The Anthropology of Nerd Societies (IV)


An examination of nerds and their surrounding environment is by necessity a study in anthropology. In this situation an entirely new society with different if not directly conflicting values forms within the bounds of the one already established. This phenomenon has come about not in small tribes or provincial villages, but in dynamic sprawling civilizations composed of millions of citizens. Ironically, a small group seems to be better suited to integrating all of its members. When there is a small community, even the eccentric and socially inept are known to all and can over time be accepted for their redeeming qualities. With a small stable permanent population, it is possible to have a real sense of community. With all members contributing directly to the wellbeing of the whole, it is much easier to have a genuine sense of unity. In such an environment, mere idiosyncrasies and divergent hobbies do not in themselves merit ostracism. In a larger environment, however, people must compete even for recognition of their existence; those who are awkward get trampled. The first impression is frequently the only chance one gets and as a result, the range of behavior society can tolerate must narrow if there is to be accepted social standards across larger populations.Furthermore, when a society counts its numbers in the millions, there can be no direct supervision of successful societal transmission by family and neighbors. Cohesion must be forced by formal institutions, ideological abstractions, and the fear of social unacceptability, which is for many humans greater than the fear of death.

A mass society with an excruciatingly specific agenda of how one is to behave inevitably creates a disaffected underclass.Human beings are incredibly adaptable, especially in social matters, so the percentage of those who simply cannot make it tends to be small. Those who fail thus see most everyone around them meeting with greater success and are very likely completely isolated. By the very design of a mass industrialized society, the conditions are right for the formation of new societies that better suit the needs of castaways, minorities, and splinter cells.

The more specific and rigid a mass society becomes, the fewer people it suitably serves. With increasing numbers of ostracized individuals, resentment pools and the nerd phenomenon becomes more likely: a new type of sub-society forms. One that actively rejects the values and the culture into which its subscribers were born. Thus it could be said concerning mass industrial societies that consensus breeds antithesis.

There is an Aesop’s Fable that warns how attempting to please everyone pleases no one in the end. This moral applies to societies because humans identify with tight knit tribes on a more visceral level than they do with nation states and mass cultures. No single institution or cultural entity can represent the views and needs of all or even a majority of citizens. Though only a small minority is unable to make it or refuses to participate, they can safely be considered the tip of an iceberg of discontent. There are many others who are only just able to meet the minimum qualifications and live a high stress life on the lower tiers of acceptance. There may be only a few who break away, however, particularly difficult times or the right catalyst could easily amplify the trend.

It would do critics well to cultivate a better understanding of nerds and other social fringe groups, because so long as current conditions prevail existing minorities will grow in number and new groups emerge. If millions of people collectively hold a custom that eating salad with an almost imperceptibly smaller fork is the only right way to do things, there will eventually be those who do otherwise. The dominant custom is enforced through overwhelming weight of numbers, but if it becomes a source of pressure by the very fact that it is a widely held standard, deviation follows.There needn’t even be any huge dissatisfaction and certainly not protest or consciously assembled social movement.People do what comes to them most easily and naturally, a cuture that comes to pressure millions can only hold sway for so long in such a varied and volatile environment.

Return to Part I …

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

[image via flickr]

on 12/31/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

Leave a Reply