Boffin bashing, social stigma and 'geek chic'

16th March 2012 at 00:00
New research examines the impact that being labelled a nerd has on young people. Adi Bloom reports

In one version, they are the lowest of the classroom low: the pupils all other pupils mock. In the other, they are unlikely playground heroes, hiding their good looks behind thick glasses and lab coats.

These are the different stereotypes of the classroom boffin, according to new research.

Two academics spoke to school pupils and researched the portrayal of geeks in contemporary film and TV to examine the impact that being labelled a "boffin" has on pupils' lives.

Professor Becky Francis of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) spoke to 71 high-achieving Year 8 pupils from nine secondary schools.

She found that the boffin tended to be seen as a classroom pariah, serving as a warning to other pupils of the consequences they might face if they, too, prioritise schoolwork over socialising.

"Boffins can be seen as the 'queers of the classroom'," she and fellow academic Dr Heather Mendick of Goldsmiths, University of London, say. "The sexuality of boffin girls and boys tends to be pathologised by peers as homosexual in the case of boys and asexual in the case of girls."

And, Francis adds, teachers often ignore taunts aimed at boffins, for fear that they will be contaminated in the eyes of the wider class. "Teachers seek to be popular with pupils and hence seek to align themselves with popular pupils."

At school, the importance of popularity and fitting in can trump everything else, but this does change later on. "We would suggest that the move from compulsory to post-compulsory education is a crucial one," the academics say, "because the value of academic achievement and application changes."

Indeed, Mendick argues that school geekery is the ultimate in deferred gratification. The stigma attached to being a geek fades over time. A school boffin "does not necessarily carry this label into other domains of life," the researchers say. Instead, it can end with the boffin's school career. (Some may even find it ends earlier if they are successfully able to reinvent themselves as fitting school images of "cool".)

Mendick spoke to maths undergraduates, many of whom were protective of the sense of specialness and exclusivity linked to mathematical ability. At university, such classroom boffins have the opportunity to find others who share their interests.

At the more elite universities, a shared appreciation for academic achievement overshadows any other differences. Doing well is now cool. "The usual spectrum of learners does not exist at this university," as one student the researchers talked to put it. "Sure, we have different groups of students here: geeky, geekier and even more geeky."

"Mathematics undergraduates were able to redefine geekiness as cool while, for (others) still in compulsory schooling, this was not so possible," the researchers say.

In fact, popular culture is full of images of the geek made good. For example, in the 1997 film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the erstwhile nerd matures into a millionaire, arriving at the reunion in a helicopter. More recently, The Social Network depicted the nerds-turned-billionaires behind Facebook.

The recent trend for films, TV programmes and websites celebrating the victory of the geek over the school jock, the academics conclude, may simply reflect the desire of many former geeks who are now media professionals to reimagine a more positive version of their own troubled school days.

"These articulations rely on an imagined community of boffins and geeks," they say. But the existence of this community on film may mean that boffin cool extends beyond the university campus and into the classroom. "It is possible that the 'geek chic' explosion into the mainstream will make this community available at younger ages than previously."


Mendick, H. and Francis, B. "Boffin and Geek Identities: abject or privileged?" (2011). Gender and Education, 24.1. http:bit.lysYKkwZ

Dr Heather Mendick, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Professor Becky Francis, RSA.



Recent TV series such as Glee and The O.C. have featured "geek chic" characters in leading roles.

However, Professor Becky Francis and Dr Heather Mendick say that this version of the sexy nerd is largely limited to white, middle-class males.

Indeed, the concept of the boffin or geek is deeply linked to race and class stereotypes.

"The label 'boffin' is one that British-Chinese pupils complain is often applied to them by peers ... portraying them as automatons, conformist and excessively diligent, compliant, deferent and mathematical," the researchers say.

Similarly, black pupils tend to be automatically excluded from the ranks of potential geekdom.

Issues of social class also come into play. Some high-achieving pupils use class arguments to denigrate their detractors as "just jealous of their intelligence or achievement".

Such pupils also use "discourses of work ethic, meritocracy and deferment of pleasure to reposition those ridiculing them as ... feckless chavs."

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