November 22, 2013

Does one clique rule the whole school these days?

Before, I looked at how there seem to be very few distinct and cohesive cultural groups among young people nowadays, as compared to the United Nations of crowds and scenes back in the '80s.

Now, your group membership is mostly based on similarity in tastes and appearance, like attracting like. In the '80s, the group you wanted to join didn't care so much about whether you were the identical twin of an existing group member for tastes and appearance, but whether you were going to pay your dues, get the back of whoever needed it, and contribute to the fun atmosphere of group activities.

Membership was more "costly," hence an honest signal of your loyalty to the team. Whereas now, you don't need to pitch in anything since like attracts like -- once they can tell you have similar tastes and appearance, they let you get close, not because you've expressed any interest in joining and contributing. Groups were thus more cohesive back then, and more superficial and prone to dissolving now (once you start digging a different type of music or sporting a different haircut you're no longer like us).

Something I didn't touch on before, but that is no less striking of a difference between then and now, is how hierarchical and hegemonic the relationship is among cliques these days. With so few distinct groups to throw their weight around, those that do exist have a corner on the fitting-in market. In some schools, they may be the only game in town -- you're either in that one group, or you're part of the atomized majority. Crucially, not an anti-establishment majority that is taking on the monopoly clique, but just a great wide sea of atomized bitter individuals.

Since groups today are mainly defined by tastes and appearance, this monopoly clique will be the ones who are the best looking and the most extraverted (compared to other Millennials, at any rate). So then, there's the popular crowd and everybody else, who would like to move up and fit in.

My strong impression is that crowds were not very hierarchically ranked in the '80s, where you might start out with low-ranking group A, then climb your way up into B, and if you were lucky, reach the peak with C. The goal was not status striving, but fitting in -- it didn't particularly matter which group, as long as you found one. The stoners were perfectly happy in their group, the metalheads in theirs, the jocks and preps and nerds in theirs. That suggests that they were all of roughly equal ranking (with some dominance, say of jocks over nerds), each could stick up for itself in a potential confrontation with any of the others, and changing membership was more of a lateral than a vertical movement.

One of those groups were the good-looking and extraverted clique, but folks in the other cliques saw them as just another clique. Perhaps they wanted to bone the girls in that clique, but they didn't bow down to them. And girls in other cliques may have wanted to be their friends, but only the truly insecure wanted to abandon their current group in order to "trade up."

Being good-looking and having good people skills allowed this group to socialize easily with any of the other groups, but they couldn't apply much peer pressure or cultural influence to out-group members. They didn't wield much power, and were not a gouging monopoly. If anything, they were often the target of potshots by the other groups -- not sustained campaigns to cut them down, but more like regular reminders that they weren't royalty, and not to get too big for their breeches.

I think this explains why Generation X chafes the most at the two prevailing modes of inter-group relations over the past 20 years -- multiculturalism, which forces groups to interact with and worship one another, rather than leaving groups to do their own thing; and authority worship, where us peons are supposed to drop everything we're interested in and get on board with whatever the fashionable people are liking -- Apple products, Instagram, Panera Bread, etc. Their formative experiences with social organization lead them to expect and demand the opposite.

And it also explains why Millennials are so gung-ho with these prevailing modes -- forced interaction between groups is like, "Omigosh, finally a group has been created for me to belong to, and I get to interact with other groups too!" And fashion/authority worship is all to familiar from their middle and high school days -- you either do what the popular crowd does, or you remain part of the atomized masses. The bustling pluralism of the '80s would feel disturbing -- like, how do you even know which group to join? Why can't someone else just create a group for you, like parents setting up a regular group for play dates?

People think that the form of social organization in primary and secondary school is of no great importance, but if it leaves enduring effects on the students' mindset and behavior, as they internalize one set of norms vs. another, then it's nothing to brush off. And these two types of organization stem from a more sheltered vs. a less supervised environment while they're growing up, as I detailed in the earlier post. (Sheltered = hegemonic monopoly group, unsupervised = organic pluralism.)

These ideas were in the back of my mind from watching teen movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, and Heathers. But I've started to read more of that memoir on promiscuity that I talked about last week, Loose Girl, which is set mostly in the '80s. Maybe it's the non-fiction nature of the narrative, or maybe all the extra detail that comes from a book-length treatment, but it really struck me how flatter the social group hierarchies used to be back then, allowing for more fluid movement between groups. Fitting in and falling out was not primarily about status striving and downward mobility.


  1. I don't really consider myself as having had belonged to a particular clique. I got along pretty well with everyone, I think. Although I have to say I had very few close friends, especially after one of them moved during Junior year. I bore the brunt of some teasing, but I think I've overcome that fairly well, or at least forgiven all involved. It was cool to attend my 10-year reunion, as I talked to people I hardly ever talked to back then. Although only about 20 people out of a class of 150 or so showed up, yikes.

    I wonder how the zeitgeist affects reunion attendance. Don't hate me for saying this, but things like Facebook probably don't help in this regard. I've heard people say things like "I don't need to attend because if I don't talk to you now why would I want to see you?" As well as "I can follow everyone on Facebook, so I don't need to come." Both of these were uttered by Gen Xers, I might add...

  2. School resembles prison. The students are cut off from contact with the outside world. It does little to prepare students for employment. Even their ability to associate in school is limited by class schedules. Extracirricular activities are somewhat more free, except when parents force their children to join.

  3. Having school cliques apart from musical subcultures seems very American.

    Other countries like mine definitely have people who are "bright" and "sporty" and they associate with similar people, but there seems like a different self consciousness in how people from the USA think of groups of sporty people as "the jocks" etc.


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