Nerds and Nerdism

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We have all heard the term “nerd”. We all probably have a similar mental image of who this term is referring to. Nerds are better known on sight, not by simple definition. For example, you know a nerd when you see one, but you can’t easily put your finger on a precise definition. Several definitions have been proposed, just as one can find several sources on the internet which attempt to delineate the term and posit a distinction between “nerd”, “geek”, and “dork”. This article is not an attempt to have fun with sophomoric terms. The intention here is to open a discussion about something which is a reality in the world we all inhabit.

Why exactly should this be a topic for serious discussion? Quite simply because nerds exist and are a part of our everyday life. They are people with feelings just like you and I. Perhaps you and I are even among this noble tribe. As stated above, there is no simple definition, because no matter how you try to define it, you can always find and exception which invalidates the rule. For example, if you try to say that a nerd is an intellectual, then I can easily find examples of intelligent people who are clearly not nerds. If you say that a nerd is a social misfit, then I can easily find social misfits whose mental difficulties are far more serious than merely being a nerd. I can even locate Star Trek fans and Dungeons and Dragons players who are clearly not nerds. One purpose of this discussion is to initiate a dialogue which attempts to bring the nerd into sharper contrast, and perhaps even dignify the term.

In his groundbreaking book “American Nerd, The Story of My People”, Benjamin Nugent does not exactly give a precise definition of nerd, but does succeed in breaking it down into categories. The two classifications which he proposes are nerds of machinelike intellect and nerds of social exclusion. A nerd of machinelike intellect is defined by a mental characteristic which he or she possesses; namely an intense and passionate interest in a narrow range of topics. This might include the some of the Star Trek fans mentioned above. If this person ends up socially ostracized, the insinuation is that it is his own fault. By his own passions and interests he has ostracized himself from normal humanity. The other type of nerd is the one who achieves his or her status by sheer social exclusion. In other words, they do not necessarily possess the characteristics of the first category, but end up socially excluded because of some other cluster of factors. In other words, it is not necessarily their own fault.

Until now, the topic of nerds and nerdism has hardly been presented as a serious topic of consideration. Usually it is mentioned in a joking or dismissive manner, reflecting the common public attitude toward nerds. It is my hope that this article will be a continuation of efforts to bring the subject of nerdism into its own as a field of inquiry. The intention here is definitely not to denigrate or make light of any individual or group of people. Hopefully I might even dignify them by classifying them with the dispassionate eye of a social scientist. This is a subject of interest to me with my background in psychology. Perhaps we can bring psychology together with anthropology and sociology to initiate a serious exploration of this vast and fascinating subject.


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