The Importance of Social Groups in Adolescence (page 3)
Most children and adolescents frequently interact and enjoy being with peers besides their close friends. Over time, many form larger social groups that regularly get together (N. Eisenberg et al., 1996; Gottman & Mettetal, 1986). Initially, such groups are usually composed of a single sex, but in adolescence they often include both boys and girls (Gottman & Mettetal, 1986; J. R. Harris, 1995).
Once children or adolescents gel as a group, they prefer other group members over nonmembers, and they develop feelings of loyalty to individuals within the group. In some cases they also develop feelings of hostility and rivalry toward members of other groups (Dunham, Baron, & Banaji, 2006; J. R. Harris, 1998; Nesdale, Maass, Durkin, & Griffiths, 2005). If you look back on your own adolescent years, you may recall that you and your friends attached names to members of different groups—not only the “popular” students mentioned in the opening case study but perhaps also “brains,” “jocks,” “druggies,” or “geeks”—and you probably viewed some of the groups unfavorably (Eckert, 1989; J. R. Harris, 1995). Ggroup memberships affect learners’ sense of self, and associations with such unofficial groups as these are no exception. Even children in the primary grades know that social groups can vary considerably in social status (Bigler, Brown, & Markell, 2001; Dunham et al., 2006; Nesdale et al., 2005).
As youngsters reach puberty, larger groups become an especially prominent feature of their social worlds. Researchers have identified several distinct types of groups during the adolescent years: cliques, crowds, subcultures, and gangs. Cliques are moderately stable friendship groups of perhaps 3 to 10 individuals, and such groups provide the setting for most voluntary social interactions (Crockett, Losoff, & Peterson, 1984; J. L. Epstein, 1986; Kindermann et al., 1996). Clique boundaries tend to be fairly rigid and exclusive (some people are “in,” others are “out”), and memberships in various cliques often affect social status (Goodwin, 2006; Wigfield et al., 1996).
Crowds are considerably larger than cliques and may not have the tight-knit cohesiveness and carefully drawn boundaries of a clique. Their members tend to share common interests (e.g., “brains” study a lot, “jocks” are active in sports), attitudes about academic achievement, and (occasionally) ethnic background (L. Steinberg, 1996). Sometimes a crowd takes the form of a subculture, a group that resists a powerful dominant culture by adopting a significantly different way of life (J. S. Epstein, 1998). Some subcultures are relatively benign; for example, the baggy-pants “skaters” with whom my son Alex affiliated spent much of their free time riding their skateboards and addressing almost everyone as “dude.” Other subcultures are more worrisome, such as those that endorse racist and anti-Semitic behaviors (e.g., “skinheads”) and those that practice Satanic worship and rituals. Adolescents are more likely to affiliate with troublesome subcultures when they feel alienated from the dominant culture (perhaps that of their school or that of society more generally) and want to distinguish themselves from it in some way (C. C. Clark, 1992; J. R. Harris, 1998).
A gang is a cohesive social group characterized by initiation rites, distinctive colors and symbols, ownership of a specific “territory,” and feuds with one or more rival groups. Typically, gangs are governed by strict rules for behavior, with stiff penalties for rule violations. Adolescents (and sometimes younger children as well) affiliate with gangs for a variety of reasons (A. Campbell, 1984; C. C. Clark, 1992; Kodluboy, 2004; Parks, 1995; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Conger, 1991). Some do so as a way of demonstrating loyalty to their family, friends, or neighborhood. Some seek the status and prestige that gang membership brings. Some have poor academic records and perceive the gang as an alternative arena in which they might gain recognition for their accomplishments. Many members of gangs have had troubled relationships with their families, or they have been consistently rejected by peers, and so they turn to gangs to get the emotional support they can find nowhere else.
In the upper secondary school grades, a greater capacity for abstract thought allows many adolescents to think of other people more as unique individuals and less as members of specific categories. They gain new awareness of the characteristics they share with people from diverse backgrounds. Perhaps as a result, ties to specific peer groups tend to dissipate, hostilities between groups soften, and young people become more flexible about the people with whom they associate (B. B. Brown, Eicher, & Petrie, 1986; Gavin & Fuhrman, 1989; Larkin, 1979; Shrum & Cheek, 1987).
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