College of Liberal Arts

How Today’s High School Cliques Compare to Yesterday’s

Tue, Jan 8, 2019
Study participants identified 12 peer crowds and their positions in the social hierarchy.
Study participants identified 12 peer crowds and their positions in the social hierarchy.

While many high school peer crowds and influences have remained constant over time, changing demographics, cultural influences and the increasing number of college-bound youth have led to the emergence of new peer groups and perceptions, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the University of Texas at Austin.

“Everybody has an intuitive understanding of jocks and nerds and princesses and all of those other peer crowds, but social scientists are interested in them because they have a pretty strong influence on the adults that teenagers turn out to be,” said the study’s co-author Rob Crosnoe, professor chair of the sociology department at UT Austin.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Research and led by UIC’s Rachel Gordon, captured the perspectives and experiences of 61 recently graduated, ethnically diverse students, born between 1990 and 1997 and enrolled in two U.S. universities. Participants were asked to describe the peer crowds most common in their high schools. They identified 12 peer crowds and their positions in the social hierarchy.

At the top of the social hierarchy are groups labeled “populars,” “jocks,” “floaters” and “good-ats.” In the middle are the “fine arts” kids, who have risen in popularity compared with past studies, as well as the “brains,” “normals” and “druggie/stoners.” At the bottom of the social hierarchy are “emo/goths,” a new group of “anime/manga” fans and “loners.” The positioning of “race-ethnicity” groups varied depending on the participants’ background. 

Many of their observations aligned with prior research; however, researchers also noted new themes that are unique to modern day adolescent experiences:

Academic anxiety is on the rise. The researchers observed that discussion about anxiety to meet parents’ expectations was “particularly novel” especially for students described as “brains.” While the stress related to academic performances  was expected, it was amplified when compared with prior studies, potentially reflecting heightened competition for spots in top colleges, researchers said.

“Participants identified academic anxiety in more specific terms, even suggesting that students in the ‘brain’ peer crowd ‘were less mentally healthy’ due to a fear of upsetting their parents,” said Gordon, UIC professor of sociology and a fellow of the Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes prevail, despite increasing diversification of schools. The researchers found that focus group participants often described those located at the top of the social hierarchy as white. Additionally, participants of color were more likely to perceive “racial/ethnic” crowds as a fluid and flexible ““home base,” encompassing many different types of students who actually belong to another group, like “brains” or “jocks.” 

Low social status adolescents reflect modern times, but high social status adolescents follow prior generations. The participants generally endorsed crowds that engaged in conventional activities valued by school and society, like getting good grades and participating in extracurricular activities, despite viewing “populars” and “jocks” negatively for their tendency to party and bully others. The “druggie/stoner” crowd was seen as gaining status by being in the orbit of these top crowds, due to supplying drugs for parties. Other groups were shaped by current events, popular culture and social media, for example:

  • the “anime/magna” crowd, described by researchers as a modern incarnation of a classic “computer geek” crowd that is likely promoted by culture sharing on the Internet;
  • the “emo/goth” crowd, who share with past decades a focus on countercultural behaviors, but focus on today’s music and aesthetics;
  • the “loners,” who were feared as potential perpetrators of violence, “potentially reflecting the prevalence of school shootings over the last 20 years,” Gordon said.

Adolescents value well-roundedness. The researchers also observed the emergence of a “good-ats” crowd, whose members excelled across multiple domains. 

“There’s this new popular kid that’s just really well-rounded, which makes me think about college entrance and what it takes to get in,” said co-author Lilla Pivnick, a sociology graduate student at UT Austin. “So, maybe students are seen as popular if they’re seen as going to college.”

Researchers also saw that the “fine arts” crowd was elevated in the social hierarchy, relative to previous studies. Members of this group similarly reflected high levels of extracurricular engagement.

Gordon said these observations have implications for future research and understanding the short- and long-term effects these phenomena will have on life trajectories and future success.

“Understanding how adolescents navigate their environments and perceive themselves and others can help us advance research in many areas, from how we can successfully promote healthy behaviors, such as anti-smoking or safe sex messages, to how we develop effective curriculums or even mediate the effects of school shootings,” said Gordon, who is also a senior scholar of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at UIC.

Co-authors on the study, which is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health (R01HD081022), are Rowena Crabbe of Virginia Tech and Julia Bates of UIC.

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