The 12 high-school cliques that exist today, and how they differ from past decades

The pressure of getting into a top-tier college seems to have influenced the ways teenagers sort themselves into cliques.

  • Researchers conducted focus groups with students who recently graduated from high school to ask them about their experience with peer groups.
  • Altogether, the participants identified 12 distinct "peer crowds" and ranked them in a social hierarchy.
  • The results show that, compared to past decades, some groups have risen or fallen in the hierarchy, and a couple new groups have emerged.

How do modern high-school peer groups compare to the familiar cliques of past decades — jocks, stoners, brains? A new study explores that question and highlights a few new groups that have formed in the high-school social hierarchy, offering insights into adolescents' changing attitudes that stem, in part, from the increased pressure to obtain a college degree.

The findings, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in December of 2018, come from a series of focus groups that researchers conducted with recently graduated and ethnically diverse students who were born between 1990 and 1997, and enrolled in one of two U.S. universities.

To get an idea of students' recent high-school experiences with peer groups, the researchers, working at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin, asked their focus groups to write down the various cliques that existed at their schools, and then to try to agree upon common groups that existed at all of the schools. After, the researchers asked the students questions, like:

  • Which groups was most popular?
  • How well did they do in school?
  • What kinds of clothes do they wear?
  • What race, gender, income are they?
  • How good looking are they?
  • Where do they hang out after school?
  • What do they do on weekends?

The students identified 12 general "crowds" in modern high schools: populars, jocks, floaters, good-ats, fine arts, brains, normals, druggies-stoners, emo/goths, anime-manga kids, and loners. The researchers also classified these crowds into two groups: conventional and counterculture, with "conventional crowds embracing the values typically rewarded by the U.S. educational system and counterculture crowds opposing and/or providing alternatives to them."

​Differences of modern cliques & the pressures of getting into college

In many ways, modern cliques seem to reflect the high-school peer groups of past generations. For example, the top of the modern social hierarchy is occupied by familiar and conventional crowds such as jocks, talented students and popular kids — not exactly a surprise.

However, the "brains" crowd, located in the middle of the social hierarchy, seemed to differ from past decades. Characterized by getting good grades, students often remarked how this crowd seemed overly consumed by academics and the desire to get into a top-tier college, a preoccupation not observed by past researchers.

"Participants identified academic anxiety in more specific terms, even suggesting that students in the 'brain' peer crowd 'were less mentally healthy' due to a fear of upsetting their parents," Rachel Gordon, lead study author and professor of sociology at UIC, told UIC Today.

Competition to get into good colleges seems to have shaken up the high-school hierarchy in other ways, too.

The fine arts crowd, for example, has been around for decades, but now it seems to be growing in status and prevalence, a rise the researchers attributed to the importance of participating in extracurricular activities for college admissions. Meanwhile, the researchers identified a new crowd: the so-called "good-ats," who, as the name implies, are well-rounded and exceed at academics, sports and extracurricular activities.

Of course, past generations had similar kinds of students — researchers called them "athlete-scholars" or "beautiful brains." But the good-ats differ from these groups, according to the researchers, because of their drive to achieve in several different fields at once. Again, the researchers suggested this drive likely reflects "the need for college-bound students to appear 'well-rounded' in college applications."

Another new group identified in the study is the anime/manga crowd, which participants characterized as "being unattractive, outlandish, and socially awkward."

"They probably wear clothing that represents video games and anime," said one participant. "Yeah, a lot of fandom stuff and cosplays [dressing as anime characters]," said another student. "Colored hair. . . . You have to have weird colored hair and headphones."

This group "resembled geeks, dorks, nerds, and dweebs in past U.S.-based studies," and their social life exists mainly online, the researchers noted.

​Low-status cliques reflect changing times

Photo credit: Jerry Kiesewetter via Unsplash

The study suggests lower-status crowds are more heavily influenced by current events, popular culture and social media. Gordon provided several examples of this apparent connection to UIC Today, among them:

  • The emergence of the "anime/magna" peer crowd, which she said is a modern-day incarnation of a classic "computer geek" crowd that is likely promoted by a sharing of cultures on the internet.
  • The "emo/goth" crowd, who share with past decades a focus on countercultural behaviors, but focus on today's music and aesthetics.
  • The expressed fear of "loners" as potential perpetrators of violence, something that Gordon described as "new and unique to adolescents today, potentially reflecting the prevalence of school shootings over the last 20 years."

White students perceive crowds differently

The study found that crowds at the top of the social hierarchy were often characterized as white, and that white students were likely to describe racial-ethnic crowds as monoliths, and they did so in "racially-coded language." However, students of color tended to observe much more variance within racial-ethnic groups, as one black student described:

"... there's so much variation. You have good-looking black people. You have not good-looking black people. You have smart black people and not so smart, you have healthy and then not healthy."

Students of color generally said that, unlike white students, they were inextricably tied to the members of their racial-ethnic group. Because of this, a 12th group was included in the researchers' new hierarchal pyramid. The researchers wrote:

"When students of color identified racial-ethnic crowds, they saw them as home bases to which they were automatically members, in a positive way. One focus group participant described how a student of color could not be 'completely in another group because they were in [a racial-ethnic] community by default [because] that's just who they are.'"

Why do cliques form?

Still from the 1993 Richard Linklater film "Dazed and Confused." Image source: Gramercy

Most people frame cliques in a negative light, and it's no wonder: They often lead to social exclusion and isolation, and also, in case you've never seen a Hollywood high-school movie, some pretty obnoxious behavior. Still, cliques are likely just a result of human nature — the desire to sort ourselves into groups for reasons of familiarity and certainty, control and dominance, and security and support, as Mark Prigg wrote.

Or, more simply, we form cliques because we want to surround ourselves with people like us, a preference that's as deep-rooted as "our anxieties about people who are different and our ambition for status within our community," as Derek Thompson wrote for The Atlantic.

In any case, studying cliques could help scientists and educators find ways to make schools safer and better places to learn.

"Adolescent peer crowds play an important role in determining short-term and long-term life trajectories on social, educational and psychological fronts," Gordon told UIC Today. "Understanding how adolescents navigate their environments and perceive themselves and others can help us advance research in many areas, from how we can successfully promote healthy behaviors, such as anti-smoking or safe sex messages, to how we develop effective curriculums or even mediate the effects of school shootings."

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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