Names, networks, and norms

Language Log 2013-03-15

Our lengthy discussion of Chinese word(s) for nerd has suffered from some lack of clarity about the English word, which has a variety of senses, referring to various aspects of complex social and psychological phenomena. And both the word-meanings and the social realities have changed over time.

In the Op-Ed that started us off — "The Learning Virtues" — David Brooks returned to one of his favored themes, the cultural differences between "Westerners" and "Asians":

Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

Among the outward and visible signs of this inward and spiritual spiritual division, Brooks lists a lexicographic factoid:

Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.

Brooks is summarizing his understanding of Jin Li's recent book, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West. What does he mean by nerd in this context?

From Li's book (p. 189):

Most striking and unbelievable (to me, who came from an entirely different culture) is the research finding that those who try to learn and to achieve are tormented with most peer harassment. In fact, there are terms reserved for students in middle school and high school who are interested, motivated, and make an effort to pursue knowledge. They are infamously called "nerds," "geeks,", "dorks," and a host of other derogatory names. This type of peer harassment occurs not only in the United States, but apparently in many Western cultures. In the English-speaking countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the terms popular in the United States also enjoy popularity. In Britain, the equivalent term for nerd is swot, in Germany — Schreber, in France — Bouttoneaux, in Holland — stuud, and in Israel — hnun.

Li feels that what she calls "Nerd's Hell" is a unavoidable consequence of the way that education is perceived in "western" culture: she has a section titled "Inescapable Dooming of Nerds in the West". This strikes me as broad-brush stereotyping at best.

No discussion of nerditude can ignore the influence of the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds (and its three sequels), which positions "nerds" as a sort of college un-fraternity, attacked by the frat boys and forced to band together to beat their oppressors at their own games. But the real situation in middle schools and high schools in the U.S. is substantially more complex and subtle.

Thus we learn from B. Bradford Brown et al., "Parenting Practices and Peer Group Affiliation in Adolescence", Child Development 64(2) 1993, that

[E]thnographers have consistently discovered a diverse array of peer groups in American high schools. An elite group similar to Coleman's (1961) "leading crowd" is always found, although it is often divided into two somewhat different crowds. "Populars" are portrayed as socially competent individuals with a strong commitment to academic achievement but also moderate involvement in delinquent behavior and illicit drug use. "Jocks" are quite similar but less academically oriented and more focused in their drug use on alcohol, which they sometimes use to excess. Counterposed against these crowds is a more alienated group — "druggies," "burnouts," "greasers," etc.-that is not only heavily involved in drug use and deviant activities but also inattentive to schoolwork and often hostile toward school adults; yet, group members seem to maintain a fairly strong self-image. Balanced between these groups are the "normals," average, or "in-between" students who seem to avoid deviant activities but otherwise are not clearly distinctive on any particular trait. In most studies there is also a group of high achievers, the "brains" or "eggheads" or "intellectuals," who thrive on academics, forge close relationships with school adults, and studiously avoid drugs and deviant activities. Their self-confidence is bolstered by academic achievements but also eroded by their marginal standing in the peer status system. Most schools also feature a socially inept crowd — "loners" or "nerds" — whose members are generally low in social status and, consequently, self-esteem. Their academic achievement levels are variable, but they seem to shy away from deviant activities.

It's worth noting that ethnographers studying American schools have also consistently noted group relationships to many other factors, including race and ethnicity, parents' socio-economic status, gang membership, and so on. The alignments of all of these factors, as well as the names for the groups, are quite diverse, and can differ widely in different kinds of schools. And I'm sure that looking at other countries would multiply the complexities.

But in any case, on Brown's description of the situation in American secondary schools, the "nerds" are not the academically and intellectually serious students, but rather the socially-inept ones; the "popular" crowd is serious about schoolwork; and the "brains" or "eggheads" are "marginal" in status, not "tormented with most peer harassment".

We get a similar picture with a different emphasis from Mary Bucholtz, "'Why Be Normal?': Language and Identity Practices in a Community of Nerd Girls", Language in Society, 28(2) 1999:

Eckert 1989a offers an account of the social organization of a typical suburban US high school. She found that students' social worlds and identities were defined by two polar opposites: the Jocks (overachieving students who oriented to middle-class values) and the Burnouts (underachieving students who were bound for work, rather than college, at the end of their high-school careers). Yet the dichotomy that separated these students also united them in what can be understood as a single community of practice, since the ultimate goal of members of both groups was to be COOL. The difference lay in how each group defined coolness. Not all high-school students, however, share the Jocks' and Burnouts' preoccupation with coolness. A third group, the nerds, defines itself largely in opposition to "cool" students - whether Jocks, Burnouts, or any other social identity. Nerds stand as the antithesis of all these groups, a situation that Eckert succinctly captures in her observation, "If a Jock is the opposite of a Burnout, a nerd is the opposite of both" (1989a:48). But despite the structural significance of the nerd in the organization of youth identities, few researchers have examined its implications, and those who have tried have fallen far short of the mark in their analyses. Thus the sociologist David Kinney, in a rare study of nerds (1993), argues that, in order to succeed socially, nerds must undergo a process of "recovery of identity" that involves broadening one's friendship network, participating in extracurricular activities, and heterosexual dating: In short, they must become Jocks. Another scholarly treatment (Tolone & Tieman 1990) investigates the drug use of nerds in an article subtitled "Are loners deviant?" - in other words, are nerds really Burnouts?

What both studies overlook is that being a nerd is not about being a failed Burnout or an inadequate Jock. It is about rejecting both Jockness and Burnoutness, and all the other forms of coolness that youth identities take. Although previous researchers maintain that nerd identity is invalid or deficient, in fact nerds, like Jocks and Burnouts, to a great extent consciously choose and display their identities through language and other social practices. And where other scholars tend to equate nerdiness with social death, I propose that nerds in US high schools are not socially isolated misfits, but competent members of a distinctive and oppositionally defined community of practice. Nerdiness is an especially valuable resource for girls in the gendered world of the US high school. […]

Nerds, of course, attain empowerment in very different ways than either Burnouts or Jocks. One of the primary ways they differ from these other, more trend-conscious groups is through the high value they place on individuality. Compared to both Jocks and Burnouts — who must toe the subcultural line in dress, language, friendship choices, and other social practices —  nerds are somewhat less constrained by peer-group sanctions.

For girls, nerd identity also offers an alternative to the pressures of hegemonic femininity —  an ideological construct that is at best incompatible with, and at worst hostile to, female intellectual ability. Nerd girls' conscious opposition to this ideology is evident in every aspect of their lives, from language to lexis to other aspects of self-presentation. Where cool girls aim for either cuteness or sophistication in their personal style, nerd girls aim for silliness. Cool girls play soccer or basketball; nerd girls play badminton. Cool girls read fashion magazines; nerd girls read novels. Cool girls wear tight T-shirts, and either very tight or very baggy jeans; nerd girls wear shirts and jeans that are neither tight nor extremely baggy. Cool girls wear pastels or dark tones; nerd girls wear bright primary colors. But these practices are specific to individuals; they are engaged in by particular nerd girls, not all of them.

The OED's gloss for nerd mentions three three broad and diverse senses, which span the categories that Brown et al. called "nerds" and "eggheads", and add the alternative idea of "obsessive" interest in "an unfashionable or highly technical" subject (which is no doubt connected to what Simon Baron-Cohen calls "systemizing"). I've introduced numbers to emphasize the differences:

[1] An insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; [2] a person who is boringly conventional or studious. Now also: spec. [3] a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.

And Benjamin Nugent (American Nerd: The Story of My People, 2009) reduces this to two categories, one recasting [3] as "machinelike" intellectualism, and the other recasting [1] in terms of social exclusion rather than social ineptness:

I believe that there are two main categories of nerds: one type, disproportionately male, is intellectual in ways that strike people as machinelike, and socially awkward in ways that strike people as machinelike. […]

The second type of nerd probably consists equally of males and females. This is a nerd who is a nerd by sheer force of social exclusion.

All of this suggests to me that the diverse senses of nerd are connected by a chain of rather loose social and psychological associations among notions of status, introversion/extraversion, prosociality, social class, intellectual intensity, and so on.  Presumably the same dimensions of variation exist in Chinese schools, though Jin Li doesn't think that they play any role in social organization:

According to Xinyin Chen, an expert in Chinese children's social development, there are only two peer groups in Chinese school yard, at least within Mainland China: the good student group and the antisocial/delinguent group.

This corresponds roughly to the "elite group" and "alienated group" that "ethnographers have consistently discovered", according to Brown et al.  But I'd be very surprised to learn that this is the whole story in China, any more than it is in the U.S. And indeed, here's what I read in Xinyin Chen, Huichang Chen, Violet Kaspar, "Group Social Functioning and Individual Socioemotional and School Adjustment in Chinese Children", Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2001:

The results suggest that, despite adults' discouragement and control, most children in China form natural groups based on their interests and that these groups, once established, may constitute an important socialization force that contributes, independently and/or in interaction with adults' influences, to socioemotional and cognitive development. These results, along with the findings from research programs in Western cultures (e.g., Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Kinderman, 1993) and several studies in other cultures (e.g., Leung, 1996; Palmonari & Pombeni, 1989; Sherer, 1991; Sun, 1995), suggest that children's peer groups may be a common phenomenon and may serve similar functions in different cultures.

Chen's research has focused on groups with "prosocial-cooperative functioning and antisocial-destructive functioning", but only (as far as I can tell) because the effects of this dimension are viewed as socially important, and not because there are no further distinctions to be made. Thus in Xinyin Chen, Lei Chang, Yunfeng He and Hongyun Liu, "The Peer Group as a Context: Moderating Effects on Relations between Maternal Parenting and Social and School Adjustment in Chinese Children", Child Development 2005, social network analysis was used to divide a sample of Chinese schoolchildren into groups:

Following the procedure developed by Cairns et al. (1989) and Kinderman (1993), 117 groups (50 male groups, 54 female groups, 13 mixed-gender groups) consisting of 505 participants (94.4%) were identified in the sample. Twenty-four children did not belong to any group and thus were excluded from the analyses of group effects. […]

Based on the data from teacher ratings, peer nominations, and school  records on social and school performance, two factors were extracted at the group level, representing prosocial-cooperative (peer-assessed sociability, teacher-rated competence, peer acceptance, leadership, academic achievement) and antisocial-destructive (peer-assessed aggression, teacher-rated acting out, peer rejection, learning problems) orientations.

Again, this division corresponds well to the basic "elite" vs. "alienated" division reported for U.S. schools — and neither of these categories, either in China or in the U.S., are "nerds". To understand what's really similar or different about this aspect of youth culture in relation to education, we'd need to see the results of some careful ethnographic investigation in China.