New study: Why cliques flourish in some high schools and not others

As this scene from the movie “Mean Girls” captures, the high school cafeteria can be a social minefield. The movie was based on the non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” which deal with high school social cliques.

As a graduate of a small, all-girls Catholic school, I never experienced the social stratification that exists in many schools today, both public and private. Many friends still bemoan the cliques in their high schools and the pain of being outside the social hierarchy.

A new study looks at what school environments nurture cliques. One observation — borne out by my school experience where there were few choices and tight controls — is that high schools offering more freedom have more cliques.  That freedom refers to not only where you can sit in class but what courses you can take.

As this scene from the movie "Mean Girls" captures, the high school cafeteria can be a social minefield. The movie was based on the non-fiction book "Queen Bees and Wannabes,"  which deal with high school social cliques.

As this scene from the movie “Mean Girls” reflects, the high school cafeteria can be a social minefield. The movie was based on the non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” which dealt with high school cliques.

I recently talked to a parent about her child’s lunchroom horror stories, no one to sit with, no one making room for her at a table. The girl is a freshman at a local high school.

I fear high school is too late to address these social issues. Middle school is where we ought to intervene. And I go back to simple solutions offered in this space a few years back by Georgian Haley Kilpatrick, creator of  Girl Talk, a program in which high school girls mentor middle school girls to help them deal with the “tween” and early teen years.

She described her own experiences at a private school in Albany. “I’d head toward an open spot in the lunchroom only to watch some girl throw her purse down. … I ended up eating lunch in the restroom.” Kilpatrick now encourages schools to adopt policies that minimize the opportunity for exclusion, from students eating lunch in the classrooms to assigned cafeteria seating.

Here is a release on the new study, which acknowledges the complexity of these challenges in high school settings where kids are straining for new freedoms and want to be treated as adults.

From the American Sociological Association:

Go to almost any American high school and the elements of teen social networks become quickly apparent: the cliques, the pecking orders, and the varying degrees of self-segregation by race, age, gender, and social status.

For years, sociologists have identified seemingly universal human instincts that spur this kind of sorting. These include the desires for familiarity and certainty; for control and dominance; and for security and support.

But as ubiquitous as those instincts are, students in some schools form more cliquish, hierarchical, and segregated social structures than in others. What accounts for the variation?

It turns out that the organizational setting of a school itself, its “network ecology,” has a big impact. Schools that offer students more choice — more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, a bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in a classroom — are more likely to be rank ordered, cliquish, and segregated by race, age, gender, and social status.

By contrast, pecking orders, cliques, and self-segregation are less prevalent at schools and in classrooms that limit social choices and prescribe formats of interaction. Smaller schools inherently offer a smaller choice of potential friends, so the “cost” of excluding people from a social group is higher. In addition, structured classrooms guide student interactions in prescribed routes and encourage students to interact on the basis of schoolwork rather than on the basis of their external social lives.

Those are among the conclusions of a new American Sociological Review study, “Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure,” published online today and scheduled to appear in the December print edition of the journal. The lead author is Daniel A. McFarland, a professor of education at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

“Educators often suspect that the social world of adolescents is beyond their reach and out of their control, but that’s not really so,’’ McFarland said. “They have leverage, because the schools are indirectly shaping conditions in these societies.”

The study draws on an analysis of two datasets about friendships, one of which considers friendships at the classroom level and the other at the school level. At the classroom level, the researchers tapped into detailed data of friendships and social interactions compiled by McFarland at two very different high schools over a two-semester period. The school-level data came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

The researchers found that large schools tend to accentuate the quest by adolescents for friends who are similar to themselves, an instinct that sociologists call “homophily.” Bigger schools offer a broader range of potential friends, as well as greater exposure to people who are different. It’s a mixture of freedom and uncertainty that spurs students to cluster by race, gender, age, and social status. But a school’s size is only one factor. The researchers also found that a school’s openness to choice spurs cliques and social-status hierarchies as well.

In schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers have a hand in setting the pace and controlling classroom interactions, teenagers are less likely to form friendships based on social attitudes imported from outside the school. Instead, friendships are more likely to develop out of shared school activities and similar intellectual interests.

As the researchers put it, a positive educational climate strengthens the school’s “system membrane” and makes it more impervious to “external” criteria for friendship such as race or social status. In other words, a more rigid school setting can sometimes promote more open-mindedness in making friends — a potentially valuable quality in adulthood.

McFarland cautioned that the study doesn’t mean that students are necessarily better off in small schools with less choice. For one thing, the practice of putting students on particular tracks based on their apparent academic prowess often has the side effect of segregating students according to race. A bigger and more diverse student population may well foster self-segregation, but a smaller and more elite school is almost inherently more segregated in the first place.

Beyond that, the likely influence of these structural topographies may be complicated and contradictory. Different kinds of students are likely to thrive in settings with different blends of supervision, freedom, and uncertainty.

“We’re not proposing that we all go to a forced boarding-school model,’’ he said. “The truth is that we are not sure which kind of adolescent society is best for youth social development, let alone what position in them is best.”

The main goal of this study, he continued, was to shed light on how a school’s environment affects the shape of adolescent social networks. The next round of studies, he said, will look at which kinds of social networks and social networking positions in them best help adolescents prepare for adulthood.

“There likely isn’t a simple answer,” McFarland said. “What may work well for a shy child may not work well for a gregarious one, and neither solution may prepare them well for the realities of adulthood. We just need to study it and see.”

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Duke Network Analysis Center, and Stanford’s Center for Computational Social Science. McFarland’s co-authors are James Moody of Duke University and King Abdulaziz University; David Diehl of Vanderbilt University; Jeffrey A. Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Reuben J. Thomas of the University of New Mexico.

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26 comments
dcdcdc
dcdcdc

Important topic - way too many kids feel like outcasts in High School.  Those of us who have kids that do well in this social setting MUST stress how important it is for them to reach out to, and be kind to, those who struggle.  


At least at our local school, the admin has done all they can to "offer something for everyone".  Academic, ROTC, athletic, band/orch, drama - you name it, there's something for almost everyone.  And those become their "cliques" where they are accepted.


But unfortunately there are still a few who have nowhere.  Very sad....perhaps a chance for retired community members to play a role??

eulb
eulb

I attended a very small all-girls private school in the late 60s/early 70s with very little freedom.  Unlike Maureen's school, cliques and ostracism were painfully present in my school.  Religion was not a dividing point until the most popular student had a religious awakening and proceeded to lead other students into some pretty bizarre biblical interpretations and, of course, denigration of students who did not follow her teachings.  I can't think of anything the adults-in-charge did or could have done that would have made a difference. I would not re-live those years for anything.  

On a happier note:  the new website is terrific!  It's a breeze to use.  My computer is no longer freezing, dragging, or acting like it's infected.  And I love having the blogpost side-by-side with the comments.  Thank you for this improvement.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Already, as of about 9 pm on Friday, the website design has been greatly improved. Much easier to read than 2 days ago. There's a new "Digital Blog" where we can register our opinions directly. AJC is apparently taking our criticisms seriously. Very glad to see this, as I have enjoyed this blog for quite a few years and didn't want to move on.

eTalker
eTalker

My high school was small and I don't remember any cliques. Everyone knew everyone and we all went to the same parties.  But, I'm sure there were students that saw it differently.  


As a parent I did everything I could to not tell my children about any of my experiences I thought would make them think of humans as anything other than a human.  I tried not to refer to people in term of financial status, ethnicity, social status,etc.  I wanted them to experience their childhood without my lense of the world distorting their view.  Of course they were given basic rules of humanity and disciplined but not molded.  My children don't seem to think in terms of cliques.  They have friends from every aspect of their lives ( class, sports, band, drama, interest, etc.)  Same as I did.  


My point is, parents have a lot of influence on their children.  The things they hear us say can alter how they view life.  They are watching and listening to us.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@eTalker


There were cliques in my child's high school.  I told her not to concern herself with that type of social identification.  I told her to simply find friends whom she genuinely liked and who genuinely liked her for who she was as a unique person.  She made two life-long friends of almost 20 years now from those middle school and high school experiences.  She was brought up as an Episcopalian.  One of her life-long friends is the daughter of an Iranian-American couple who are of the Islamic faith, as is her husband and child.  The other is a male friend (and now his wife and children) who are all Jewish. All three of these young people from the same middle and high school are now in their 30s. They remain very good friends.  Authenticity of feelings is what counts ultimately in choosing friends - not being part of the same superficial clique.

straker
straker

In my high school, there was the "in crowd" and everyone else. If you weren't in the in crowd, then being ignored and/or ridiculed was your lot.


I was in the ignored/ridiculed group and, many years later, it still hurts to think of it.


Needless to say, none of the teachers lifted a finger to help any of us "outcasts" students.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@straker 

A great many times, teachers have no idea of the "in-groups" and "out-groups." Same is true for bullies. It's all part of a student culture that remains hidden from adults, deliberately. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

The paragraph, below, from this article is important in designing schools which will enlarge the consciousness of pre-teens and teenagers, who have not yet matured enough on their own to understand adult intellectual and spiritual concepts such as egalitarianism:


In schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers have a hand in setting the pace and controlling classroom interactions, teenagers are less likely to form friendships based on social attitudes imported from outside the school. Instead, friendships are more likely to develop out of shared school activities and similar intellectual interests."

An American Patriot
An American Patriot

I never thought I would say this, but my experience with the new AJC WebSite has been a pleasant surprise.  No scrolling problems, no freeze up.....WOW.  OK Maureen, so much for the sweet stuff.  Write a column that'll make me mean and nasty again. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@An American Patriot 

Try using the new AJC Website without a Smartphone, iPad, or laptop--just an old-fashioned home computer--and you'll turn mean and nasty. Or leave altogether.



An American Patriot
An American Patriot

@OriginalProf @An American Patriot  That's what's so amazing, OP....I am using a home computer.  This amazing transformation from an antiquated website to a site that really works could have the effect of changing my disposition and make me more AJC friendly.........NAW, never happen.


An American Patriot
An American Patriot

Well, OP, I think it's actually better......oh my gosh, Maureen, what have you turned me into? This post is done on my iPad and I'm not having any problems like before. Did the AJC make it difficult on purpose? To make the new format more palatable? Hey, I'm getting it back!!!!!

An American Patriot
An American Patriot

This has been going on ever since we've had schools.  Folks, if it ain't broke, please don't try to fix it.  This is much ado about absolutely nothing, so leave the kids alone.  They'll work it out.

EdUktr
EdUktr

Maureen, starting with the photo you chose to accompany this article you seem unable to come to terms with the fact cliques really do occur at both ends of the economic spectrum.

With particularly devastating results at the lower end: results that can go well beyond tears and hurt feelings.

And cliques within inner-city schools, for instance, are continually nurtured by our society's near total inability to face down the culture of thuggery among young blacks Charles Barkley talked so frankly about in recent days.

Do you really think the "Heathers" are as much a threat to good education results as the "Shequandas" found in every school with a diverse student population?

ref: http://tinyurl.com/jw5ntyd


popacorn
popacorn

Flash forward 15 years, and the 'cool' students in cliques are mowing the lawns and cleaning the houses of the 'uncool' students. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Oh, and I HATE the new format also.  It is too busy and tedious, and bogs down my brand new computer!

ErnestB
ErnestB

@Wascatlady


Ditto to catlady's comment.  FWIW, I am using Google Chrome to access the site and have challenges with the back button at times.  I sent an email to feedback@ajc.com.  Hopefully others will do the same.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I don't have a memory of the self-selection being a painful or exclusionary situation in my high school 1966-70.  People sat with their friends, but the seating was not set in stone.  Perhaps I was oblivious; I never felt excluded if I wanted to sit somewhere else.  I did tend to sit with other top-achieving students, (the three of us who were BFs graduated #s 1, 2, and 3) but I don't remember "in" tables and"out" tables. In 1969 the black high school was closed and so we suddenly had more black students, but everyone made an effort to get along, to be friendly.  The white kids sympathized with the black kids being forced into another school, especially since it happened when we were seniors.  My high school, a junior high and high combined, had about 1200 students, grades 7-12.  


I really don't think people were as mean and nasty to one another then.


My children's high schools may have had more of the cliques,but my kids really did not care. They had friends and were well-known and relatively popular..  And, really, they didn't give a toot about what others thought anyway.  They had their own self-worth.  Their high schools had 1000-1200 students.



Astropig
Astropig

If students have strong support and a loving,engaging  environment at home, they couldn't care less about who's in what group.All of this social engineering (with training wheels) being done to "break up cliques" or whatever is a lot of wasted time and energy.



(BTW- Agree with the other posters about the new format. It is a trainwreck. It crashed my Firefox browser in about a minute and a half. Really slow to load)

bu2
bu2

@Astropig  I agree.  I was oblivious to any cliques in HS.  Now in my 20 year reunion someone asked what "group" I was in, so obviously there was some of that, but no one was mean to anyone else.  Football players, band members, cheerleaders, pep squad members, wrestlers and elected class leaders were all friendly with me.  And since I didn't even know there were "groups", I obviously wasn't in one of the "cool" cliques.


If you are eating lunch in the rest room, especially in a private school, that's an internal self-esteem problem, not an external problem.

Astropig
Astropig

@bu2 @Astropig 

" If you are eating lunch in the rest room, especially in a private school, that's an internal self-esteem problem, not an external problem."

Also quite unhygienic.

Cliques form and disband organically. No teacher or administrator could force any student into or out of a group with which they have no natural affinity. They just happen.Anybody with kids knows that they are different persons before and after high school.I believe that this (as most things are in this space) a "problem" or "issue" that is blown way,way out of proportion to appeal to a female sensibility.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

So, people want to associate with those who they share common characteristics.  Most of us figured that one out by first grade.  Didn't need a bunch of Phd types conducting a "study"

.

BTW, the new format still sucks........

redweather
redweather

One thing I do in my classrooms is place students in groups every few weeks to disrupt the seating arrangements that have automatically formed by about week two of every semester.  This forces them to interact with a wider range of students than they otherwise would, and they are better off in my opinion.