Why cliques form in some schools more easily than others

What makes some schools more cliquish than others?

One reason—size of the school, with larger schools more cliquish than smaller schools—is no surprise.  But a second reason provides a new twist.

Schools that offer students a lot of academic freedom, e.g. more elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, more freedom to select seats in classrooms—are a more fertile breeding ground for cliques, says a new study in the American Sociological Review.

Cliques form because people gravitate toward people of the same race, class, gender and age as themselves, a concept called homophily or “love of the same,”  according to the study. Schools with a more regimented academic atmosphere tend to foster friendships based on intellectual interests and common activities, according to the study. Smaller schools discourage cliques because excluding people becomes riskier when there are fewer people to choose from.

The researchers used two datasets for the study:  one to examine friendships on the classroom level and the other on the school-wide level. The school-level data comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The researchers developed detailed classroom-level data of friendships and social interactions from two very different high schools over two semesters.

Lead researcher Daniel McFarland, a Stanford professor, cautions against concluding that a small, rigid school is best for all students.  What educators can learn is that students’ social alliances are not beyond the reach of educator influence.  School organization can impact students’ “network ecology,” McFarland says.

Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure,” Daniel McFarland et al.,  American Sociological Review, 2014.

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