellectual abilities. The skill demonstrated in building and using a telescope to locate and then track a stellar object is second only to knowing the name, Messier object number, and astrophysical particulars of the object.
Combined, these forms of knowledge–practical and scientific–form the basis for what might be called craft authority among star party participants, which seems to differ substantially from socio-cultural authority as it entails forms of authority based on more familiar representations like gender, educational achievement, or economic status. Craft authority is respected and sought out. In this way, star parties are excellent example of contemporary scientific communities of practice, which Wenger, et al. defines as:
a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. (2002, 4)
Studying star parties as scientific communities of practice is just one way of looking at people in what has become a popular venue for disconnecting, albeit temporarily, from the earthly Webs, worries, and woes of modern life and connecting with the Universe. My ethnographic research effort seeks to understand the nature of that disconnection/connection and, more broadly, how the community of practice model might be a useful tool for social scientists in characterizing and understanding other such avocational and occupational communities of science.
Wenger, Etienne, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder. 2002. Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
See also: Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.