Chic Cliques (or is it Chick Clicks?)

September 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sara Wakefield mentioned on Facebook that Kindergarten Moms’ night was “remarkably like high school where I did okay with all groups but fit in with none.”  (I took note because at the time,  I was just about to leave for my own high school reunion.)

The social structure of high school, it seems, is all about cliques – freaks and geeks,* jocks and emos, preps, goths, cool kids, et. al.  But there’s a paradox here.  Whenever I ask students about cliques in high school, they all say pretty much what Sara said.  (I mean, that's what they say once they figure out that when I say “clique” – rhymes with “antique” or “unique” – I really mean “click.”)  I ask them to jot down a list of the cliques at their school.  Some make longer lists, some shorter, but nobody sits there with a blank sheet of paper. Then, when I ask them which they were in, it turns out that nobody was a member of any clique.  Instead, like Sara, they affiliated loosely with many of the groups, or they had friends in several different cliques.

But wait a minute. You can’t have a group without members.  So if nobody is a member of any clique, then cliques don’t exist.  How can everyone see all these cliques when nobody in the school belongs to a clique?

The paradox stems from two different definitions or ways of thinking about cliques – as an actual group, and as a label.  When we think about other people, we think of the clique as both – group and label.  But when we think about ourselves, we think of the clique primarily as a label.  And while we are very willing to apply a label to other people, we resist labeling ourselves. 

Attribution theory has a similar take on “personality.”  If we are given a list of personality traits – from Affable to Zany –  and asked to say whether they apply to some person we know, we have no trouble going through the list and checking Yes or No for each trait. But when asked if those traits apply to us, we balk and go for the column marked “depends on the situation.”  As one of the attribution pioneers (Walter Mischel?) put it, apparently a personality is something that other people have. 

The same self/other difference shapes our ideas about cliques – that they are something that other people belong to – and for the same reason: the clique label, like the personality trait, is too limiting.  To say that I am “introverted” implies that this is how I am.  Always.  But “always” doesn’t feel right.  For one thing, I know that sometimes I can act in a very outgoing way. And for another, if I assign myself that label, then I can never act effusively and still be true to who I “really” am.

Similarly, to label myself as “one of the cool kids,” flattering though that may seem, limits me to that characteristic – coolness – when in fact I know there are times when I feel very uncool.  And besides, I sometimes hang around with kids who are not in the cool group.  (I’m using “I” in the hypothetical, generic sense. In reality, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the cool kids.)

The distinction probably even applies to official groups like the football team.  If you’re not a member, you might think of them as “the jocks” with all the connotations that the word carries. But I suspect that your local linebacker is more reluctant to apply that label to himself. There’s no doubt that he’s on the team. But he probably doesn’t think of himself as a jock.   

So while cliques have a certain reality embodied in real people, they are also cognitive categories that we construct and use to simplify and make sense of the social life of school.  Perhaps it’s equally useful to think of cliques not so much as actual groups of people but as ways of being that real people slide into and out of. And if any of what I’m saying here is accurate, how might it apply outside the high school microcosm – for example, to the concept of social class?

* At about this same time when Sara and I were thinking about high school, Mrs. Castelli’s  students – actual high school students –  were thinking and blogging about “Freaks and Geeks.”

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