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Feb. 26, 2010 10:00 am

Friday Q&A: Jason Tocci on his Geek Cultures dissertation

The typical breakdown of nerds and geeks runs on a taxonomy of their interests, says Dr. Jason Tocci, who received his Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication last year, studying the often stereotypical cultural identities. There’s your manga-fanboys, comic book readers, computer geeks, video game nerds, and so forth. “But the […]

The typical breakdown of nerds and geeks runs on a taxonomy of their interests, says Dr. Jason Tocci, who received his Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication last year, studying the often stereotypical cultural identities.

There’s your manga-fanboys, comic book readers, computer geeks, video game nerds, and so forth.

“But the more I was researching, what I found interesting was how much these groups overlap. The more interesting distinction I was seeing was between stereotypes and how much people internalize them,” Tocci says.

So instead, when Tocci sat down to pen his 400-page dissertation on geek cultures, he decided on a different system of categorization, based on themes in geek culture: the geek as a social misfit; the geek as a genius; the geek as a fan; and the geek as chic.

Tocci, who’s now shopping his research to academic publishers – and who recently moved to Boston to teach at small women’s liberal arts school Pine Manor College - has become an expert studying the culture, which, as readers of this site likely have noticed, is changing rapidly from a once shunned subculture to one of increasing mainstream popularity.

We talked with Tocci earlier this week to get the low-down on the changing landscape and the state of geek cultures in 2010, after the jump.

When and why did you start doing a disseration on geeks? Was it a hard sell to academics?
I had stumbled upon ThinkGeek, Jinx [and other geek blogs], and that was sort of a crossover point between the stuff on comics, stuff on video games, stuff on computers that I was interested in studying. In graduate school, I was learning about marketing to geeks as geeks, and how they were turning the insult term into a term of pride. When I ran that by my advisor, he said ‘whatever else you’re planning on doing, do this instead.’

Have there been other dissertations on the topic?
There are a few people who have written things specifically about geek and nerd stereotypes, but its remarkably few within academia. Lori Kendall [professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] has written a lot of stuff on nerd identity. She was very interested in how nerd identity and nerd stereotypes represent a growing uneasiness about our relationship with computers.

What is the state of geek in 2010?
There’s a broader understanding that this is no longer just an insult. But it’s not nearly a universal understanding. To some extent, it’s a source of pride that a lot of geeks and nerds remain a little obscure and find some pride in thinking ‘look, we’re different.’ But there’s a desire not to be seen as a loser. By the time a lot of people get into adulthood, people find ways around that, and identifying as geeks and nerds and getting involved in local hobbyist tech groups is one way people expand their social networks.

I think that it’s a lot easier now than it was in preivous years for people to find other groups of like-minded geeks and nerds, not because the groups weren’t there before, but because it’s so much easier and faster to organize when you have the Internet and a widerspread sense of value in being geeky and nerdy.

Is it ‘cool’ to be a geek now?
This one day, I went to an audition of Beauty and the Geek; they were trying to cast people that are socially uncomfortable. Some of them were clearly there because they didn’t know how to interact with other people, did not have friends, did not have much of a social circle. Then in the same day, I went to this bar gathering on the other side of town, clearly targetted toward nerds, but it was people standing around, drinking and socializing. To some extent, I saw that as polar opposites of the geek spectrum. I think there’s definitely pockets of geek culture that are considered A-list, the ‘digerati,’ but that’s kind of why I titled the dissertation Geek Cultures instead of Geek Culture, because it’s so fragmented.

What are some of the most surprising findings you came across?
I grew up a geek. I expected this to not exactly be ‘mesearch’ instead of research, but I was very wary of only seeing the good in things. I was surprised that I saw so much ugly stuff, that I ended up writing about quite a bit. I saw a lot of hostility toward women [and to so-called 'jocks']. I was surprised to see [geeks'] willingness to be judgemental, though the majority was non-judgemental.

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Brian James Kirk

Brian James Kirk is a cofounder of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Kirk was Web Editor of PlanPhilly, an independent online news resource covering planning and development issues in Philadelphia, and a freelance writer and designer. He resides in South Philadelphia.

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  • David Kaplan

    I’d be curious to know how autism disorders play into the “geek” world. Beauty and the Geek’s awkward stars may have Asperger’s or something. That would raise some serious ethical questions, I think.

    I’m not sure what the statistics are, but I’d be willing to bet that a highly skewed ratio of self-identified geeks also suffer from a variety of mental maladies like anxiety, depression, etc.

    David Kaplan

  • http://geekstudies.org Jason T

    In response to David’s question, I address this quite a bit in the dissertation, though the short answer is this: There is some overlap between geek stereotypes/mannerisms and a variety of personality characteristics and neurological conditions, but there are too many people who self-identify as geeks — and too many such characteristics and conditions that get lumped together when suggesting that there’s something inherently geeky about certain modes of thought — for this to really map neatly enough onto geek identity more broadly to be a coherent theory. That said, David Anderegg discusses this more at length in Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, which you may find interesting to read.

    (I’m curious to know what kind of ethical questions you mean, though. Ethical questions in terms of how to conduct research? In terms of how to conceptualize geeks at all? In terms of how Beauty and the Geek handles recruitment?)

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