by Vineeta Abraham, May 9, 2021
Many adults with yearbooks filled with high school “horror stories” will claim they originated from the rigid, harsh social structure they had to adhere to, complete with bullies, queen bees, and their select array of victims. This myth is the reason behind many administrative efforts to integrate students in middle schools and high schools across the country as an attempt to attack the issue of social circles or “cliques” from multiple angles. When doing this, they often think that tackling the main problem involves eliminating the social hierarchies that exist in the halls of almost every high school. While this seems to be in the students’ best interests, it may be doing more harm than help. What teachers and administrators often fail to recognize is that when students are socially structured, they are able to create identities for themselves and thrive in the niches that the school environment creates for them. While most people assume this means that a sense of privilege will linger among several of these social standings, it should be noted that allowing students to stay comfortably within their social groups might be a better alternative than forcing them to intermingle. Although people have misconceptions about the nature of so-called “cliques,” and are therefore enforcing programs to dismember them, allowing these social circles to thrive, while taking care to encourage healthy cooperation between them, can help students develop psychologically in group settings and avoid the negative effects of not having a social group to call their own.
Much of the skepticism surrounding the existence of social circles in schools comes from stereotypical assumptions about them. These are often fueled and exaggerated by the media, through means such as books, television series, and teen-drama movies. The entirety of the infamous 2004 comedy Mean Girls revolves around a typical new girl trying to outmaneuver the social ladder that exists at her new school, including the “A-list girl clique” described in the summary provided on the internet movie database, IMDb. In this movie, many types of cliques and social circles are represented, as well as a clearly defined ladder that is topped by the so called “mean girls.” The movie highlights the entitled, harmful personalities of those who top these social hierarchies and proposes that cliques tend to remain vicious towards each other and cannot coexist peacefully (IMDb). Media such as this promote a general sense of wariness in the minds of their audiences, which include families, educators, and administrators, through their use of pure exaggeration. One may argue that some schools do in fact have a strong presence of social hierarchies and social ladders, but it must also be noted that this is not very different from how society is structured in a world outside of the school building. Status is not a foreign concept for our communities, and treating it as such in school doesn’t prepare students for what they will face long after graduating from their microcosms of the real world. However, it is possible to attract attention towards eliminating the toxic potentials of social hierarchies while still encouraging the social groups.
Social circles have existed in schools for generations, and although the way they’re structured has varied through generations, their general formulas remain fairly consistent. Cliques are nothing new, as shown by Jerry Adler, a former senior editor of Newsweek who has written for magazines such as The New Yorker, The Smithsonian, and Scientific American. In a 1999 Newsweek article, he explains that these groups include “athletes and preppies and wanna-be gangsters; pot-smoking skaters and sullen punks; gays and nerds and, yes, morbid, chalk-faced Goths,” and remain “surprisingly similar from coast to coast” (Adler). This consistency further supports the idea that these social structures are not only normal, but even instinctive, especially for adolescents. Shayla Ahamed, a blogger from Penn State University, writes that most people are simply “inclined to become friends with people that are similar to them and share their interests,” claiming that while negative side effects seem to be the focus in the media, forming groups are for the students’ own benefit (Ahamed). Additionally, Daniel A. McFarland, a sociology professor at Stanford University, uses his 2014 study for the American Sociological Review to discuss details of social structures, calling them “supportive and protective” and claiming that this is what leads students to tend to create them more often than not (McFarland). Perhaps the universality in these adolescents’ instincts to self-segregate is an important reason why we should nurture, rather than destroy, this phenomenon that we term “cliques.”
Although Adler describes that in some places, these hierarchies demand a certain evaluation of “status” be added to the existing situations, this is not always the case (Adler). McFarland discusses how “adolescent societies” form when students begin to create groups “with individuals who share similar attributes, behaviors, or attitudes,” continuously emphasizing the term “homophily” to describe how students constantly look for a sense of “familiarity” (McFarland). As students begin the extremely trying time in their lives corresponding to their high school years, their need for connecting to others like them increases immensely, highlighting the importance of having a strong social system to guide them (McFarland). Although one may believe that social divisions can lead to insensitivity or other undesirable side effects like bullying, the truth is that proper lessons in respect can, together with these groups, be advantageous to the student body.
These avoidable consequences of cliques encourage educators and administrators to overcompensate and actually cause more harm. This anti-clique mentality is inspiration for programs such as “Mix It Up at Lunch,” a social campaign started by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice project. The “Mix It Up” program aims to encourage students to spend time at lunch with people who are not in their primary friend groups by eating with people outside of those social circles. Learning for Justice has also created multiple other activities to promote integration, including “Mix it Up Dialogue Groups” (“Mix it Up”). Another such example of programs created in an attempt to dismantle these social structures is Abigail N. Kirk’s teacher inquiry for Penn State University called “Kick the Cliques,” in which she promotes classroom activities to encourage girls to cooperate with each other while avoiding the creation of self-made groups (Kirk). These and other similar programs aim to teach students to adapt to other personalities and promote large group settings by straying away from creating smaller groups or self-segregating. While their intentions are pure, programs like these are usually a mix of ineffective and awkward for the students being forced into them, typically without having the choice to opt out. While one may argue that current discomfort will pay off later on, the chances of making most long-lasting friendships from continuously forced collaborations are slim. Furthermore, continuous efforts by the administration to intervene in students’ social decisions can be more harmful than beneficial.
Rather than trying to eliminate these cliques, schools should embrace the idea of encouraging kids to thrive within their own social circles. Physician Susan Biali Haas, M.D. argues in her 2013 Psychology Today article, “Stop Trying to Fit In, Aim to Belong Instead,” that people should stop “trying to be something [they’re] not in order to gain acceptance,” which is what integration promotes (Haas). This viewpoint emphasizes the idea that people should embrace their own characteristics and look for those with similarities in order to find their social circles rather than drastically changing their personalities to match those of a preexisting group. The alternative to having to change oneself for the benefit of fitting in would be to allow students to create groups that are naturally suited for their personality types and interests — in other words, allowing them to focus on belonging (Haas). The concept of belonging encourages self-acceptance and self-esteem, thereby providing students with more helpful guidelines for life and helping redirect the goals of administrators. For example, rather than focusing on rearranging students’ social groups, administrative intervention can include teaching students to avoid mean or hateful actions towards those who don’t necessarily fit into their own cliques. Furthermore, author Mark Rowh writes in an article for Current Health 2 that many students claim cliques can be “useful anchors in their social lives,” showing the true benefits they can have on the socioemotional health of students (Rowh).
Being in small group settings can be psychologically beneficial, and studies of “social psychology, for example, examine how emotion, cognition, and action are shaped by the social environment” (McFarland). In an interview with psychologist Dr. Stacey Scott from Stony Brook University, whose research specializes in emotions and stress in development throughout the lifespan, she described the importance of having “social support” throughout one’s life and claims that adolescents require that strong support just like adults do (Scott). She explains further by saying that the social segregation that occurs during high school or one’s adolescence is representative of how “adults function in society,” even claiming that “adults aren’t necessarily friends with everyone, so adolescents shouldn’t be expected to be either” (Scott). She also suggested that other research has been conducted in the past to explain the normalcy of students to “view their peers as being nominated under certain groups” and that this is not something we necessarily need to eliminate (Scott). It also encourages students to join small yet fundamental clubs and sports. These clubs and sports follow the same general guidelines that most cliques do — the only difference between most of these clubs and allowing students to create their own social circles is the absence of administrative involvement. Furthermore, cliques and social groups help students develop and thrive within a self-made “niche in some section of [their] society,” as examined by psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett from the University of Maryland College Park in a 2000 article for the American Psychologist (Arnett).
The fate is much worse for students who don’t belong to a clique at all. While students may think that most of the so-called “shunning” comes from social classes of higher status towards those of lower status, the ones who don’t belong to a specific group often get the worst of the blow. Chris MacLeod, a registered social worker who founded the website Succeed Socially, claims that failing to socially integrate can lead to “slip[ping] through the cracks” of the community (MacLeod). This feeling of not being “right” for a certain group can lead to feelings of loneliness and exclusion. Although it’s true that those who don’t necessarily conform to a certain group may choose to be that way, either because they “don’t have enough” of whatever that particular group demands of them or simply because they believe those groups are either “on a pedestal” or “below them,” MacLeod suggests that eliminating these mindsets and embracing the idea of joining a group would prove to be beneficial to one’s social state (MacLeod). MacLeod supports the idea that joining such groups even when apprehensive could help improve one’s social skills such as “making conversation, feeling more comfortable around others, [and] being able to open up to people” (MacLeod). Daniel A. McFarland further discusses the importance of this “peer network” in his research by stating that “cliquing increases” during adolescence because of the “attachment shift from parents and family to peers” (McFarland). Allowing these close-knit relationships to form between students would be a better alternative for educators instead of trying to break these social structures down. This, in turn, will eliminate many of the problems associated with adolescent loneliness, as described by researcher Ahmet Gurses in his 2011 article for Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences as he attempts to connect the problems of loneliness in high school to “academic unsuccessfulness” (Gurses). Students without groups at all can find themselves falling into a spiral of adolescent loneliness and social awkwardness, as described by MacLeod. The simple alternative is to embrace the benefits cliques can have on the student population (MacLeod).
Although the use of the words “clique” and “social circle” have negative connotations, it should be noted that the majority of these assumptions about the implications of creating social structures come from personal experience. Most phenomena in society have the potential for negative side effects, but it is wiser to eliminate the side effects rather than their causes. Allowing social structures to flourish in a high school setting can actually be beneficial to the students both socially and psychologically. Rather than implementing programs to negate and eliminate the instinct of high schoolers to self-segregate, schools and educators should work to promote healthy segregation. This would encourage students to embrace their differences and connect with others by developing their similarities. Therefore, programs originally intended to eliminate the prospect of social groups should be redirected in order to fuel the creation of healthy divisions among students while promoting sympathy and amiability between these divided groups. The main focus of administrators and educators should be shifted from reworking preexisting divisions that students make instinctively to teaching students how these divisions can help them flourish as they enter adulthood and the outside society.
Adler, Jerry. “The Truth about High School.” Newsweek, 10 May 1999, www.newsweek.com/truth-about-high-school-166686.
Ahamed, Shayla. “The Science of Cliques.” SiOWfa15: Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy, Penn State University , 8 Sept. 2015, sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/09/08/the-science-of-cliques/.
Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. “Emerging Adulthood: a Theory of Development from the Late Teens through the Twenties.” American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 5, 2000, pp. 469–480.
Gurses, Ahmet. “Psychology of Loneliness of High School Students.” Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 15, 2011, pp. 2578–2581.
Haas, Susan Biali. “Stop Trying to Fit In, Aim to Belong Instead.” Psychology Today, 17 Oct. 2013, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prescriptions-life/201310/stop-trying-fit in-aim-belong-instead.
Kirk, Abigail N. “Kick the Cliques: Activities to Promote Positive Relationships among Girls in the Classroom.” Penn State U, 26 Apr. 2006. Penn State University, www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/51491966/kick-the-cliques-activities-to-promote-positive-relationships-among-. Manuscript.
MacLeod, Chris. “When You Feel like You Don’t Fully Fit into Any Social Group.” Succeed Socially, http://www.succeedsocially.com/dontfitintoanygroup. Accessed 20 November 2019.
McFarland, Daniel A. “Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure.” American Sociological Review, vol. 79, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1088–1121.
“Mean Girls.” IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0377092/. Accessed 20 November 2019.
“Mix it Up.” Learning for Justice, http://www.learningforjustice.org/mix-it-up. Accessed 5 May 2021.
Rowh, Mark. “The In-Crowd: the Not so Shocking Truth about Cliques.” Current Health 2, a Weekly Reader Publication, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 11+.
Scott, Stacey B. Personal interview. Oct. 2019.