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"Mean girls" -- we all grew up with them and Hollywood even made a movie about them. They are part of the adolescent social structure. These girls -- and boys too -- segregate themselves by race, age, gender, and social status and make life difficult for everyone else.

Sociologists have studied this and tried to understand why we tend to form exclusionary groups. The reasons seem to be the desire to relate to people that are familiar, people that are predictable. It is a form of control and dominance and it offers security as well as support.

Cliques and hierarchies are more prominent in some schools. Schools that offer students more choices like a variety of elective courses, are flexible with how to complete requirements, offer a bigger range of potential friends,a not so rigid seating assignment structure are more likely to be rank-ordered and cliquish.

Smaller schools obviously have less of everything. The social circle comes with a small group. Since picking friends is from a smaller group the "cost" of excluding people from a social group is higher. Either way you tear it down it still has the opportunity to become a clique.

Beyond reach

These are some of the findings of a new study being published in the December edition of the American Sociological Review

"Educators often suspect that the social world of adolescents is beyond their reach and out of their control, but that's not really so. They have leverage, because the schools are indirectly shaping conditions in these societies," said Stanford professor Daniel A. McFarland, lead author of the study.

The study looked at two datasets about friendships, one looked at friendships at the classroom level and the other at the school level. The school-level data came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The classroom study was compiled by McFarland at two very different high schools over a two-semester period.

In schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers pretty much set the pace, things were a little more rigid. The teens were less likely to form friendships based on influences from outside the school. Instead they bonded more with their peers that tended to be engaged in similar school activities and had similar intellectual interests. The researchers summed it up by saying a positive educational climate strengthens the school's "system membrane" and makes it more impervious to "external" criteria for friendship such as race or social status.

"The main goal of this study was to shed light on how a school's environment affects the shape of adolescent social networks," McFarland said. "The truth is that we are not sure which kind of adolescent society is best for youth social development, let alone what position in them is best."

For now the study appears to be a reflection of our society. If you look at any group of people they have a tendency to pair off with what they are familiar with. Breaking down those barriers in adolescents may be the key to breaking down some of the barriers in our life as adults.

McFarland said his groups plans to do further studies to look at which kinds of social networks and social networking positions will best help teens prepare for adulthood.

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