Nerds!: cultural practices and community-making in a subcultural scene

Date created: 
Mass media audiences
Practice theory
Qualitative methods

For thirty-five years or so, the press has periodically announced the “revenge of the nerds.” But categories like nerd and geek have no essential definitions; rather, they index social relationships. I define “nerd culture” as a field generated by practices of connoisseurship and criticism oriented towards cultural forms like comic books, games, and certain literary and media genres. Existing studies typically focus on representations of nerds or on individual communities of practice, ignoring either real people or the field’s full scope. This dissertation, by contrast, analyzes one Canadian city’s “nerd-culture scene.” First, I examine institutions sustaining the scene. Community organizations and specialty retailers circulate valued subcultural capital, such as knowledge and collectibles, and act as infrastructures for the scene’s reproduction. Individuals working in these spaces mediate between producers and consumers, configuring the scene through their gatekeeping labour. But they operate under constraints, as well—not least that their dispositions are shaped by their own experiences of nerd culture. Second, I interviewed individuals involved with one or more nerd-culture practices. All interviewees evidenced a “scholastic disposition” informed by their experiences of schooling. This lay theory of education also influenced how they interpreted their participation in nerd culture. Accounts of their “careers” in the subculture, from initial recruitment and deepening engagements to eventual durability or decline, are also examined. Finally, I analyze their experiences of community among nerds. Community-making is a routine feature of their participation but is also subject to external limitations such as time, money, and adult responsibilities. Practitioners’ shared orientations enable them to produce relatively communalized social relationships, even in an individualizing consumer society. The so-called mainstreaming of nerd culture offers opportunities to extend the scope of these relationships but also threatens these communities’ autonomy. This dissertation makes explicit the practical—and therefore morally significant—character of nerd culture, providing a basis for policy-makers, community leaders and ordinary participants to defend these media-oriented practices and their related goods.

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Senior supervisor: 
Gary McCarron
Communication, Art & Technology: School of Communication
Thesis type: 
(Thesis/Dissertation) Ph.D.