Will the “Real” Nerds Please Stand Up?

CBC's Lana Gay

CBC's Lana Gay

In a recent post on CBC Radio 3’s blog, host Lana Gay asked whether her listeners consider themselves “music nerds.” Their responses provide some examples of people wrestling with what nerd means today, and how it relates to other terms like geek, aficionado, snob, or—dare I say?—hipster:*

  • AlexofAnders writes, “I don't really think I am that much of a music nerd. I love music, have a vinyl collection and go to shows but I don't think I nerd out about it too much. Not in the same way as say food or old cartoons/tv/video games.”
  • User venegass says, “A friend of mine once said that music is our sport, in reference to our ability to remember bands, labels, and extended data around releases and albums, much like how jocks are able to remember players and coaches and rosters.”
  • And Caedus says, “The term should be Music Geek. Here’s why. A Geek can be anyone, ‘cool’ or not who has interest that could be deemed nerdy (DnD, star wars etc) . A nerd is almost never ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ and doesn't have to have any nerdy interests at all, they are just be awkward clueless and have no idea how to dress themselves. Anyway that's my argument. That’s why it is called ‘Geek Chic’ not ‘Nerd Nifty’ or something.”
  • In typically nerdy fashion, users krib and Benoit from Ottawa refer to an authoritative source, discussing a wikiHow instruction set on telling the difference between nerds and geeks.
  • And spud says it all when he or she writes, “I aspire to be a music nerd, but sadly, I am a music dork.”

These are all examples of what might be called “folk sociology” or “lay theory.”† One of the unique things about the social sciences in contrast to other branches of knowledge is that the objects of our research are themselves active, thinking subjects. That is to say, every human being is a kind of social theorist in a way that no animal is a zoologist and no rock is a geologist. People are always analyzing, classifying, and explaining the world around them. Folk sociology is not always explicitly formulated—or when it is, it may well be very contradictory—but it is implicit in our ability simply to get on with our lives.

From the point of view of “formal” or “academic” social science, lay theory often gets things quite wrong, but its errors, contradictions, and lacunae often point to real problems that professional theorists need to take account of. In this case, the Radio 3 listeners’ attempts to clarify their usage of nerd gets at a real definitional problem. Namely, we have come to use the words nerd and geek in two very different ways.

On the one hand, they’re used to describe a particularly high level of engagement or commitment to something. And the range of somethings about which one can be a geek seems to get broader all the time, as novelist Russell Smith noted in a 2007 Globe and Mail column:

Ever since computers became so important in our lives, the words nerd, geek and dweeb have undergone an almost complete reversal of connotation, from negative to positive[....] A geek no longer means someone with no social skills, but someone with specialized knowledge. People say, for example, ‘I’m a wine geek’ to mean ‘I’m middle class,’ or ‘I’m a finance geek’ to mean ‘I’m quite rich.’ People proudly say, ‘I have these dweeby interests’ to mean ‘I’m educated.’ The phrase ‘geek chic’ has become so overused in magazines it almost means simply fashionable.

On the other hand, they’re still used in relation to a more specific conception of nerd culture, the “nerdy” interests that Caedus, above, associates only with geeks, and with certain stereotypes about their character and interpersonal style. The relationship between these two uses is very much an open question, but it seems to me that when lifestyle reporters and op-ed columnists say that it’s now cool to be a nerd because Bill Gates is a bojillionaire, no one really is fooled into thinking Bill Gates is cool.'s Bourdiey trading card's Bourdiey trading card

Pierre Bourdieu was the great theorist of classification. In his well known book on aesthetics and cultural consumption, Distinction,‡ he demonstrated that our tastes in music, art, food, decoration, and so much more, which we often understand as expressing something deeply true about us, are distributed unequally through the social field—in particular, they are correlated with class positions. For Bourdieu, classification, or naming, is a fundamental social process. Nothing is given to us that we haven’t already classified, and those classifications always have causes and reasons that are located, at least partly, “outside” of ourselves.

One important example of this is social groups. Bourdieu insists that there is nothing natural or preordained about how we carve up the social world and where we draw lines between different kinds of people. Rather, these classifications—which are concepts that we all use when we act in the world—are artefacts of on-going social processes:

In the symbolic struggle over the production of common sense, or, more precisely, for the monopoly of legitimate naming, that is to say, official—i.e., explicit and public—imposition of the legitimate vision of the social world, agents engage the symbolic capital they have acquired in previous struggles, in particular, all the power they possess over the instituted taxonomies, inscribed in minds or in objectivity, such as qualifications.**

Applied to the case of subcultural groups like nerd culture, “struggle” is perhaps too strong a word, but what Bourdieu is getting at is that the authority to define a group—what it means, what counts as “authentic” or “inauthentic” participation , who’s in and who’s out—is exercised by people who have a stake in the game. For some, maintaining the group as it is is the most profitable strategy, allowing them to stay big fish in a small pond or at least to feel that they have a place in that pond (in my research, I call these people introverts); for others, expanding the boundaries of the group—mainstreaming it distinctive practices—is more likely to pay off, especially if they are able to present themselves as its legitimate spokespersons (these are the extroverts).

I’m reminded of the case of Toby Radloff, a former public servant from Cleveland, OH, who appeared off and on in the pages of his co-worker, Harvey Pekar’s independent comic book, American Splendor. Inspired by the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds, Radloff began to bill himself as a “Genuine Nerd,” and he made appearances on MTV, a local cable access show, and in the cult films Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd.

(In this clip from the American Splendor movie, Radloff is played by Judah Friedlander, who seems to share his taste in eyewear. Friedlander’s performance may be compared against the real Toby on his YouTube channel.)

So, who should you ask what it means to be a nerd—the kids at the indie rock show? A dot-com millionaire? The nth attractive celebrity claiming to be an ex-dork while promoting their next big-budget, special effects extravaganza? Or, should you ask someone like Toby Radloff? It makes all the difference. Will the “real” nerds please stand up?

*Contemporary hipster and nerd cultures obviously have a lot in common. Some points of convergence include trivia as cultural capital, gadgets, and a similar canon of nostalgic childhood reference points. With their predilection for gigantic plastic glasses frames and narrow-legged, too-short trousers, hipsters have recently come to resemble former stereotypes of nerdy dress (i.e., Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor), but they don’t look an awful lot like most black-tee-and-jeans nerds that I know.

†A book I’m currently reading, Andrew Sayer’s Moral Significance of Class (Cambridge University Press, 2004), has some very interesting discussions of lay concepts (in this case, those of class) and of the moral ideas that stand behind them.

‡Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

**Pierre Bourdieu, “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups,” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 731–32; emphasis in original.

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