Written by Makeela Wells
Cliques are structures found in school settings that organize and influence the social world of students. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a brief overview of the impact of cliques in a school setting. First, the blog post will discuss the components of a clique. Second, the post will explore the techniques of inclusion and exclusion that are used by cliques. Lastly, the post will examine the role of cliques in influencing the relationship between an individual’s social status, aggression, and prosocial behavior.
What is a clique?
Cliques can be defined as circles of power whereby leaders rely on various mechanisms to attain, maintain, and influence followers, both by building them up and cutting them down. Leaders draw followers into their circles, “allowing them to bask in the glow of popularity and acceptance” (Adler & Adler, 1995, p. 145). Leaders then subject followers to a position of dependence within the group. The way that students create feelings about themselves, establish friendships, and participate in certain activities (i.e., sports) is influenced by the organization of cliques. For example, jocks, or those who engage in sports, are more likely to align and establish relationships with others who also participate in sports. A distinguishing feature of cliques is that they tend to have a hierarchical structure that is dominated by one or more leaders. Cliques are also exclusive; only a few of the individuals who desire membership are accepted (Adler & Adler, 1995).
Research shows that cliques thrive more in certain schools than others. McFarland and colleagues (2014) analyzed both classroom-level and school-level data about friendships and found that a school’s network ecology, or the organizational setting within the school, influences whether or not a clique thrives within the school setting. They found that schools that offered students more choice, such as more elective courses and more freedom in seat selection, were more likely to establish cliques and that these cliques were more likely to thrive. Cliques were less prevalent in schools where choice was limited and formats of interaction were prescribed (McFarland, Moody, Diehl, Smith, & Thomas, 2014). Smaller schools were also less likely to have thriving cliques because the choice range of friends was smaller and the cost associated with excluding an individual from a group was greater.
The Inclusion and Exclusion Processes of Cliques
Cliques rely on the techniques of including and excluding individuals from that particular group. The process of inclusion involves recruitment, which occurs when one is solicited by clique members to become a part of the group, with leaders having the most influence over the recruitment process (Adler & Adler, 1995). Leaders decide if they like or dislike potential members, and the group members follow the leader’s decision. Potential members are granted a probationary period of acceptance into the group. If accepted during this period, potential members remain in the group. If rejected, they are required to leave the group (Adler & Adler, 1995). A second method of gaining entry into a clique is through the process known as application, whereby students actively seek entry into a group. Application for clique entry is easier to accomplish for a single individual than for a group (Adler & Adler, 1995). Successful applicants receive a great deal of immediate popularity due to their entry requiring approval from clique leaders.
Once accepted into the clique, new members align with others in the group. Those who are close friends with the leaders are more popular than those who are not. Members often work hard to maintain and improve their position within the group (Adler & Adler, 1995). Certain members experience a realignment of friendship within the clique, with some members abandoning friendships with certain clique members and establishing new friendships with other clique members. Members are more susceptible to being wooed by those in the group who are more popular than themselves (Adler & Adler, 1995). Due to the hierarchical structure, friendship loyalty tends to be less reliable in cliques than in other groups.
The techniques utilized in the exclusion process allow clique members to enhance the status of the group while, at the same time, maintaining hierarchy inside and outside of the clique. Those people who are not members of the group are subjected to rejection and ridicule, which provide entertainment for clique members (Adler & Adler, 1995). Leaders of cliques tend to treat outsiders badly and convince clique members to engage in similar behavior. A defining feature of the exclusion process is the use of gossip, which clique members use to spread rumors about particular outsiders. This process is used to ensure that clique entry by an outsider is highly unlikely (Adler & Adler, 1995). Engaging in gossip and the rejection and ridicule of outsiders solidifies the unity of the clique and displays the power that the clique has within the school setting.
How Do Cliques Influence Adolescent Social Status, Aggression, and Prosocial Behavior?
Pattiselanno and colleagues (2015) explored the role of clique hierarchy in influencing adolescent social status, aggression and prosocial behavior. The sample for the study included approximately 2,700 adolescents from over 120 Dutch schools (Pattiselanno, Dijkstra, Steglich, Vollebergh, & Veenstra, 2015). Cliques in this study were divided into girls only, boys only, and mixed-gender. Results revealed that aggression was strongly related to individual social status in girls’ cliques where there were more high status adolescents in the clique than low status adolescents. Boys’ cliques tended to be physically aggressive, while girls’ cliques tended to be relationally aggressive. Clique status, which refers to the popularity of the clique within the school, was positively related to physical aggression in all of the three types of cliques. However, clique status was only positively related to relational aggression in mixed-gender cliques (Pattiselanno et al., 2015). Higher status within the clique was associated with a greater level of aggression within the clique. Prosocial behavior was found to have a significant relationship with individual social status, with boys in mixed-gender cliques providing less emotional support than girls in similar cliques. Additionally, the relationship between clique status and emotional support was positive for girls’ clique (Pattiselanno et al., 2015). Higher status within a girl’s clique was associated with more emotional support given by the girls in that clique.
In conclusion, cliques can be found in elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States. Cliques have the potential to shape a student’s outlook on life, and the processes that are used to include and exclude certain individuals can be found in many of the major institutions in U.S. society (e.g., government, politics, and religion). It is imperative to understand the dynamics surrounding the formation and maintenance of cliques within schools so that parents, legal guardians, and school officials are better capable of assisting students in handling situations that may arise from school-based cliques.
For more information on cliques in schools, visit Teaching Tolerance at http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/cliques-schools.
Adler, P., & Adler, P. (1995). Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion of Preadolescent Cliques. Social Psychology Quarterly, 58(3), 145-162.
McFarland, D.A., Moody, J., Diehl, D., Smith, J.A., & Thomas, R.J. (2014). Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure. American Sociological Review, 79(6), 1088-1121.
Pattiselanno, K., Dijkstra, J.K., Steglich, C., Vollebergh, W., & Veenstra, R. (2015). Structure Matters: The Role of Clique Hierarchy in the Relationship Between Adolescent Social Status and Aggression and Prosociality. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44, 2257-2274.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor
Ms. Areal Carter
Undergraduate Student in Psychology
Mr. Hal Bronson
Undergraduate Student in Psychology