Connecting The Dots Towards a Geek Anthropology

Hey everyone, I’m Nick Mizer. Marie-Pierre has graciously allowed me to contribute to this blog and share my excitement for the topic of geek anthropology and our plans for an upcoming conference session on the topic.  I’m currently wrapping up my last semester of PhD coursework, and will be writing my dissertation on Dungeons & Dragons. I’ll also be presenting on geek culture at next week’s Popular Culture Association conference in DC, so if any readers of the blog will also be there, I’d love to meet!

Like I said, the idea of a geek anthropology, or geek studies more generally, is something I’m pretty excited about. Recent years have seen a growing number of studies focused on one aspect or another of geek culture.  Studies of virtual worlds, such as Tom Boellstorf’s Coming of Age in Second Life or Bonnie Nardi’s My Life as a Night Elf Priest,  have been particularly prominent, but other areas of geekdom have also drawn attention. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom considers the ethics of hacker culture, while Kiri Miller brings ethnomusicology to bear on video games in Playing Along.

In fact, since I went to my first American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference seven years ago, there hasn’t been one that didn’t include any papers about something that falls under the umbrella term of “geek culture”.

For the most part, however, these studies have focused on a specific set of practices that might be labeled as geeky, rather than on the notion of geek culture itself.  There have certainly been exceptions, such as Jason Tocci’s dissertation Geek Cultures, Mary Bucholtz’s work regarding nerd identity and race, or Lori Kendall’s piece on hegemonic masculinity among nerds.  The Geek Anthropologist has certainly contributed to the conversation, as have posts on other sites, like Kerim Friedman’s Savage Minds post about whether “nerd” can be translated into non-English languages.

Meanwhile, geek culture has been increasingly prominent in the media.  The Big Bang Theory, Community, King of the Nerds, and a host of other shows and movies have been representing geekdom in popular culture.  Last year, historian Michael Saler claimed that “we are all geeks now” (2012:3).

In order to further this discussion and to help bring together the numerous threads of geek scholarship being done, Marie-Pierre and I  will be proposing a session for this years AAA meeting on geek anthropology.  Possible topics are numerous: the role of consumption in geekdom, intersections with race, gender, and class, and how cultural imperialism relates to geekdom are just a few areas where anthropology can contribute new perspectives on geek culture.

Although one goal in this discussion is developing more holistic and ethnographically informed understandings of geek culture as it exists both in local and global contexts, there are further possibilities as well.  Anthony Seeger once proposed the concept of a “musical anthropology” as distinct from an “anthropology of music”, one that goes beyond merely bringing “the concepts, methods, and concerns” of anthropology to musical performances and considers anthropological concepts and practices from the viewpoint of musical performance: “rather than studying music in culture…a musical anthropology studies social life in performance” (2004:xiii).

Similarly, a geek anthropology might consider ways that geek approaches to culture might shape understandings of both culture and anthropological work.  What might be gained from considering anthropologists as “culture geeks”, for example, or ethnographies as a kind of fan fiction, based on the canonical universe but not canon itself?

We are still putting the session together and are still looking for another paper or two.  We’d really like to fill up the roster as much as possible, so if you’re interested in contributing, please send me an abstract of maximum 250 with your tentative title to  Our idea is to make the session as broad as possible, so we are open to quality papers from wherever they might come: undergrads, grad students, faculty, even “amateur” scholars interested in geek culture.  Also, although the conference is anthropological in nature, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to participate.  We’d love to hear from anyone with a generally ethnographic approach to the topic.

My colleagues and I look forward to hearing from you!

About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

There are 8 comments

  1. lly1205

    You’re writing your dissertation on Dungeons and Dragons?? Can you tell me about it? That is really so much more exciting than my undergraduate paper!



    1. Nick Mizer

      Good catch, Alex! Can’t believe we haven’t mentioned it yet. One of the things I’ll be doing in my talk is comparing Joshua Ellis’s “Children by the Million Wait for Alex Chilton,” which focuses on music, with Patton Oswalt’s “Wake up Geek Culture. Time to Die,” which highlights other aspects of geekdom, although the music vs. other cultural products hasn’t (yet) been on the front of my mind.


  2. Nick Mizer

    Thanks for the feedback, Matt, glad you enjoyed it! Although virtual worlds certainly play a role in geek culture, what we have in mind for this panel, and for the conversation we hope it promotes, is not limited to virtual worlds. My own work on D&D is actually very low-tech, as part of the aesthetic of tabletop gaming is that “all you need is dice, a pencil, and some paper.” Although the boundaries are certainly fluid, “geek” is an identity that people claim, sometimes in the context of virtual worlds and sometimes not. One of the first steps in this discussion is to identify the variety of meanings people have for “geek” and the various ways they live out that identity.


  3. Matt

    Interesting read. I would like to point out though that the study of virtual worlds is really based in the already established sub disciplines of digital anthropology and cyborg anthropology (Boellstorff contributing to Digital Anthropology eds. Horst and Miller). I think a geek anthropology would provide some interesting insight, but I wonder how you would draw the line. An investigation into how people develop and maintain dedicated communities to highly specialized fields would be a very fruitful topic area. May I recommend some Bruno Latour, anyone?


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