Study: Why Some Schools Have More Cliques Than Others

Understanding what motivates students to form cliques


Walk through the halls of almost any high school and the characteristics of various teen social networks are fairly obvious. Whether you witness cliques, mean girls, peer pressure or even separations based on race and gender, every school has some sort of social network that is unique to the school.

While some of these groups form out of a teen’s need for familiarity, support and like-mindedness, some groups develop because of a desire for power, control and popularity.

But why are students in some schools more cliquish than others?

A recent study by Daniel McFarland, professor of education at Stanford Graduate School of Education, found that the organizational structure of the school plays a big part in the development of cliques. For instance, schools that offer students more elective courses, a variety of ways to meet requirements, a larger selection of potential friends and more freedom to select seats in a classroom are more likely to be cliquish.

By contrast, cliques are less prevalent in schools and classrooms that limit social choices and facilitate student interaction. For instance, smaller, structured schools guide student communication by encouraging students to interact based on school projects rather than discussing their social lives. Smaller schools also offer a smaller selection of potential friends. As a result, excluding people from a social group is less likely to occur because of the risks associated with ostracism.

The idea is that students are grouping into these cliques for comfort reasons because the environment is so large and overwhelming. Larger schools expose teens to such a diverse group of people, opportunities and activities that processing all of it may just seem like too much for teens. As a result, it is much easier to stick with what they know rather than venture out of their comfort zone.

For this reason, researchers encourage teachers and administrators of larger schools to recognize this fact and foster relationships with diverse groups of students as a way to prevent the development of cliques.

A closer look at the study

The study, Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Duke Network Analysis Center and Stanford's Center for Computational Social Science, involved analyzing data regarding friendships at the classroom level and the school level.

At the classroom level, the researchers reviewed detailed data on friendships and social interactions compiled at two very different high schools over a two-semester period. Meanwhile, the school-level data came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

What researchers found is that students at large schools tend to look for friends similar to themselves. Sociologists refer to this instinct at homophily. Because bigger schools offer a larger range of potential friends and more exposure to people who are different, kids are faced with both freedom and uncertainty.

In the end though, they tend to group with people who are most like them or share similar interests.

Meanwhile in schools where teachers and administrators set the pace and control classroom interactions, teens are more likely to develop friendships based on shared school activities and similar intellectual interests. Researchers emphasize that a focus on strong education strengthens the school’s climate and makes it more resistant to external criteria for friendship such as social status. In other words, a more rigid school setting can sometimes promote more open-mindedness in making friends — a valuable quality in adulthood.

Keep in mind that school size is only one factor in the development of cliques. As a result, small schools with less choice do not necessarily mean students are better off. While bigger more diverse student populations may need to more social groupings and cliques, smaller, more elite schools are already more segregated in the first place.

Continue Reading