The Geek Field and Cultural Capital

As I continue to think about geekdom, especially in the context of the boundary policing of “fake geek girls,” I return to Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of field and capital. A field “constitutes a potentially open space of play whose boundaries are dynamic borders which are the stake of struggles within the field itself” (BourdieuWacquant1992irs, p. 104). That is, a field is constructed by constituents vying, as if in a game, to define it and their own relative position within. For instance, to define a “real geek” as one that is good with computers delineates a boundary and privileges some people over others. Position within a field is facilitated by and produces capital (BourdieuWacquant1992irs, pp. 98-101). Bourdieuian capital is accumulated time and effort which then has the capacity to “appropriate social energy” towards particular ends such that “everything is not equally possible or impossible.” Capital tends to reproduce and enlarge itself and the resulting structure “at a given moment in time represents the immanent structure of the social world” (Bourdieu1986fc).

Bourdieu focuses on four types of capital: economic, cultural, social, and symbolic. Bourdieu’s work seeks to understand each, their production and forms, and how they are transformed into other types. Economic capital is simply one’s financial assets, perhaps accumulated from the fruits of one’s labor. Cultural capital is one’s holding of cultural values, habits, and tastes; it is acquired both explicitly and tacitly and includes things such as education and style of speech and dress. Its form may be embodied (in our person), objectified (in objects, such as art), or institutionalized (via certification, such as a college degree). An example of geeky cultural capital is knowledge of appropriate cultural references and in-jokes. Social capital is the value of one’s social network, a “durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu1986fc). For example, wearing a comic conference t-shirt indicates one is part of that particular network. While social capital is dependent upon one’s embeddedness in a group, symbolic capital is related to honor and recognition of the individual. For example, a geek who broke a world record solving a Rubik’s Cube has symbolic capital. However, the line between symbolic capital and the other forms is not always clear. Bourdieu himself writes that “Every kind of capital (economic, cultural, social) tends (to different degrees) to function as symbolic capital” (Bourdieu2000pm, p. 242).

Central to understanding Bourdieu, and the geek field, is that for each type of capital one must take into account “both the labor-time accumulated in the form of capital and the labor-time needed to transform it from one type into another” (Bourdieu1986fc). With respect to defining geekiness (and fakeness), symbolic capital is important because “To be known and recognized also means possessing the power to recognize, to consecrate, to state with success, what merits being known and recognized” (Bourdieu2000pm, p. 242).

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