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Geek Anthropology: Geek Culture

Today in Geek Anthropology we’ll take a look at the definition of Geek Culture. But before that, we need to take a look at what culture might be. In simple terms, culture refers to learned sets of ideas and behaviors that we acquire as members of a particular society. During the early 20th century anthropologists defined differences based on biology. However, this was dangerous since stereotypes, prejudices and racism would kick in. Fortunately, an anthropologist called Franz Boas (1858-1942) influenced fellow anthropologists to take a look at anthropology from a different angle: culture. They would gather information about social learning differences instead of biological racial differences.

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Now we think about us as a single human species with different populations. So, we can create similar cultural stuff, or very different things too. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) argued that all humans would face the same difficulties in survival. So, anthropologists would come up with cultural universals.

The funny thing is that followers of Boas and Malinowski would enter into a discussion: some defended a world where humans would come up with culture, language, and race in a different way; and others argued that it was all universal. Boas followers argued that race has nothing to do and that we can all learn a culture since human groups are fluid. Besides, differences, sometimes, are pretty difficult to identify.

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Basically, humans invent their cultural environment. Some cultural aspects are based on arbitrary physical attributes. In fact, we can find a difference between biological race and cultural race. How we use these concepts makes us more open or closed minded.

Furthermore, culture is based on the use of symbols. Symbols are constructs by which you use something that stands for something else. They’re easy to identify by the members of that culture. However, the link between something standing for something else is arbitrary. Plus, we’re the only ones in the world who depend on learning these symbols for survival! (Animals don’t need symbols to survive.) Because our cultures are symbolically encoded, we need to learn them to survive. In short, we need culture to survive!

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So, what about geek culture? In simple terms, a geek culture would refer to a set of learned ideas and behaviors that we acquire as members of a particular geek group. Think about a fandom you belong to, the language you usually use with members of that fandom, the activities you engage with others within that fandom, etc.

We could argue that there are some geek cultural universals, like the use of memes. But we can agree that how we use them, and what memes we use will be different. Each geek sub-culture might share some universals but have differences depending on the country they’re located or the topic they follow. So, we could find comic book fans reacting in similar ways and different local ways worldwide.

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The use of symbols is naturally widespread within geek culture. Even if the utilization of the same symbol might change, reality is that the boundaries between geek sub-cultures are pretty blurry. Geek sub-cultures borrow from one another! Thus, geek culture is fluctuating all the time, and its boundaries are also changing all the time. Sub-cultures share global elements with the geek culture, but they are also diverse. For example, Trekkies can be found everywhere. So we can think about Trekkie culture as a global geek culture. However, we could also find geek sub-cultures depending on the location in the world we are at the moment.

We could say that geek culture (and geek sub-cultures) are imagined communities: members might share stuff online, have a shared idea of the members of that geek culture; but it’s very likely that there are lots of members that never met in person nor ever talked, not even online.

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We can agree that:

  • Geek culture is learned.
  • Geek culture is not genetically programmed. (We’re not borgs yet.)
  • Geek culture it’s shaped by power relationships among members of that geek culture. (Think about you as a Trekkie writing tons of fanfic about your favorite ship, Spock, and Kirk. Now imagine all producers freaking out and saying that’s not canon! Now imagine the copyright wars between producers and fans about the matter…)
  • The power relationships that are global in a geek culture penetrate geek sub-cultures in a local level. (Think about the Spock-Kirk ship and all the French that love it and write about it in French, and not English but they use some words in English that are characteristic of Trekkies. For example: Tribbles.)
  • But, it doesn’t mean that the geek sub-cultures will disappear within the global geek culture. (Not because French Spock-Kirk shippers know and use some English words and use them, doesn’t mean that they will stop writing their fics in French.)

Think about a geek culture you are a member of. How much have you learned to be a member of that geek culture? Do you do something different from other members of that same geek culture that are located elsewhere in the globe?


Note: We’ve learned some concepts from the anthropologic field. Even though I’ve qualified Trekkies as a sub-culture to point some examples, many academics will qualify it as a fandom. For the time being, let’s roll with this idea.