Notes on David Anderegg’s Nerds

March 7th, 2008

I just read David Anderegg’s new book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. It’s a very quick read—I got through it in two sittings, taking notes—but rather interesting and engaging. I noted in an earlier comment here that it seemed to lack academic references, but in fact these are at the end, with no superscript numbers in the text to indicate which claims have corresponding endnotes. As a result, it reads much more like a journalistic account than an academic book (though the author certainly employs his own observational data and theoretical background). Basically, this book is meant to convince parents to help eradicate the nerd/geek stereotype among middle schoolers, and to give some helpful tips to parents of beleaguered nerds and geeks in the meantime.

Dr. Anderegg analyzes a variety of statistics and cultural objects in attempting to come up with a comprehensive account of what behaviors get kids labeled as geeks and nerds (sometimes reaching conclusions very similar to those of my own dissertation!). This includes discussion of things like nerds’ interest in “magic” and fantasy fiction, but focuses most of all on why kids might feel like they can’t (or shouldn’t) be good at science and math. His strongest arguments, I think, are those that draw upon his direct experience and knowledge as a child psychologist. His discussion of the connection (or lack thereof) between geek stereotypes and Asperger syndrome is the most compelling I’ve read, and all the quotes from conversations with kids and parents really help give a sense of how non-nerds go out of their way not to be seen as nerds.

With the exception of a brief note in the conclusion about a 17-year-old who considers herself a member of a “Geek Club,” the book mostly considers “nerd identity” as synonymous with “the nerd stereotype”—something negative that we need to do away with. This means, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there isn’t really much consideration of geek/nerd identity and culture as something celebrated among adults; it’s something kids mostly grow out of, the author suggests, before they go on to make tons of money. In some ways, though, this was just a necessary limitation in scope, and I’m hoping to help fill in the gaps in this area myself.

If you happen to read this book yourself, I’d be very curious of your take on it. Please feel free to leave comments on this post or shoot me an email at jason at geekstudies dot org.

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10 Responses to “Notes on David Anderegg’s Nerds

  1. Matt S Says:

    Can you please expand a little bit on what you mean by this line?

    “Basically, this book is meant to convince parents to help eradicate the nerd/geek stereotype among middle schoolers, and to give some helpful tips to parents of beleaguered nerds and geeks in the meantime.”

    Based on the excerpt that Church found awhile ago and this comment I’m getting the feeling that this book is almost sort of anti-geek or something along the lines of “why kids need to conform to social norms”.

    If you can expand on the mind set the that the author is approaching his subject with I would appreciate it.

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    He’s not anti-nerd so much as railing against anti-intellectualism, and sees the nerd/geek stereotype as a manifestation of anti-intellectualism more than as a consciously-adopted and celebrated dimension of adult identity. It’s a complicated stereotype, with good and bad sides to it, he takes pains to point out, but kids don’t see the nuance: What they get are the simpler messages, like “being good at math means you won’t ever get laid.”

    Overall, then, Dr. Anderegg is very compassionate towards kids who get labeled as geeks and nerds, and thinks of geeky pursuits as healthy for kids (and, in the long run, essential to our economy), but isn’t really addressing the fact that many continue to find deep personal meaning in these terms well into adulthood. Rather, his two big fears are (a) that certain kids who fit the nerd stereotype get picked on mercilessly and they shouldn’t have to deal with it (which I think we’d all agree is true), and (b) that even kids who don’t fit the nerd stereotype will go out of their way to seem not nerdy, which means they will do poorly in school, and which is why the US is lagging in science/math/tech degree recipients.

    In the way of further clarifying, consider this: In the conclusion, he mentions a 17-year-old girl who is in a “Geek Club” at school, where the only entry requirement is having taken calculus. He contrasts her with another student, who is a fan of Beauty and the Geek and is actively avoiding doing well in school so as to avoid being labeled a nerd. It’s the former, he suggests, who is dealing with the geek stereotype in a healthy way—not letting it get her down, having a sense of humor about it, even embracing it to some extent. Into adulthood, he basically says that the nerds like her, the who aren’t ruined by harassment in school, will grow up to turn out pretty normal, save for a lasting distrust of “alpha dog” figures (can’t find the page to tell the exact quote, but you get the idea).

    I should acknowledge, though, your concern about whether he’s just saying that kids need to conform to social norms. He certainly doesn’t have any particular love for the popular crowd in itself, which sort of comes across looking unintentionally mean and slavish to conformity. By the same token, he eventually suggests that kids are better off conforming in a few tiny ways, if they can, just to avoid the worst kind of harassment during middle school, when students are essentially merciless and capable of inflicting deep psychological damage on one other. Examples of acceptable conformity he suggests include getting your kid contacts instead of glasses, and buying your kid jeans because everybody mocks him for wearing sweatpants. Whether these are worthwhile sacrifices are up for debate, though of course not every kid can get past whatever thing marks them as mockery-worthy.

    So, in summary, while I wouldn’t say I agree with all his claims and analyses, I did find him sympathetic to geeks. It’s not that he’s anti-geek—he even suggests that there’s nothing wrong with being so socially unusual that people accuse you of having a “syndrome”—but that he’s concerned about how kids process this concept. He even implies that some sort of “geek rights” may be the next logical precursor to GLBT rights (potentially in the face of those who would wish to commit “genocide”—his term—against nerds by genetically cutting off Asperger syndrome).

    I hope that helps to clarify, but I hope my ridiculously long comment on this isn’t the last word on the matter around here. As I said, it’s a quick read, so I’d be really interested to hear what anybody else thinks.

  3. Church Says:

    Frak. I’ve got to actually read this, don’t I?

  4. Jordan Says:

    “He even implies that some sort of “geek rights” may be the next logical precursor to GLBT rights…”

    I’d be interested in hearing more about that…

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    I’d say it’s non-required reading for adult geeks/nerds—more aimed at parents who don’t realize why the stereotypes can be harmful—though you might find it interesting to get an extended glimpse into how non-geeks think about these concepts.

    Check out the book on Amazon and search for the word “genocide.” The two or so pages around that section should give a sense of the whole “geek rights” thing. The key segment was on page 110-11:

    A more prudent and humane response to the problem of the “geek syndrome” would be to abolish it legislatively by dropping some, if not all, social-skills deficits from the manual of mental illness. This will not happen, of course, until there are enough nerdy people who rise up, as homosexuals did in the past, and demand an end to official stigmatization. It may not happen in our lifetimes, but it will happen if only for the simple reason that many social-skills deficits will be less and less debilitating in the future.

    That’s about the only place it comes up, I think.

  6. Jordan Says:

    Thanks Jason. I think it seems like a weak analogy, but I guess I get the point he’s trying to make.

  7. Jason Tocci Says:

    Well, the parallel he’s making there is between Asperger Syndrome (which is at least partially based on “normal” social interaction) being officially a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders nowadays, just as homosexuality was until the 1970s. I’ll try to find the link later, but just the other day I saw some article along similar lines, where someone was trying to argue that Asperger shouldn’t be considered autism, just a different style of cognition…

  8. Church Says:

    “more aimed at parents who don’t realize why the stereotypes can be harmful”

    Wow, talk about a small target audience!

    Here’s a link to the story that, I think, was behind the article you’re thinking of:

  9. The People Want to Know « Half Awake Says:

    […] that it’s a waste of time, feels odd. It reminds me of something from a Geekstudies post on a book by David Anderegg. Jason explains that part of Anderegg’s argument boils down to “[geek/nerd identity] is […]

  10. Jason Tocci Says:

    I know this response is over a year late, but just in case anybody stumbles upon this, here’s the link I was talking about regarding autism being a different way of cognition rather than a disorder. Church’s link, above, is also very appropriate, about another relevant case.