While social conformity has many prosocial functions, it can get in the way of self-awareness

I had the good fortune to get to know students in the Grade 4 age range when I worked as a teacher with the Peel District School Board prior to my retirement in 2006. My retirement was marked with a school assembly at which I gave an eight-minute presentation. A group of students entertained the assembly with a song they had made up for the occasion.

I still keep in touch with elementary students as a volunteer. Each year, in recent years, I’ve made presentations to students at this age level, and have joined elementary classes on a number of enjoyable outdoor field trips.

The Mississauga school where I taught was built at a time when plenty of land was available for school sites. Thus the school has a paved area for recess and beyond that an enormous playing field where students can also play at recess.

During the years that I taught Grade 4, I learned a great deal about the lives of Grade 4 students. I also would tell my students about my own experiences at that age, which they always enjoyed hearing about. What I know, especially from the years that I was a teacher, is that having good friends to play with at recess is a central part of the life experience of a typical Grade 4 student.

Grade 4

I also learned, on rare occasions when a class decided that it would be a good idea to share with me some particular features of their lives as students, that Grade 4 children, like children at all age levels, have a life “of their own” that is separate from the lives of the teachers and other adults that they are in touch with every day. On such occasions, when they spoke candidly with me, as a class, about the things that they did not generally make a practice of sharing with teachers, I felt honoured that I had gained their trust.

On one occasion, at the end of a school year, one class staged a panel discussion, moderated by a girl who was highly adept at such tasks, specifically for my benefit. In the course of the panel discussion, which we all enjoyed, a wide range of students shared some delightful stories – about their own “classroom romances.” “Oh my,” I thought. “I would never have imagined these relationships!” I was really pleased that the class had decided, following one of my year-end lessons, that I would be a fine teacher to share the stories with. That was for me an unusual experience, one that I cherish. The panel discussion has stayed with me, long after my teaching career was over.

Everyday life of preadolescent students

With regard to the everyday life of students, the forms of social stratification that occurs in classrooms, and in a school as a whole, including at recess times, is evident to most everyone, to varying degrees, and has been widely studies by sociologists.

With regard to research about such topics, I’ve recently been re-reading a book from the Toronto Public Library entitled Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (1998). I’m not familiar, at this point, with more recent research, published since 1998, regarding preadolescent social stratification and related topics, aside from Status Update (2013).

Chapter 10 concludes the study

I don’t know if I’ll ever find time to read the book in its entirety. However, I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Chapter 10, in my current loan period for the book. If the topics at hand interest you, I recommend this chapter, which is entitled “Bringing It All Together.”

The authors note that they chose to approach the experiences, of the children they studied, “as much as possible through the children’s own perspectives, to cast our emphases on those things that they considered important” (p. 194). The study focussed in particular on the free time that children constructed for themselves within the context of family, school, and after-school programs.

“It was,” the authors note, “within their social lives that they found the freedom to create and express themselves. This was where they forged the peer culture that set the standards against which they both evaluated the outside world and measured themselves.

“We have tried to portray children’s experiences in the ways that they saw them, adding analytical elements that grew out of their own observations and interactions. We discussed issues related to their status stratification and dynamics, to their core nonacademic activities, to the sets of relationships that comprised their lives, influencing both their identity and social position. Taken together, these elements formed the foundation of their preadolescent peer lives and culture” (p. 194).

Erving Goffman

The study makes several references to the symbolic interactionist work of Erving Goffman, whose published work and career I have followed with interest starting from the day that I first began reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) in the mid-1960s.

I would have long ago lost interest in Goffman’s work, were it not for the fact that even in recent years, in my reading of a wide range of contemporary studies, I’ve come across many references to his work.

While social conformity has many prosocial functions, it represents an opposing force to self-awareness

The title for this blog post is from a discussion on p. 210 of Chapter 10 of the study, under the subheading of “Peer Group Dynamics.”

In closing, I’m pleased to share with you the following blurb, from the Toronto Public Library website, regarding Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (1998).

If you know of a more recent sociological study addressing the same themes, please let me know.

The blurb from the Toronto Public Library reads:

  • Peer Power seeks to explode existing myths about children’s friendships, power and popularity, and the gender chasm between elementary school boys and girls. Based on eight years of intensive insider participant observation in their own children’s community, Peter and Patti Adler discuss the vital components of the lives of preadolescents, popularity, friendships, cliques, social status, social isolation, loyalty, bullying, boy-girl relationships, and after-school activities. They describe how friendships shift and change, how people are drawn into groups and excluded from them, how clique leaders maintain their power and popularity, and how individuals’ social experiences and feelings about themselves differ from the top of the pecking order to the bottom. In so doing, the Adlers focus their attention on the peer culture of the children themselves and the way this culture extracts and modifies elements from adult culture.

[End of blurb]

A brief review of the book is also available at the Toronto Public Library website

The link at which the above-noted blurb appears also includes a brief review of the book. The review is also well worth reading, as it concisely outlines the scope and value of the study.

Another book that I like, regarding the themes addressed in Peer Power (1998), is Odd Girl Speaks Out (2004).

Updates

Kidsmediacentre at Centennial College in Toronto conducts research on children & youth’s digital usage patterns and media habits http://www.hashtaginstafame.com

A Jan. 6, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Online video sparks bullying investigation: Video of Summerside, P.E.I., school fight has gathered over 2 million views since Christmas Eve.”

A Jan. 27, 2016 Toronto Star article is entitled: “New study shows you probably only have four real Facebook friends: Online social environments do not help users broaden friend groups or increase size of social networks, new study says.”

Stereotypes

A subsequent post is entitled:

Perceptions of warmth and competence drive our stereotypes, biases, and prejudices (Cuddy et al., 2008) 

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