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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.