There must be a lot of teens across the ocean who are baffled by “The Breakfast Club.”

by Lara on April 20, 2009

My students and I recently attended the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development—basically a huge multi-day professional conference for those of us who study developmental psychology, educational psychology, and related areas. It’s crowded, it’s overwhelming, it’s inspiring. It’s a long three days, but worth it.

The day before the conference officially starts is reserved for “preconference events”—usually mini-conferences or meetings of researchers and students in smaller subfields or interest groups. My students and I regularly attend the Peer Relations Preconference, which is a relatively large (300+ attendees this year) meeting that includes brief talks by leading researchers in the field, breakout discussion groups, and a social hour.

One of the breakout sessions I attended (and co-led with my colleague Phil Rodkin) turned toward a discussion of popularity in different cultures. Most published research of popularity among children and adolescents is based on US, Canadian, or Dutch research samples, so our understanding of the social dynamics is limited to those in relatively similar cultures.

However, we do have evidence, for example, that in Hong Kong, popularity is based on academic achievement, rather than looks, possessions, or social savvy the way it often is here. The kids who would be geeks here are the cool kids in China. So we know it’s not universal—there are cultural factors at play that provide a context in which dominance and popularity develop.

One member of the discussion group, a woman from Portugal, expressed real surprise that American (among other) teenagers give power to peers who are aggressive. The rest of the group, of course, wanted to know what makes adolescents popular in Portugal. Turns out that in Portugal, it’s the friendly, outgoing, and engaging students that people look up to. (When asked what teens would call an attractive, well-dressed person who looked down on, manipulated, or hurt others physically or socially, she responded with “An ass!” It was a great discussion. I love my job.)

Now, it’s important to remember that this is just one person’s perspective—we might ask nine other friends from Portugal and get nine different definitions of “popular.” But my point is, there are other cultures in which the cool kids really are cool, in the totally embarrassing geeky adult definition of the word. (Or, at least, my totally embarrassing geeky adult definition of the word. What I wouldn’t give for my lovely teenaged niece to long to be valedictorian, for example.)

What is it about US culture that drives kids to ascribe power to mean people at least some of the time? Surely it can’t be as simple as the clothes they wear. (Right?) Scholarship that investigates the cultural underpinnings of popularity is relatively lacking in our field (and books like Milner’s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids that are written from other perspectives are definitely worth a read). I hope that as more and more people like my colleague from Portugal speak up, we’ll begin to consider the role of culture more carefully in our research. The peer microculture that young people create for themselves obviously doesn’t develop without adult input, so in some ways we’re responsible for their social dynamics. It’s not a comforting thought, but it’s worth thinking about. We may be setting our kids up to value things we really wish they didn’t.

 

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