Geeks and Nerds: a terminological debate

My own personal definition of geek culture is tightly related to such interests as comic books, science-fiction, fantasy and gaming. Generally speaking, I would define as “geeky” what you can find at a Comiccon (you can read more on this topic in my first post). This definition is my own and could by no means be considered absolute and definitive. There are many reasons for that to be the case.

First, “geek” is a term that is subjectively assigned to someone or by someone to himself. You’ll never find a “geek” check box next to your blood type and name on your birth certificate. Whether people call you a geek or not depends on their understanding of what a geek is, as does your self-identification as being one. It could argued that self-identification depends on your pride, as well. Not everyone has the same notions of what a geek is. Referring to the dictionary might give you an idea of the origin of the word, but it won’t allow you to grasp the many variations of its current definitions for people across the world.

Additionally, any definition you might think of is linked to criteria that must in turn be defined. If you consider geeks to be smart people who are obsessed with something, then how do you define obsession? How many hours must you invest in a hobby or interest to be considered obsessed? This example is a simple one, but things get much more complicated. This becomes clearer when exploring the topics of geek girls, hipsters and geek culture going mainstream.

It is also difficult to clearly distinguish what the words “geeks” and “nerds” mean and how they refer to different types of people.  In fact, there are several conceptions about geeks and nerds, and more words can be used to refer to people who are enthusiastic about some of the interests I listed above, such as fanboys, gamers, and many more.

Exploring various material can help us make more sense of these words and reach a better understanding of their popular meaning. The following image represents one attempt to distinguish geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks.

The difference between geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks via Great White Snark

Notice that according to this diagram, geeks are smart and obsessed just like nerds, but that the latter are plagued with social ineptitude. Is social ineptitude the main or only difference between geeks and nerds? Not according to the following illustration, which lists their interests and tastes as the main criteria to consider. Interestingly, like most of the images I found on the topic of geeks and nerds, this one seems to postulate that geeks and nerds are men.

The Anatomy of Geeks and Nerds via Business Insider

What this image illustrates well is that trying to define categories to fit people in produces an approximate result at best, and that the more precise and inflexible the category, the more complicated it gets. This image introduces types of geeks, like fashion geek and craft geek, which I will never talk about on this blog. So does this one, while distinguishing types of geeks that can very much be the same person. Can people love both Star Wars and Star Trek?

One of the most interesting material I found is this survey commissioned for Geek pride day (May 25th) by Modis. It was also published on Geek Wire where key points were highlighted. Take some time to read it. It’s very interesting even if it provides very limited data: only 1008 people, all from the USA, took part in the survey. Keep that in mind when reading generalizations such as “17% of Americans think that (…)”. (In fact, you should always read about the methodology used in a survey before consulting the results.)

Among other things, the survey revealed that being a geek is getting cooler, but that being a nerd is not. MastersInIt created a very cool infographic using information from this survey and other sources. It also emphasis on social ineptitude for nerds, adding that they are obsessed with academics.

Damn it Jim!

Another fascinating source is this Vox Pop published on the website of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science on the difference between geeks and nerds, or the existence of such a difference. According to the faculty’s professors, levels of coolness, caring about being cool, social aptitudes and computer skills are some of the factors that determine if a person is one or the other. Interestingly enough, they give very different and contradictory answers.

I could go on referencing more material, but the question I would like to propose to you is the following: is it even necessary to define what geeks and nerds are? Can’t we rely on self-identification?

It is very important, whenever dealing with social categories, to acknowledge that their definition can vary rapidly and considerably from one person to another. People who try to define them are probably, at best, aiming towards a consensus. In short, the meaning of geekiness cannot be discovered like the acidity the rain of or the density of a rock: it is constantly redefined, renegotiated and reframed.

Feel free to comment and contribute your own thoughts about geeks and nerds!

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

There are 20 comments

  1. Fred

    I think you have it backwards. Geek is the more negative term as it is the term associated with disgusting activities—such as circus geeks; you know biting the heads off chickens, driving nails up their noses, or just the kid on the playground who eats worms. Being a nerd might imply a disdain for keeping up with fashion, but not social ineptitude.

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    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      It’s not so much about having it right or wrong: there are many very different definitions of what ”geek” or ”nerd” mean, and they change not only through time but also from one person to another. It’s really not relevant to try to write an definitive, absolute definition for each concept, but instead we should count the various existing definitions and traces their variations along different continuums (time, regions, languages, etc.). For instance, your understanding of what a geek is corresponds to the original meaning of the word, but certainly not to the way people who self-identify as geeks see themselves. You may not see nerds as necessarily socially inept, but it is a recurring characteristic associated with this concept. Again, it’s not about who’s wrong or right, we each have our own understandings of these notions, and from a social science perspective that has to be considered when studying these concepts, because we have to understand them for what are: social constructs. You might enjoy reading this piece on Savage Minds about Nerds.

      Thanks for your input!

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  2. Jody Schmidt

    Back in the day (the day meaning when I was in grade school through high school in the early to mid 80s) the terms were generally used interchangeably. There was some distinction, but not the microfine nuanced discrimination between the terms seen today. Geek, nerd, dork and dweeb were all used in a derogatory manner to describe someone with social ineptness of one form or another. Nerds were generally smarter socially inept people. Depending on the person casting the insult, geek, dork and dweeb may or may not have been associated with a degree of intelligence. Particularly dork: that term was least often linked to intelligence. Nerd was most often linked. Geek and dweeb were in the middle. But, there were no absolute rules. It was just as the insulter saw fit to deliver the most harm to the insulted. That’s my take on it. Peace.

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  3. Matt

    Interesting article, but I feel that you haven’t taken into account that these terms are culturally salient. The fact that so many individuals are attempting to differentiate between the two shows that there is some sort of constant. I do agree that social categories can vary from person to person, but there still has to be an underlying schema or the category would soon fail to exist. As an anthropologist, you must admit that an ethnographer cannot rely only on self-definition. Because each individual must provide a social face, then the labels placed on them by others are just as important. Culture is negotiated and constantly changing, but within the boundaries that the culture allows.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Relying on self-definition, instead of categorizing people, allows for the many various definitions of social categories to emerge from fieldwork. Ethnographers can adopt various approaches to research. On one hand, and this is a common approach, I agree, the ethnographer can develop and refine categories through a thorough exploration of literature (theory and other related ethnographic cases). He can later apply these categories to participants who take part in the research. These categories are put through the test through the research project. Participants may or may not recognize themselves through these categories, as they were built prior to fieldwork and on an exploration of literature.

      On the other hand, it is also possible to allow social categories to emerge from the field and stick more closely to people’s accounts and discourse. Grounded theory proposed a form of this, and lately the ontological turn in anthropology has deepened this idea.

      I agree that the fact that nerds and geeks are differentiated implies that there is at least a constant in the fact that they are not considered the same. How they are defined, however, varies immensely. I also agree that culture is negotiated and constantly changing. Popular culture, especially, is intensely submitted to the pressures of the market, being used and transformed by the rules of profit.

      As I suggest relying on self-definition, I am expressing that I will not be exploring a limited portion of geekdom or nerdom that fits in my definition of these categories, but that I will explore anything that is tagged accordingly. My aim is to study all the facets of these categories. In addition, my purpose shall not be to quickly build my own definitions of these categories, but to collect their many existing definitions instead.

      I may not have expressed this clearly in my post, however, and thank you for commenting. I should further detail what I meant in another post about my approach, which I keep delaying because there are so many interesting topics to write about.

      Thanks for commenting!

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      1. Matt

        I do agree that it is very important to get self-definitions. I’m a firm believer that if informants do not agree with the categories or conclusions that the ethnographer develops, then they should be thrown out. I just sometimes worry about the validity of the semantic turn. It seems like some anthropologists are so afraid of being ethnocentric and etic that they become glorified travel writers. You are correct that categories that emerge from the field are much more reliable than those imposed from the outside.

        I think our problem in this discussion lies in the fact that we have been think of “Geek Culture” rather than geek cultures. This might be a much better way of thinking about this sort of thing. It allows for an infinite amount of possibilities without circumscribing it in some arbitrary definition. It also reinforces the fact that each group may be only partially participating with one another, forming their own exclusive groups, as illustrated by some of the examples you give (sci-fi geeks vs. sports geeks, vs. chic geeks).

        I wish you the best of luck on your endeavors. Geek cultures are fascinating. They are so rich in information and so dynamic, that studying them should be a blast. I am excited to see what else you will produce.

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      2. Matt

        Glad to hear it. To answer your question: I’m a masters student studying Cyborg Anthropology, which is a focus on Science and Technology as culture and how they work to reshape human identity.

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  4. fyx

    Geeky-nerd, nerdy-geek, it appears I am both or neither, I have a life and social skills and a Masters. I like Trek and Wars and computers and building stuff (computers, engines, houses) and art and craft and cooking and physics ….actually it would be quicker to say I don’t like Folk Music and the politics of hate, everything else is interesting. I was also a biker, which puts a whole different bunch of labels and assumptions into play. Not sure why I can’t just be an intelligent, interested human female, bored with labels, they only prove the narrow mindedness of others. (Tho I quite like that my kids’ friends have apparently decided I’m ‘legend’, that’s one I can live with LOL)

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Social categories are always imperfect! I like to explore them, understand their origins and constant changes and deconstruct them. Although I’m proud to be a geek (a sci-fi fan, a video games enthusiast, a comic book reader, etc.) I have my own understanding of this word and others might define it differently. Tags like this come from the fact that people, whether they realize it or not, rely on criteria to determine one’s identity or level of one. The same mechanisms seems to apply to national identities and pop culture oriented categories: one’s genealogical background, religion, culture or political ideas can all be used to qualify if that person belongs to a nation or not, and how much. Geeks criteria to determine their geek cred, too. I should explore this after Christmas!

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  5. Max

    It is interesting to see how the definition has progressed and in such a quick time lapse. Back in the early 2000’s people were beginning to try to differentiate both terms but “Geek” was certainly not something you would try to identify with. One explanation I would hear was; a nerd likes Star Wars, Star Trek or D&D, a geek is this kind of hybrid who likes the three of them (blasphemy of course). It is also interesting how the geek community took a deregatory term and turned it into something positive and a source of pride, just like the gay or queer communities.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Merci pour ton commentaire! It’s true that there has been a major change in the way the word ‘Geek’ is being used in recent years. Geek pride has been on the rise and I think because geek culture has become more mainstream, it’s less of a pejorative word now. I get the feeling that ‘nerd’ is still very associated with notions of akwardness and social inaptitude, however, even if many gamers call each other nerds and mean it in a good way. I’ll write about geek culture going mainstream in about three weeks, check back to read on the topic and keep sharing!

      Merci de lire et de commenter, je l’apprécie beaucoup!

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