How People Are Defining ‘Nerd’

July 31st, 2007

Journalista links to a recent New York Times Magazine article by Benjamin Nugent, “Who’s a nerd, anyway?” The author has a book coming out next spring titled American Nerd: The Story of My People, though this piece focuses on the core thesis of Mary Bucholtz’s nerd research, who has a book of her own on this topic in progress. Bucholtz’s thesis is that nerd identity can be understood through linguistic practice, and it is a “hyperwhite” identity, rejecting the slang of Black culture.

This rejection may be both laudable and problematic, as the NYT article explains:

By cultivating an identity perceived as white to the point of excess, nerds deny themselves the aura of normality that is usually one of the perks of being white. Bucholtz sees something to admire here. In declining to appropriate African-American youth culture, thereby “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.” You might say they know that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having. On the other hand, the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students,” even if the nerds were involved in political activities like protesting against the dismantling of affirmative action in California schools. If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.

This is an interesting argument, but I’m going to have to agree with Journalista’s Dirk Deppey in most of his response:

Of course, nerdiness is also an absence of redneck culture, Jewish culture, Hispanic culture, Native-American culture, old-money culture and any of hundreds of other kinds of culture. Likewise, — though I’m sure this is something of a stretch for cultural-studies types — one shouldn’t discount the possibility that nerd culture is pro-something, rather than anti-black culture, or that it may in fact have nothing whatsoever to do with race. And come on, statements like “a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having” are, if anything, antithetical to practical nerdishness: Just ask the Japanese. (Isn’t Quentin Tarantino’s worship of 1970s blacksploitation films part of what makes him a nerd?) Still, don’t let any of this stop you from seeing life exclusively through a simple black/white dichotomy, Ms. Bucholtz!

Dirk calls out Mary for being narrow in her scope, though in her defense, a cultural phenomenon this big needs to be reined in somehow. She’s writing about nerd identity with a prevailing focus on race; Lori Kendall writes about nerd identity with a focus on gender and computing; I’m writing about nerd identity with a broader focus on media use; and we all refer to one another’s areas of focus. Nobody that I’m aware of has attempted to focus on age, though there’s a huge gap in the academic literature between those writing about geek/nerd identity among young students and those writing about the same terms as applied to adults. (I’m going to touch upon this somewhat in my dissertation by asking people how they got into their media interests and whether they were nerds as kids, but I won’t be doing comparative research among children.) Arguably, the whole point of academic research is in the accumulation and triangulation of knowledge, so it’s not like any one of us is going to get it completely right in a single book.

I do agree that race figures somehow into nerd identity—how can you argue otherwise, after viewing the trailer for a documentary about white geeks semi-ironically appropriating hip-hop culture? I also think that it’s good that Mary Bucholtz is exploring the race angle further, as most peer reviewed literature on nerds/geeks has focused on gender to the exclusion of race. Nevertheless, I’d argue that race is not the defining aspect of nerd culture among most adult members, and it may not even be as central among kids as the NYT article implies. It’s true that “African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school,” but most recent literature on this topic that I’m aware of suggests that this is the case for kids of all racial and ethnic groups.

This is why it’s very hard for me to answer people who ask me what “geek culture” is, or how to define what a “nerd” is. I think that “whiteness” and “masculinity” are two of the more important concepts that shape how we think about and perform nerd identity/geek culture, but each is only part of large picture. The part of that picture that interests me the most (at present) is seeing which aspects make it to the products and events that are explicitly or implicitly marketed to self-identified geeks and nerds: clothing at ThinkGeek and J!NX, events like Comic Con (“nerd prom”) and the Penny Arcade Expo (with musical acts about “the geek experience”), and music like nerdcore hip-hop and lab nerd rock.

These things implicate media use above all else as the one common denominator, though it’s important to read between the lines regarding who doesn’t make the cut as a legitimate geek. There’s stuff in here for women, but it’s the minority; maybe even less explicitly for nonwhite groups; and surprisingly little for those whose geekiness doesn’t fit neatly into a media market. Someone asked me at Comic Con last weekend where “biology nerds” fit into my study, and to be honest, they don’t make much of an appearance. I took a photo of a guy in a shirt that said “Plant Geek” this past weekend because it’s so atypical (and also because I happen to be dating a plant geek who I think will be excited to see it). The shirt was homemade by his school’s local horticulture club, not sold through any of the major nerd sites. There’s just not the same kind of market for that sort of geekiness.

Between the two forthcoming books mentioned in the above article, the dissertation I’m working on (which I hope to turn into a book eventually), and any other upcoming works on geek/nerd identity, it sounds like this topic is going to see some attention from a variety of perspectives in the near future. Over time, I’m hoping to see an even broader range of focus than what we see now: discussions of how geek identity develops with age, consideration of personality and psychology (taboo though these may be among some cultural researchers), intercultural/international conceptions of geek/nerd identities, and more. I’m not proposing an entire subfield of “geek studies”—but if you write a book or article on this, I do expect that it will have an audience, and I’ll be among those readers.

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16 Responses to “How People Are Defining ‘Nerd’”

  1. Sarah Elkins Says:

    “a cultural phenomenon this big needs to be reined in somehow”

    For what reason?

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    Sorry, just to clarify, I meant that a cultural phenomenon this big needs to be reined in somehow if (a) you mean to fit it in a single, cohesive, readable book and (b) you are conducting long-term, immersive, data-based research. These are practical considerations based on what the book market and a single person’s schedule can sustain, not actual conceptual/theoretical limitations.

    I think I went into my own project thinking that I could tackle a giant chunk of the history and present usages of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ and I do still mean to take a broader view than most have to date. I’m getting deep enough into the research, however, that I’m realizing that I’d have to do a whole series of articles and books if I wanted to do justice to everything that interests me on the topic.

  3. Sarah Elkins Says:

    Thanks, I had (mis)read it to mean you were referring to reining in the cultural phenomenon itself because it was too big (geekery/nerdery getting too popular), probably slopping over from my negative reaction to Bucholtz’s thesis.

    I can’t even keep up with all the stuff that’s *very* interesting (to me), not just mildly interesting!

  4. expat Says:

    Nerdism (nerdery?) is “hyperwhite”? It was always my impression that East Asians and South Asians were nerdier(on average) than whites.The hyperwhite theory must also contend that gun-toting, deer hunting redneck NASCAR fans are not very white.

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    Mary Bucholtz actually addresses this to some extent. In her 2001 article, for example, she writes:

    This is not to say that individuals who were not white never engaged in nerdy practices, but that when they did they could be culturally understood as aligned with whiteness. This phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that in U.S. culture generally, Asian Americans are ideologically positioned as the “model minority”—that is, the racialized group that most closely approaches “honorary” whiteness—in part because they are ideologically positioned as the nerdy minority, skilled in scientific and technical fields but utterly uncool (see Chun, this issue, for research that challenges this ideology). In general, then, white nerds were identifying not against blackness but against trendy whiteness, yet any dissociation from white youth trends entailed a dissociation from the black cultural forms from which those trends largely derive. (pp. 86–7)

    Ron Eglash addresses the Asian connection to nerd identity more explicitly in his article “Race, Sex and Nerds,” which I believe you can read in its entirety here.

    I think the key concept here isn’t of all whiteness per se, but of a particular brand of hegemonic (i.e., dominant) whiteness, kind of like how Lori Kendall says that nerds have a certain non-hegemonic masculinity (with some power accorded through computer mastery, but still considered physically weak and nonsexual). Nascar fans are presumably engaging in another, less “trendy” kind of whiteness. The whole black/white dichotomy may still be oversimplified, but I hope this helps to clarify somewhat.

  6. Church Says:

    “…the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school.”

    Huh? Nerd cliques are shutting out black crypto-nerds? (How would they know?) And this is ‘disturbing’ because other black kids stigmatize them if they’re openly intellectual. Which is pretty much how you get your geek card in the first place.

    I hope this is just the NYT mangling the original article, but I suspect not. I’m still trying to wrap my head around “hyperwhite.” (What does a hyperwhite person eat? Lutefisk with BBQ?)

  7. Connor Moran Says:

    If anyone is curious enough to look at the actual research in question, it’s available for free in PDF form:

  8. Church Says:

    Thanks for the link, Connor. That was (.) interesting.

    Sadly, the NYT got it pretty much right. She’s got a hammer and is pointing out that everything is a nail.

    Fun, though, to see “Bob, Conqueror of the Universe” appear without remark.

  9. Connor Moran Says:

    “She’s got a hammer and is pointing out that everything is a nail.”

    Would you care to elaborate?

  10. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks to all for the comments. If you haven’t seen it yet, please let me direct you to Connor’s interesting write-up on this topic. Mary Bucholtz’s 1999 article related to this topic may also be of interest. I have to reserve judgment on the more recent research until I have a chance to read it; my take on that first article is that it’s an interesting initial foray into exploring nerd identity, but I need to see more than a single day of conversation analysis to get a good sense of what these students’ nerd club is about. (I suspect that’s what I’ll find when I read the new stuff.)

  11. Church Says:

    Thanks for the 1999 article link. At first glance, it looks a bit more interesting, but there’s still stuff in there that I wouldn’t expect to find in an undergrad paper (e.g. describing novels as silly (p. 11))

  12. Sarah Elkins Says:

    Bucholtz’s 1999 study lost me at the second page, where she said “I argue that nerd identity, contrary to popular perceptions, is not a stigma imposed by others, but a purposefully chosen alternative”. How about, it can be both/either?

    Maybe she clarified later on, but I’m not going to spend the time to finish a paper that oversimplifies that way. There’s better stuff out there to read.

    Thanks for the link to Connor’s write-up; more comments over there.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    as far as im concerned a nerd is a person that is made fun of for being a smart indivual and likes to play videogames alot so I guess that makes me a nerd lol.

    and a far as the blackness and whiteness goes. im black and I love pc chris,s music whats wrong with that? id shouldent matter if you black or not its about the music and life style any body can be a nerd

  14. Jason Tocci Says:

    Sounds fair enough to me. I think there’s a widespread assumption that a lack of representation (of women, of ethnic minorities, etc.) in a group means that such people are actively made to feel unwelcome in that group. Personally, I think this has been pretty well established in the case of women in IT. I honestly haven’t met many Black nerds who have anything to say about the interaction between nerdity of race, though, so I really appreciate your comment.

  15. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Black Nerds vs. Nerds Who Happen to be Black Says:

    […] can be made more “cool” through integration of elements from urban black cultures. Mary Bucholtz seemed to argue (to some contentious responses) that white nerdiness is defined in opposition to such […]

  16. SFG Says:

    An absence of Jewish culture? What about the whole Magneto-as-Holocaust-survivor and genocide-of-mutants subplots? What about the whole bit about Superman being called ‘Kal-El’ and being sent as a child away from his dying planet (=destroyed Ashkenazi communities)?

    How about Japanese culture? Is there an absence of Japanese culture in nerd culture? Geeks will buy Pocky sticks just because they’re Japanese.

    Some cultures are nerdier than others, usually ones that value scholarship (Jewish, Asian, Indian come to mind). People from those cultures tend to be better-represented in nerd culture.