The Geek Instinct: Theorizing Cultural Alignment in Disadvantaged Contexts

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In part of the quantitative portion of the study, the first author surveyed a stratified random sample of 897 students from Title I and non-Title I schools and scale ratings were normally distributed. This suggests the students selected for this ethnographic study from that survey who are higher and lower on the scale are not outliers and can offer an informative contrast.

  2. 2.

    The data were collected by the first author, but for consistency we use the term “we” hereafter.

  3. 3.

    All names are pseudonyms

  4. 4.

    Family structure did not appear to make a difference in whether or how children learned technology at home. For instance, Sumalee was in a large household with many adults around. But Anandi had a similar family structure and that did not increase attention or interactions about technology between family members.

  5. 5.

    After an hour of watching Anandi struggle, the first author helped her with these activities.

  6. 6.

    “xD” is a symbol for sideways squinting eyes and a large grin and “o.o” is a symbol for big eyes and a small nose.

  7. 7.

    Although the month we were present was a busy testing period, the computer teacher reported even outside of this month his instructional time was greatly reduced by testing throughout the year.

  8. 8.

    The first author observed similar differences within classrooms while implementing the broader survey. At first we thought this was measurement error, but we realized students were simply reporting their experience: Some receive more learning experiences than others in the same classes. This finding across data types suggests teachers can be essentially different teachers for different students, even in socio-economically homogeneous, low-income classrooms.

  9. 9.

    A related finding was seen in another low-SES school the first author visited when administering surveys. In one classroom, the teacher only allowed students who promptly completed their survey to use classroom computers. In this practice, tech use is called a “treat,” and thus tech-learning opportunities are an “earned” additional resource or add-on to academics.

  10. 10.

    Gender plays a role in the cultural alignment process, but not a definitive one, as it may skew teachers’ perceptions of who is a “good student” regardless of the tech habits children have. On the one hand, teachers viewed Marcus as well behaved and there were girls observed in class who disrupted the teacher the way Rafael sometimes did. On the other hand, based on observations, gender seemed to play a role given that boys were more typically seen as disruptive, so were more likely to be seen by teachers as “bad students” and be allowed to slip away and not develop their technological competence at school. Moreover, an interesting gender difference was noted among boys and girls in the surveys, whereby the boys had a higher and narrower range in terms of rating their technology learning habits, that is, it was more unusual for them to develop very few technology learning habits. Exploring reasons for gender differences in tech habits is beyond the scope of this study, but it strengthens our claim about the critical role of teachers’ perceptions of students as the key that unlocks technology opportunities in school.

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Acknowledgements

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.

Funding

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.

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Correspondence to Cassidy Puckett.

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Puckett, C., Nelson, J.L. The Geek Instinct: Theorizing Cultural Alignment in Disadvantaged Contexts. Qual Sociol 42, 25–48 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-9408-4

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Keywords

  • Technology
  • Cultural mismatch
  • Alignment
  • Habit
  • Social spheres
  • Organizational routines