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Walking the line of being a geek or not: race, gender and re-surfacing stereotypes
Umeå University, Faculty of Science and Technology, Department of Science and Mathematics Education. (UmSER)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3614-1692
Freelance Academic, UK.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-4902-5519
Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6050-7020
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6413-6538
2023 (English)In: ECER 2023: Programme, EERA , 2023Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Who is a geek? In popular media the geeks are often portrayed as the school’s losers who perform well in school but have low status (Salter and Blodget, 2017). The low status of the geek/nerd/swot/boffin in schools has had the implication of making it less attractive to study hard (Francis 2009, Jackson & Nyström, 2015). This is especially true for male students who do a balancing act to not be categorised as a geek or nerd (Asp-Onsjö & Öhrn, 2015; Nyström, 2012; Peltola & Phoenix, 2022). Different negative traits are connected to the geek label, such as not caring what to wear and not being sporty, and sometimes boys perform purposely less well in school to avoid this label (Nyström 2012). At the same time as this geek figure is ‘congenitally uncool’ the geek figure has always been strongly connected to science, technology and computer science, and the position of being a genius (Willey & Subramaniam, 2017). The idea of brilliant geekiness has been so powerful that people seeking to hire computer programmers have looked for signs of it as proof of intelligence and programming ability (Kendal 1999). The geek figure, the awkward genius, primarily white and male, has thus gatekeeping functions in technology.

However, over the last decades the geek label has shifted significantly: from historically being associated with mockery and an outsider position, the geek has become increasingly dominant both in popular media as well as in economic and cultural structures (Salter and Blodget, 2017; Tocci 2009). This shift is partly displayed in how geeks are celebrated in real life, for example Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but also how the geek figure has become a central one in popular media. The geek entrepreneur in movies such as Iron man and The Social Network answers ‘contemporary tensions within masculinity and capitalism’ (Mendick et al, 2021, p. 2). According to Tocci (2009), there are four overlapping images of geeks today: the Geek as a misfit, the Geek as a genius, the Geek as a fan and ‘Geek as chic’. The Geek as a misfit has low status and is awkward and the Geek as a genius (with the example of Bill Gates) is passionate about technology. Both these images are in line with how a geek has traditionally been conceived before. However, the Geek as a fan is described as into geeky hobbies (such as games, science-fiction, and other traditionally geeky media), but with a ‘shared sense of childlike playfulness, and potentially a purposeful resistance against broader norms of maturity’ (p. 322), which is not necessarily a low status position. The image of Geek as chic makes it not just okay to be a geek, but it is actually a high-status position, the geeks are thought to represent their own hip subculture of sorts and their own sense of style. 

How big this shift or movement is around the geek figure is contested and needs to be investigated, especially how the limits and borders have changed in relation to race and gender. There is also an urgent need to address if the geek figure still operates as gatekeeper to technology education. The aim of this study is to explore this shift around the geek figure by interviewing Swedish teenagers about what they think about geeks and geekiness today.  

Methods/methodology: We did group interviews with 32 students doing their third year in upper secondary school, all being 18-19 years old. These 32 students, 21 boys and 11 girls, were classmates in three different school programmes: the Natural Science Programme, the Technology Programme and the Social Science Programme. The students were asked about what a geek is and how it is possible to know if someone is a geek. We also asked if they saw themselves as geeks and if there are any good or bad sides of being a geek. To prompt them to speak of geekiness, we showed them four clips of people handling technology from four US films: Men in Black (1997) featuring Agent J, The Social Network (2010) a biopic of Mark Zuckerberg, Age of Ultron (2015) with Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and The Black Panther (2018) with the Princess of Wakanda Shuri teasing her brother T’Challa/Black Panther.

In our analysis we focused on how the geek figure was positioned by the students in the interviews, how the students related to the geek figure themselves and how the movie characters in the four selected clips were perceived by the students. The first step in our analysis was, after listening to all the interviews carefully, to select instances where geekiness or geeks were described, looking for storylines of geekiness: How do the students position the geek figure? Positioning is the discursive process that people use in conversations to arrange social structures (Davies and Harré, 1990), where positionings can be deliberate, inadvertent, presumptive or taken for granted (Harré et al., 2009). Positionings are always twofold, in that a positioning of someone else also implies a positioning of oneself, so what they express about geeks gives us clues about their own relationship to geekiness. Storylines that are linked to cultural contexts beyond the actual conversation unfold as participants are engaged in positioning themselves and others (Davies and Harré, 1990; Harré and Langenhove, 1999), for example that the geek has suffered and has unhealed wounds (Mendick et al, 2021) or the idea of STEM being a meritocracy (Willey & Subramaniam, 2017). We also analysed how the movie characters Agent J, Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and Shuri and T’Challa were positioned by the students, with a special focus on race and gender.

Expected outcomes/results: Our results illustrate how upper secondary Swedish students position geeks as belonging to one of two storylines: The storyline of the modern geek where it is cool to be a geek and the position is non-gendered and non-racialised, and The storyline of the stereotypical geek where the geek is white, male, socially awkward, and primally interested in technology. Since the students use the word ‘stereotypical’ when they talk about the low-status geek it is tempting to believe that this position is only a remnant of timed passed, but this storyline is still active in their narratives. For example, they position people at their own school as stereotypical geeks. These two storylines were interlinked. In the storyline of the modern geek the geek position is open for everyone, but this idea was simply not coherent with how many students did not let the character Shuri pass as a geek. The arguments for not positioning her as a geek (apart from being a woman and black), were that Shuri was too good-looking, too well-dressed and too social. Among all the characters we presented to participants, the character of Shuri was the one the students perceived as least authentic. This is interesting, because they continued saying that ‘[today] anyone can become a geek’ and that gender, race, class, and sexuality have no significance. In our reading, this parallel view of what a geek is keeps the myth of a geek meritocracy (Willey & Subramaniam, 2017) intact, at the same time as they clearly were more hesitant to position black women as geeks. Therefore, our data indicates that hopes that the pluralized modern geek position, i.e. ‘the geek is chic’ (Tocci, 2009) will provide a gateway into STEM for black female students are not well-founded.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
EERA , 2023.
National Category
Educational Sciences
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-214238OAI: oai:DiVA.org:umu-214238DiVA, id: diva2:1795495
Conference
ECER 2023, European conference on educational research, Glasgow, UK, August 22-25, 2023
Part of project
The Geek as gatekeeper? Changing relations between gender, race and technology, Swedish Research CouncilAvailable from: 2023-09-08 Created: 2023-09-08 Last updated: 2023-09-11Bibliographically approved

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Berge, MariaSilfver, Eva

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