The Anthropology of Nerd Societies: Formation of New Group Identities Within Industrialized Civilization (I)


It is not uncommon that those immersed in the culture of sci fi and twenty sided dice are subjected to a high degree of skepticism and even outright disgust. It strikes many as strange and even offensive that these people would be so far outside of the popular scope. It strikes people as pointless when they see that someone has gone out of the way to remember the names of even the most obscure starships in several different franchises, the precise geography of a dozen fictional countries in as many separate fictional universes, and the biographies of characters that are present in only a few seconds of screen time. To critics, this seems like time profligately wasted on obscure trivia that no one will ever care about it. Rarely do they ask, what value or purpose do these ships, lands, and characters serve or why these nerds dedicate themselves with nearly nationalistic fervor. More often than not, they write these nerds off as rather conspicuously maladjusted human beings.

The first step to approaching the answer is examining a likely critic of these nerds, someone who feels in contact with that which is considered mainstream. It is safe to say they are in possession of a wealth of information, useless trivia one might call it, concerning their favorite stars in film, athletes, musicians. Such a critic is likely to know who their favorite people are married to, who they’ve divorced, and how they’ve embarrassed themselves in public. One could make the argument that these people have the distinction of at least being attached to individuals in the real world, but this really isn’t true. The mainstream critic knows these people only insofar as they appear in performances onscreen and on stage. Furthermore, even these celebrities’ public conduct directly affects their show careers and is inevitably bound up in contrivance. The main difference between the critics and the nerds they look down upon is the number of subscribers to their group.

Each social group has its language of acceptance and shared values. Members dedicate themselves to mythology, the heroes, the music, the religion that best represents their culture. If one compares demographics, a disproportionate number of black people prefer rap or other types of music made chiefly by black people. One could conclude that black people have a ‘rap gene’ or far more plausibly that such music serves as a means for black people to connect with their group and distinguish members from outsiders.Familiarity with a common repository of stories and personalities helps foster cohesiveness and a sense of unity.Most groups of friends in American society overlap in preferences to at least some extent and are not usually distinctive enough to be coherent entities and certainly not enough to appear clearly outside of the accepted canon. If the Main Stream has a width, a spectrum so to speak, it is readily noticeable when one encounters those who are well outside of it. To critics, the presence of nerds is offensive because they are clearly disconnected from the larger culture.

A disproportionate number of nerds are physically awkward, socially awkward, or both. This is because they possess traits that make social acceptance at a young age extremely difficult. Such woes are commonly dismissed as a mildly irritating, passing aspect of childhood, but this is done without considering long term implications. When one is excluded from a social group during key formative years, it only becomes harder to catch up. At a certain point, the excluded ones admit even to themselves that there is never to be any reconciliation. During those key years, they grew apart from everyone else. Excluded by their peers in the real world, they discovered far away worlds and galaxies populated by peoples wholly alien to the order that rejected them. In these alternate realities, they find stories of hope and acceptance, lands where those traits which are considered impediments in ours could actually be an asset.Sooner or later, these people begin to meet and coalesce into groups. Finding a place is generally more difficult for these nerds and once they do so after a difficult time growing up, they devote themselves with a degree of enthusiasm that seems unsettling to outsiders. Critics understandably find it difficult to understand how anyone could become filled with excitement at the prospect of mastering a fictional language that no one outside of a small circle would ever know of or care about.

What critics do not understand, is that the obscurity and hence the exclusivity of such information is precisely the point. Made to feel shame in the early part of their lives, nerds create something they are all proud of, a culture and folklore that both provides entertainment, stories and metaphors pertaining to their lives, and which sets them apart from the main stream in which they never found acceptance. Nerds take exquisite pleasure in participating in a social environment in which they do not feel intimidated or pressured. After being cast out they finally take it upon themselves to return the gesture by actively shutting out and rejecting the widely accepted lore and culture and replacing it with something that fits with their personalities and interests. Certainly, it is conceivable that some of the disapproval expressed by critics results from a sense of indignation at how completely conventions have been deliberately shunted aside and ignored.

Continue to Part II …

Zygmunt blogs at Kingdom of Introversion.  The Anthropology of Nerd Societies appears here with his permission.

[image via flickr]

on 12/28/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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