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Sociology: Social Cliques in High School

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Most every high school in America has its own set of “cliques” or social castes whose members mingle mostly within the one clique. Many schools have unique groups according to the area such as “surfers”, “snow bunnies”, and “hicks” referring to people who surf, snow ski/board, or take on more rural looks. However, most schools share some common groups such as “preppies” who are usually the upper class students with more money, “goths” who are earmarked by their usually black clothes and body piercings, “geeks/nerds” who are the scholarly students, “jocks” who participate in sports and school activities, and usually “cheerleaders” make up their own clique although most often belonging to the preppie group. No matter how integrated one may think their school is, it is more than likely that upon closer observation the discrimination between groups will become quite clear. After all, social cliques are a normal and healthy phase of adolescent life that aid in the learning of social norms and general cultural practices.

Many students interviewed by Matt Tabor, a collaborator for www.ihigh.com, agree that something as careless as who a child is placed next to on the first day of kindergarten can determine that child’s future clique membership. A child’s earliest companions will soon lead them through middle and high school, determining what caste they will become part of along the way. These cliques are the dynamic forces behind social blueprints in the high school setting; the clique you’re in determines whom you associate with, what activities you’re involved in, and whether or not your high school experience is a happy one (Kick That Clique, 2000).

The problem of the “clique” is starting earlier than ever. Because children are brought into social settings at ages as young as two years, they are thrust into a world that is prepping them for the years ahead. Children are learning at a very young age that fitting in is a good feeling and is quite easy to do with the right networking skills. Most children are also learning that getting what they want gets easier the more superior of a seat they hold on the “clique food chain”. What this produces are manipulative children willing to morph into whatever shape is needed at that particular time. The individual is lost before it even has time to develop and blossom. In earlier studies the family was found to be the main source of a child’s sociological development, however social scientists are suggesting that the locus of children’s identity is shifting from the family to their peer groups at an ever-younger age according to sociologist Patricia Adler, co-author of Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity. “Kids derive their identity from their location in these friendship circles,” she says (Cliques Make Fitting In a Tough Task in High School, 2001).

Every school is unique in how its population is broken down into cliques, however there is a common theme among most hierarchies (Kick That Clique, 2000). The popular clique is the largest, possibly containing overlapping subgroups around a leader and perhaps a best friend. The status of the rest of the group fluctuates. Closed and exclusive, these groups are the cool kids whose leader can cast other members out. “You come in having a bad hair day, or say something wrong, and the leader turns against you. And it’s like links on a chain. If the leader turns, everyone else does,” Patricia Adler says. Smaller groups of about five to 15 friends form much more democratic “friendship circles.” They are less work to stay in. “If you did not talk the night before with every single member of the group, you can come in the next day and not feel the rest will hate you,” she says. Then there are the wannabes, those who hang out around the popular clique, seeking even temporary membership. And finally, there is a small group of true outsiders, isolated kids who eat alone in the lunchroom and risk the lowest self-esteem.

Shannon Valley would disagree that some kids are “totally” alone. Virtually everyone will belong to a group eventually, she says. “There are the preps, the cheerleaders, the goths, punks, ravers, gay cliques, racial cliques, the freaks, headbangers, the smart cliques, the whole bohemian type. Nobody is totally alone. Even the outsiders have a loser clique,” says Valley, 15, of Houston. Being popular usually involves different traits for boys and girls. The No. 1 requirement for young boys is athletic ability, Patricia Adler says. “And there is a coolness, a toughness, a need to model this macho masculinity to prove themselves.” For girls, it is “first looks, and then clothes, socioeconomic status.” The breakdown mirrors traditional gender roles, she says. “Men are socialized to achieve, and girls to catch a man.” Other experts stress that popularity is not always the key: Belonging is, to some group — sometimes, to any group (Cliques Make Fitting in a Tough Task for Teens in High School, 2001).

The dangers and threats of cliques in high schools are all but unknown. Many school related tragedies have been traced back to the antagonists’ role as an outcast at their school and community. The Columbine shootings were at the beginning of this new issue. In the aftermath of the shootings, there was a great deal of debate about what “provoked” the killers and whether anything could have been done to prevent the crime. The reality of social cliques in high schools was a frequent topic of discussion. Many argued that the boys’ isolation from the rest of their classmates prompted a feelings of helplessness, insecurity and depression, as well as a strong desire for attention (Columbine High School Massacre, 2003). Many clique clashes may even result in everyday violence and prejudice. An excerpt from an article in a magazine states a specific case that is undoubtedly common among high schoolers:

The dynamics between cliques are often very raw, particularly for the groups at the extremes of the social spectrum: jocks and outcasts. Even at the relatively well-integrated Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., it is not unheard of for the punks–who often sport black clothing, tattoos and spiky hair–to be taunted in the hallways. “They call ’em dirty, say stuff like ‘Why don’t you bathe?'” says a student. Often it is the athletes who dish out the abuse. Haakon Espeland, 14, switched out of Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High, where he was one of the “freaks.” The reason he fled: a stream of abuse, starting on his first day at school, when “all these huge people beat on me, basically for being there (A Curse of Cliques, 2001).

What many articles fail to mention are the positive attributes social cliques bring to students. The close knit, family-like groups give a network of dependable friends to fall back on. There is no worrying about whether or not they will understand your specific problem because all the members are so similar it is almost guaranteed that they have been through it at one time or another. It also helps shape personality through role-playing. Most sociologists agree that it is very healthy and almost necessary for adolescents to take part in activities that will test who they actually are. By trial and error most teenagers find their own individuality. “Hanging with the right crowd makes you feel you are worth something and are needed,” says Lucas Ruiz, 17, of Junction City, Kan. “If you are by yourself, it is hard to relate to other people. You never have someone to confide in, and basically that is what the social group gives you.”

The socialization in high school is almost as important as the formal education received in the classroom. It is obvious that there are both positive and negative outcomes of social cliques, including extreme depression a healthy feeling of acceptance at the opposite swing of the pendulum. Whether or not it has its dire attributes, it is crucial and indispensable for growth of the child’s mind. Social groups lend a perfect environment for the experimentation of new individual personalities, of which one combination of the total will stay with the adolescent for the remainder of their lives.

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