The Geek Instinct: Theorizing Cultural Alignment in Disadvantaged Contexts

  • Cassidy PuckettEmail author
  • Jennifer L. Nelson


Research suggests poor outcomes among children raised in disadvantaged contexts are a consequence of cultural mismatch, that is, competing practices that create conditions too weak to support positive outcomes. While useful, research is limited in its primary focus on individual social spheres and, as a result, does not yet fully account for dynamics across spheres. It also fails to explain the puzzling case of why some children from disadvantaged contexts succeed. To address this, we propose a cultural alignment framework that considers the interaction between organizational routines, cultural practices, and the habits children carry across spheres. Using the case of technological competence, we find that children’s habits can exert force and shift cultural practice to produce alignment in unexpected ways, such as opening additional learning experiences at school—but only if children fit within organizational routines, making the organization more flexible to their individual action. More broadly, the cultural alignment framework can be used to understand dynamics across social spheres, the conditions under which alignment can occur, and how these dynamics shape learning in such settings as higher education and employment.


Technology Cultural mismatch Alignment Habit Social spheres Organizational routines 



The authors wish to thank Timothy Dowd, Jeremy Freese, Charles Camic, David Harding, James Paul Gee, Brigid Barron, Leslie McCall, Jeannette Colyvas, Brian Powell, Wendy Espeland, Wendy Griswold, and the Culture Workshop at Northwestern for invaluable support and feedback.


The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences; U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305B080027 to Northwestern University; as well as a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant #1303682; a Northwestern University Sociology Department MacArthur Research Grant; a Graduate Research Grant from Northwestern University; a Technology Grant from the Information Technology Group at Northwestern University; an American Council of Learned Societies/Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship; and support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through the Emerging Scholars’ Group at Arizona State University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education, or other supporting parties.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All research included in this article was approved by the Northwestern University IRB and the Chicago Public Schools RRB and performed in a way consistent with the ethical standards articulated in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its subsequent amendments and Section 12 (“Informed Consent”) of the ASA’s Code of Ethics. All participants and parents gave informed consent prior to research participation and all information was kept confidential.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Leadership, Policy, and OrganizationsVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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