Pop culture, sociology and the sacred

Professor Michael Elliott’s fascination with nerd culture and fan communities inspires his teaching and research.

Michael Elliott
Professor Michael Elliott photographed in the Baltimore comic book store, Amazing Spiral Comics & Games.

Michael Elliott, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminal Justice, fosters student engagement in his globalization course by relating his unique academic interests to the lives of his sociology-anthropology students.

One of Elliott’s current research projects focuses on the rise of nerd culture. Within nerd culture, Elliott is fascinated by the passion that individuals have for their interests as well as the strong social bonds these groups create.

To learn more, Elliott visited Maryland comic book conventions (comic-cons) equipped with a social-scientific survey designed to discover the interests and activities that engage and fortify this fan culture. In the long run, such a study would produce a sociological account that improves understanding of fan communities and the role of popular culture in contemporary life. In the short run, Elliott uses aspects of nerd culture research to infuse some fun into sociological discourse in class.

“ Understanding human behavior and appreciating its nuances are more important than ever in our increasingly diverse and globalized world. ”

Michael Elliott

While the research is entertaining, it has a deeper goal to increase understanding about how we create sacred meaning in secular environments worldwide. “Sacred” includes any belief or practice that is powerful, transcendent, esteemed and set apart from the mundane world of everyday affairs. What Elliott finds fascinating is the “variation of sacred experiences in contemporary society that helps create meaning and purpose and bonds people together. Fan communities are an underexplored aspect of all this.”

Elliott emphasizes that “understanding human behavior and appreciating its nuances are more important than ever in our increasingly diverse and globalized world.”

He encourages students to consider careers in the social sciences. “Studying human behavior is fun and surprisingly complicated. There are lots of powerful social influences on behavior, but they operate in different ways over time and across space.”

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