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The latest installment in the Star Wars saga, "The Force Awakens," opens on December 18th. At this writing, questions and rumors regarding plot twists and the fate of familiar characters swirl through the press and social media, but one matter seems certain: box-office records will be detonated faster than a Death Star in a climactic Rebel attack.
For nearly four decades, the six original films, and their ongoing multimedia spinoffs and inexhaustible merchandising, have cultivated varying levels of obsession in fans of all ages. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the pop-cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars, and what it tells us about humankind's abiding need for heroes and for the shared narrative of mythology and religion (not to mention how that need can be commercially exploited) has also attracted the attention of the scholarly community.
To mark the release of "Episode VII," we turn to a selection of academic research devoted to the worlds of Star Wars. A search of the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database and its indexed store of 12,000-plus scientific and scholarly journals produced nearly 1,000 scholarly papers published since the first film's 1977 debut. Discounting the Ronald Reagan-era glut of 1980s reports invoking the nickname "Star Wars," in reference to the US space-based Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile system and its attendant political flap, still leaves scores of reports examining the imaginary film universe.
In the accompanying table, the 10 selected reports are listed, informally sequenced according to how many times each has been cited—that is, read and footnoted by other scientists, as a mark of influence and impact. As we noted in a previous survey of academic studies devoted to the Beatles, citation totals in the social sciences and arts and humanities tend to be smaller than those found in biomedicine and other comparatively crowded, active fields. The numbers for these papers are no exception. In fact, several have not yet been cited at all. Then again, a few of these reports are relatively recent—some published in 2015—and will likely accrue citations as more time elapses.
At #1 on the list, the most-cited paper (aided by its advantageous setting in the busy realm of materials science), with 15 citations, actually starts small—very small, at the molecular level. Demonstrating the ability to join molecules in a precise, self-assembled configuration, a US-Japanese team produced a structure with a central sphere bracketed by two vertical, panel-like appendages: a nano-sized version of an iconic Imperial Tie Fighter. Far from frivolous, as the team notes, the design affords the combining of compounds that have application in harvesting energy from light.
Other studies delve into the saga's characters from a psychiatric or psychological perspective. Does the behavior of young Anakin Skywalker, prior to his metamorphosis into Darth Vader, correspond to the anger, social isolation, violent impulses and other symptoms of the clinical condition known as borderline personality disorder? Can Jar Jar Binks and his erratic actions introduce students to the concept of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Are the acquisitive Jawas kleptomaniacs, or hoarders, or both?
The historical parallels between the Galactic Empire and ancient Rome come in for scrutiny, as do the saga's religious aspects—as embodied both in the narrative and in the boundless devotion of fans. (Surely few theological arguments have engendered more bitterness than the question of whether "Hans shot first.")
Finally, one report transcends psychology, history and metaphysics and will resound with all the saga's fans: it examines the complex interactive behavior of people waiting in long lines to see a Star Wars movie.
The newest installment is certain to deepen and extend the store of characters, themes and motifs that have intrigued scholars for decades, and academics will no doubt continue to publish wide-ranging analyses. May the Force be with them.
Sith and That:
A Selection of Scholarly Research Inspired by Star Wars
Listed by number of citations recorded in Thomson Reuters Web of Science. Where available, excerpts from the works’ abstracts have been included.
|1||F. D'Souza, et al., "A supramolecular Star Wars Tie Fighter Ship: Electron transfer in a self-assembled triad composed zinc naphthalocyanines and a fullerene," Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines, 9 (10-11): 698-705, 2005.
From the abstract: "Photoactive supramolecules composed of electron donor and electron acceptor entities are important for light energy harvesting applications. In the present study, a Star Wars Tie Fighter Ship-shaped supramolecular triad was constructed by self-assembling two zinc naphthalocyanines to a fulleropyrrolidine bearing two pyridine entities using an axial coordination approach."
|2||E. Bui, et al., "Is Anakin Skywalker suffering from borderline personality disorder?" Psychiatry Research, 185 (1-2): 299, 2011.
"Anakin Skywalker, one of the main characters in the "Star Wars" films, meets the criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD). This finding is interesting for it may partly explain the commercial success of these movies among adolescents and be used in educating the general public and medical students about BPD symptoms."
|3||F.N. Brady, "Lining Up for Star Wars tickets: Some ruminations on ethics and economics based on an internet study of behavior in queues," Journal of Business Ethics, 38: 157-65, 2002.
"Queues may represent business ethics in microcosm: they provide an opportunity to study in a smaller package the fundamental ethical tension in economic activity between self-interest and civility in the context of uncertainty and stress. In May 1999 people began to form lines to purchase tickets to the new Star Wars movie, "The Phantom Menace." This paper reviews responses to a questionnaire on the internet regarding experiences in those lines."
|4||J.C. Lyden, "Whose film is it, anyway? Canonicity and authority in Star Wars fandom," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (3): 775-86, 2012.
"If there is any popular culture phenomenon that can be referred to as ‘religion,’ it would be the fandom associated with the Star Wars films. In the 2001 census in many English-speaking countries, a number of people identified their religion as "Jediism"...More significant, perhaps, is the number of an activities related to Star Wars which might express some of the ‘markers’ of religion, such as communal identity, a system of beliefs and values, myths and ritual practices. One cannot attribute all of these to marketing, as a number of fan activities clearly do not originate from corporations such as Lucasfilm but are generated by the fans themselves."
|5||A.P.S. Guerrero, M.J. Jamora, "The fall and redemption of people and systems: Potential lessons from the ‘Star Wars’ saga," Academic Psychiatry, 31 (6): 485-90, 2007.
"Through an analysis of the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker and the Galactic Republic of the Star Wars saga, educators may be able to convey valuable lessons to students learning about child and adolescent psychiatry and to junior psychiatrists learning about psychiatric administration and liaison. Specifically, educators may be able to convey that when caring for patients who have succumbed or are at risk of succumbing to ‘darkness’ in the modern psychiatric sense (e.g., violence and criminal behavior), it is important to recognize risk factors that can lead to successful "salvation..."
|6||M.B. Charles, "Remembering and restoring the Republic: Star Wars and Rome," Classical World, 108 (2): 281-98, 2015.
"This essay argues that one of modern Western cultures most-watched film series, the Star Wars double trilogy, derives much of its meaning by tapping into the age-old discourse of political freedom versus dictatorial oppression, which is at the core of early imperial reimaginings of the Roman Republic. Yet George Lucas’s films reveal that the longed-for era of freedom was hardly that at all, just as the era of libertas longed for in the Roman Principate was similarly illusory, particularly for lower echelons of Roman Society."
|7||S.H. Friedman, R.C.W. Hall, "Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology," Australasian Psychiatry, 23 (4): 432-4, 2015.
"The pop culture phenomenon of Star Wars has been underutilized as a vehicle to teach about psychiatry. It is well known to students, registrars, and consultants alike. New Star Wars films are expected out in 2015, which will likely lead to further popularity. The purpose of this article is to illustrate psychopathology and psychiatric themes demonstrated by supporting characters, and ways they can be used to teach concepts in a hypothetical yet memorable way. Using the minor characters as a springboard for teaching has the benefit of students not having preconceived notions about them. Characters can be used to approach teaching about ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania [etc.]."
|8||S.G. Ellerhoff, "Luke Skywalker’s Individuation," Jung Journal – Culture & Psyche, 9 (3): 44-54, 2015.
"...In these films of space fantasy, an energy field uniting all living things, referred to as ‘the Force," is embraced and manipulated by certain adept individuals...In this ongoing story, practitioners of the Force understand it as split into a duality: the Sith adhere to its dark side whereas the Jedi uphold the light... The Emperor turns out to be the grand master of the dark side, and Luke, in facing him, is nearly destroyed. Young Skywalker survives, but his heroic act is not rejection of the dark side but an individuated integration with it."
|9||C. Feichtinger, "Space Buddhism: The adoption of Buddhist motifs in Star Wars," Contemporary Buddhism, 15 (1): 28-43, 2014.
"The Star Wars film series has been an unprecedented commercial success in the history of cinema and has made a huge cultural impact. This is not least because of its creator George Lucas making wide use of religious and mythological elements, in his search for a new spiritual and more guidance for a young audience. In this process, Lucas also adopts Buddhist symbols, values and ideas in his concept of the order of the Jedi and their spirituality. These include sitting meditation, mindfulness, compassion, interdependence, or the overcoming of attachment."
|10||R. Corvino, "Star Wars, limb loss, and what it means to be human," ed. by K. Allan, Disability in Science Fiction," Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 101-3, 2013.
"In the Star Wars films, prosthetic augments and devices provide a technological ‘fix’ to the ‘problem’ of disability…One example—and perhaps the most iconic to fans—is the replacement limb that Luke receives after his hand is cut off by Darth Vader during their duel in The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V). However, the creation of a body that blends man and machine—a hybrid body—evokes a struggle as old as civilization itself in the West."