School Structure Determines Prevalence of Cliques, Says Study


The jocks, the nerds, the cool kids — almost every high school in America has these groups or some form of cliques that segregate the student body into a familiar pecking order. But all schools don’t develop in the same way, and a recent study has looked into why some schools have more cliques than others.

Researchers explain that a school’s number of cliques and hierarchy is dependent on something they call “network ecology”, writes Jonathan Rabinovits-Stanford for Futurity.

Schools that offer students more choice and freedom — different academic paths, a bigger population to make potential friends with or more freedom to sit where they please in class — are more likely to have cliques and to see students separated by gender, race, age and social status.

Schools that offer less freedom and have a smaller student population are less likely to have these strong, defining social structures. If there are fewer students to become friends with, the “cost” of excluding someone is higher. Structured classroom environments foster relationships through schoolwork instead of purely social status.

“Educators often suspect that the social world of adolescents is beyond their reach and out of their control, but that’s not really so,” says Daniel McFarland, professor of education at Stanford Graduate School of Education. “They have leverage, because the schools are indirectly shaping conditions in these societies.”

Daniel A. McFarland, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, led the study that has been published in American Sociological Review.

The researchers looked at two datasets about friendships. The first looks at friendships at the classroom level and the second looks at the relationships at a school level, according to Edmund L. Andrews for Stanford News. Researchers studied the details of friendship and social interactions of students at two different high schools over the course of two semesters. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health was used for the school level data.

The study found that the presence of homophily, or the tendency of individuals to find and bond with people of similar backgrounds, is more prevalent in bigger schools. Schools with a bigger population have a greater number of students with varied backgrounds. Smaller schools with greater structure have students who are less likely to form friendships based on social factors. A small school environment can promote open-mindedness, which is a valuable quality later in life, writes Rick Nauret for Psych Central.

McFarland warns that this doesn’t necessarily mean every student is better off in a small school. Different types of students may thrive differently in a mix of these two types of environments, writes Maureen Downey for Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“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. There likely isn’t a simple answer. 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.”