The Anthropology of Nerd Societies (II)


Nerds are a phenomenon that results from the structure of Western industrialized civilization. It is in this society that children spend most of their time around other kids in their age group rather than the family. Even where there is the luxury of a stable nuclear family, obtaining optimal employment means moving every several years. Thus, contact with extended family tends to be sporadic at best.Both parents are likely work full time jobs and are often preoccupied with satisfying the obligations of the workplace even after hours. Cell phones and laptops ensure no minute of the day is sacrosanct. It is certainly possible to regulate one’s life, but parents live in an environment that is particularly conducive to workaholism. Detached from family most of the day with only a handful of adults superficially involved in their lives, children develop in a scholastic environment isolated from the adult world outside. Left to form their own society, an environment dominated by the most physically able and socially clever individuals results.Those who are unable to compete become members of the lowest class in this brutal hierarchy.

Nerds are generally seen as a group of human beings that inevitably spring forth, but such a phenomenon is a product of the Western model. Only in such an environment does social failure at school mean complete isolation. The nerd very likely has parents who are constantly busy, if indeed they are both present in the household, lives in a suburb that is deliberately located as far as possible from anything non-residential. In such a neighborhood, the neighbors are generally casual acquaintances at best. There is little to no commonality or sense of community. Most people there will have moved somewhere else within a few years. The neighborhood was designed in the interests of adults and the safety of very small children. For children who have grown older, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. In small Western families, there are not likely very many siblings to help care for and in an industrialized economy, no substantial way for children to contribute directly to the wellbeing of the family through labor or by learning trades.Relegated to the lowest tier in the social sphere that dominates life—school—nerds find themselves in possession of a wealth of leisure time. In this time, they become experts on everything from computers, to science and mathematics, to star trek trivia. Perhaps the origin of a nerd begins with being rejected, but over time the individual is more attached to the values they have acquired in isolation or with a few others of their persuasion.Eventually, they make the final choice to split off completely.

As youth life progresses into high school, participation in society becomes more of an obligation than ever before. To get attention from the most important and influential people, one must be a regular in the social and party scene.To even have means of meeting the requirements of this social life one must have a car. Teens who own cars must hold jobs outside of school just to scrape together enough to cover the expenses incurred by their vehicle. None of this is enough; a teenager must change around his or her wardrobe every few months as fashions change or be left behind. The lifestyle necessary to acceptance demands every spare scrap of a teenager’s time; it allows virtually no room for reading or independent study. A nerd, someone for whom these things matter most finds him or herself no longer desirous of participating. Succeeding in high school social life requires absolute devotion and constantly battling against fierce competition. Even if a nerd had a complete change of heart at this point, he or she simply would not have the necessary qualifications to operate even at the entry level. Without first mastering basic fashion, the right way to talk, the right way to carry oneself, the right way to walk, the right TV shows and music to like, there is no breaking in.Fortunately, most nerds are by this point not regretting the choices they’ve made that have led them down a different path, at least not as much as they used to. Even if it is lonely and painful to be as they are, they begin to accept themselves and in the larger high school environment begin to encounter those who share their tendencies. A distinctive nerd culture cut off from the rest of society results.

Continue to Part III …

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

[image via flickr]

on 12/29/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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