Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 4


I’m not a geek or nerd (he’s a wonk), but back home in the late 1990s the internet was largely via cafes. But it was mostly gypsies. And it wasn’t a closed group, they had white kids and both genders. I think I’ll look up Mary Douglas and her group/grid theory to better understand this concept of boundaries.


I see the coding of data as more about the interpretation you brought to it.


   Naturally (constructedly?) I started with “Race, Sex and Nerds” because I wanted to see what was going to be covered there, especially with regards to foundations for “nerd culture” and ethnic differences in approaches to it.  Being someone who actively identified as a “nerd” in high school to reappropriate the term and later as a “geek” in college (because my compsci friends insisted that was the “proper” term), this resonated a lot with me.  I even had to defend my identity once: this guy started talking to me in a bar while I was in the Navy (he was Navy too), and when I told him that I proudly considered myself to be a nerd and a geek, he frowned and told me, “Oh no.  You’re NOT a nerd.  You shouldn’t call yourself that.”  Clearly, HE was disturbed at the idea of being attracted to a nerd and wanted me to redefine myself for his comfort!  

   Anyway, I recall observing with my college friends many comparable symptoms of “male nerd culture” - the preference for physical technologies (even if it was mostly in-game, embodied by guns and swords), and objects that could be compared numerically (processor speed, storage size, etc).  I even learned that one called technologies “sexy” when they were... well, sexy (to geeks/nerds).  This probably helped me later on when I engaged in “online gender-bending” to play my games more effectively while posing personality-wise as a “typical male nerd”.  I had heard of the GamerGrrrls-type groups and would read their forums, although I never joined them by outing myself.  

   The discussion of Tuvok, the dark-skinned Vulcan (do they use the term “black” in Star Trek-land?), was interesting for me as a former Trekkie because I saw a conflict between challenging ethnic stereotypes faced by the actor (Tim Russ) and by the character (Tuvok).  The actor is African-American, and to subvert that would suggest that he should play a science-oriented character, but this was denied by having Tuvok be a security officer (physically-oriented). However, Vulcans as a race are (overly) logical and rational people, so in this case, making Tuvok the Vulcan a security officer subverted the fictional stereotype.  While real-world issues are generally deserving of more concern than are fictional ones, I wonder if there may have been performance value in this casting/character decision and by giving the hyper-logical Vulcan character a more physical job, this may have challenged viewers to rethink ethnic stereotypes in the real world.

   I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed Clarke’s “Mapping Narrative Discourses” chapter more than I thought I would when I started reading it.  There seemed to be something a bit too “touchy-feely” and imprecise about narratives in the types of areas I’m interested in (policy, ethics, bioscience).  But the turning point for me was on p. 193 with the ordered situational map of RU-486 actors/ideas/interests/etc.  Then I realized that mapping out entities like “human actors,” “non-human actors,” “symbolic elements,” and “major issues/debates” mirrored exactly the process I taught to my debate students about how to analyze a new debate resolution in a non-linear, non-oppositional way.  Rather than starting with “how can we affirm/negate this resolution?” I ask, “Who in society would be affected by this topic?” or “What sorts of ideas are being addressed here?” to help them understand actual perspectives based in the issue.  

   It was funny then that shortly after (p. 197), Clarke cautioned against setting up “two sides” to topics because that is what you end up with in Debate: affirmative positions and negative positions about a proposition.  It proves to be educational, especially for high school level competition (collegiate level uses parallel advocacy and other non-binary divisions), not just because it is simpler, but also because part of the strategy is about hashing out what is “aff ground” and what is “neg ground.”  In doing this, students discover that you can’t just break issues down into two sides absolutely and that there is a lot of middle- and orthogonal-ground.  This brings me back to Clarke’s critique of binaries because I interpret this as not to say that setting up oppositional positions is bad, but that it is important to go in recognizing that there are many levels and angles based on the interests of a diverse population of actors and actants.

   I am a bit confused on what Clarke means by “flip side” on p. 184 (“The flip sides of social worlds/arenas are discourses/arenas”) and p.197 (“This is a classic social worlds/arenas study ‘played on the flip side’”).  It sounds like there is some paradigm I’m missing from the sociology field?

(trying to see if bolding the article I’m referencing makes it easier to see what I’m talking about and easier for discussions to develop organically)


        I found the Clarke piece to be one of the most interesting because I felt like it helped me to see more clearly the usefulness of looking at discourses and symbolic meaning. I especially liked the section (from pg. 187 onward) because I she describes what I see as a useful approach for understanding disagreement and controversy. By mapping the different arenas of participating players and the relevant discourses I think one can more easily connect arguments, assumed facts & values, and rhetoric together. I think one of the major obstacles to discussing and explaining public policy issues, like the one investigated by Clarke, is the difficulty is walking in another's shoes and authenticly understanding an oppositional discourse in the same terms that the opposition understands it. Hopefully, one is better positioned to subsequently tie the values implicit in their discourse with the psychological/social/material factors which potentially influence those values undermining such cliche explanations like "they're scared of progress," "they're too uneducated/aware" or "they're too driven by ideology" which dominate on both the liberal and conservative sides of debate.

        At the same time, I enjoyed the critique of grounded theory by Thomas and James. I thought the following was most relevant

"It is that there is no untethered spirit existing in the minds of researchers which will enable them neutrally and inertly to lay some cognitive framework over the data they collect to allow them to draw "theory" dispassionately from this data, this ground" (pg 17). This quote represents to me, what often bothers me the most about some of the social science I've read (such as Howard Becker's inappropriate use, as I see it, of the word "prove" in "Tricks of the Trade"). Social science is no different from the natural sciences in that they can't escape experimental design errors, theory ladenness, confounding variables, etc. Thomas and James continue to note that we all have histories and notions about life which structure the way we see the world. It is silly to think that some methodological trick will enable an objective picture. One extra disadvantage for many areas of the social sciences is that there may be a strong self-selection bias among people going into that field, causing the "ground" to be something very certainly non-objective. I can understand the tendency to hope for a pure, objective methodological trick. At least once every few weeks I feel a sense of being ungrounded, a loss of faith in what I can achieve through inquiry. Is there something real to what I think or am I just pursuing intellectual self-copulation? I see myself searching for the "ground" in the psychological sciences and various debates in philosophy (existential, phenomenological, pragmatic), possibly misguidedly.

           As well, these papers have caused me to think quite a lot about the idea of identity: having one, constructing one, etc. I'm wondering if identity needs to be as important as we make it out to be. Is our emphasis on identity just as constructed as the one's we make for ourselves? I've been reading some Tim Ingold for another class and he makes an interesting point about how we've come to believe that certain identities, such as "indigenous" are seen as hereditary while others are more situated. I know this is a potentially explosive topic. I must admit that I come from a background which is relatively free of oppression, so I’m sorry for any glaring naivety, but I wonder if it is ever no longer beneficial to keep a people's identity rooted in some particular representation in the past which is passed on genelogically as opposed to current circumstances and practices. When does such a view of identity help reinforce what it is you're trying to stamp out? For example, the master/slave metaphor perceived as offensive to northamerican blacks because the african-american identity is constructed around a history of slavery and a one-drop conception of blackness. How does a framing around today's general practices of racism and oppression change one's perspective? I'm not sure which way I would argue at this point but I feel it's an interesting provocation. Are we pursuing the most effective method in our attempts to stamp out bigotry and what role does the concept of identity play?

David B.

Sabrina,  you refer to yourself as a “former trekkie?”  How does one stop being a trekkie?  Please tell me.  Star Trek is a time-consuming and expensive habit.  


But about the readings-  I don’t know if I agreed with how Uhura’s role was treated. While not a nerd or even a very active character, I do consider the character to be much more powerful than she is given credit for. Her presence in the show was important enough to gain the attention of Martin Luther King Jr. (http://www.npr.org/2011/01/17/132942461/Star-Treks-Uhura-Reflects-On-MLK-Encounter) and engage in the first televised inter-racial kiss.  (It should also be noted that J.J. Abram’s re-adaptation has turned her into a straight-A student with exceptional xenolinguistic skills.  She is undoubtedly much closer to “nerd” than the original imagining.)   Overall, I really liked the conclusion that role reversals are not sufficient oppositional strategies.  It made me think about Straussian binaries.  By merely problemitizing the definitional boundaries you are not escaping the confines of the binary opposition.  This is similar to the conclusions reached in the “Broken Metaphor” essay.  We need to do better than the relational opposites that we have inherited from previous generations.




David, I think the appropriate question is “why”, and you answered it halfway yourself - “Star Trek is a time-consuming and expensive habit.” :)   Perhaps “lapsed” is more accurate; I still find myself serving as Trek apologist more often than I expect to.  Great comments on Uhura, both Original and Revised.  I think when talking about televised and cinematic media, it’s important to independently consider what is happening within the story (characters) and what is happening externally to it (actors, audience).


Responding to Sabrina: “Flip side” references vinyl records, but the phrase “other side of the coin” (we still have coins, right?) would work just as well. She is referring to (pg 184) the sense that discourse is representation but arenas are in some sense “really” there. So you could have discourse about a mythic figure (e.g. “welfare queens”) but no social arena in which the mythic figure actually exists. Pg 197 she is referring to the ways that traditional approaches put humans as the figure and non-humans as merely a passive background, but you can flip that as you would in a figure-ground switch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure-ground_(perception).


Responding to Taylor: what’s wrong with self-copulation? See http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.dir/SSS/technophilia.pdf for a critique.

Regarding the problem of being ungrounded, this is the glasses on/off issue I referred to earlier. To my mind its the key issue for your generation of STS.

Regarding the issue of identity politics, you are right that it is problematic, but resolving that problem by simply pretending race does not exist is not a good solution.


         What I see to be interesting in this group of articles, when taken together, is this call to take notice of all these unproblmetized categories and definitions that exist. The construction of nerd culture and the mannerisms of physicists are great examples because in each we have this example of categories of thinking that we have that do not do justice to some of the realities of the world. We will see this line of argument continued in the Hess piece.

               But to address “Broken Metaphor” and how, I think, it’s drawing our attention to a number of preconceived notions that are strangified. First, the ‘master/slave’ binary that is called into question as a result of a cultural sensitivity concern starts us off by thinking about it. The question that is batted around along with the origins on this term, is the nature by which it reflects the relationship it is trying to capture. It’s not just that it is or is not culturally sensitive, I think the remarks in the conclusion allow us to see that the issue more greater than that, but that the assertions that the term is either fully evil or fully bad fails to capture what else is at play by limiting the category to just that dimension. When I look to the comments about the eating habits of physicist and their own desire to make their discipline more attractive, the master/slave terms seems as much to do with observing the world as it does as being a professionalism distinction. Master/slave is used because that is the term that those who are professionals in the field use. Getting others to buy into that term as a way of conforming to the norms of the field (such as the eating habits) helps explain its use. Moving away from the simple distinction of offensive or not offensive helps us see that the evaluation of positions can be more nuanced.

               I use the same thinking when I look at “Race Sex and Nerds” to see how we can break down the old categories of discussion and how examples to the contrary can be value in subverting old categories. As a nerd myself (commonly identified by others as the Steve Urkle type) I see multiple angles of intersection and at the same time, this reoccurring theme of oppositional identity construction. So, while we can see physicists as a rejection of particular societal norms in the creation of an identity that is fitting, the nerd culture can be seen as relating to ongoing ambivalence to intellectuals in American society. Steve Urkle then, can be seen as a nerd of nerds- the rejection of a particular societal norm (whiteness) in the construction of his nerd identity. I for one saw my own nerd identity in that way- a rejection of what I saw as masculine ‘jockness’ both white and black.  It’s interesting to think of what the next “nerd” mutation will be. We already see some assimilation of nerd culture in the way that sports media is consumed and marketed (fantasy teams, Madden’s popularity on gaming consoles) and the continuing desire of nerds to redefine themselves as sexy or at the very least hip and attractive (take for example the apple geek vs. the PC geek). The continued and more mainstream acceptance of female nerds suggests another way this mutation occurs. All of this is about taking the idea of the nerd and showing that it is much more nuanced and intersecting than it might have previously been thought.

               So what makes the Hess piece really interesting to me is how it takes the ‘standard’ way of understanding a thing, in this case social movements, and rearranges the category so that we can have a new, meaningful association. He avoids the typical analysis line that divides the advocates for a social movement against their detractors. Instead, he focuses on repertories by looking at these groups cross culturally. By seeing the unseen and looking for meaning in an area of the field that is taken for granted by insiders, a new line of theory can immerse. What the three readings taken together do is show the hidden arrangements of categories. However, it is not enough to say that if something is different it will be better. I shudder to think how this line of thinking has been ruthlessly pursued by the manufactured ‘non-conformist’ consumer culture and maybe that’s why my apprehension.


Changes in Nerd Culture ----> http://www.madatoms.com/site/blog/nerd-comic/


I agree with Sabrina and Taylor here in finding a lot of useful information in the Clarke piece.  Actually, it’s made me want to get the rest of Situational Analysis to see what can become of her work - mainly because this is the the first I’ve seen what amounts to a qualitative framework wrapped around quantitative methods.  To put this into context - the topic I chose to review for assignment #2 dealt with trainhoppers and how their deeply coded subculture comes as the result of all sorts of inclusions given its formation as a patchwork of heterogeneous individuals all there for different reasons.  Internally and externally the culture is seen very different.  In other words, the discourse analysis approach I applied could have benefited quite a bit by the mapping strategies Clarke outlines for the simple reason that I would have been able to wrap my brain around macro-concepts and micro-implications via a meso-level analysis.  I think my analysis would have been richer for it.


This isn’t to say that levying personal insights into the analysis isn’t worthwhile - in fact I think my contact with trainhoppers inspired my writing it and contextualized their modes of thinking and interacting with external members of the community beyond what the data could possibly show on its own.  This is the main critique of what is typically missing in grounded theory as posited by Thomas & James - that it “oversimplifies complex meanings and interrelationships in data...that it constrains analysis, putting the cart (procedure) before the horse (interpretation)”.  But I think Clarke’s ‘postmodern turn’ on grounded theory overcomes this by stating in a number of instances that in order to do proper quantitative analysis as social theorists we must first be intimately familiar with our data (and subject) in order to flesh out “silent actors” and other agents typically hidden between the lines of what raw data coding strategies can provide.  I think it is interesting that because Clarke considers this a precursor, Thomas & James disregard Clarke’s situational analysis as being real grounded theory.  Whatever...if as students we are meant to consider research methods as a bag of useful tricks...I think it works and I’ll probably use it.  In line with what Dan says re: Hess, it works well here as a rearranging device in tandem with Hess’ own interpretations.