Peer Group Structure and Influences (Sociometry)
Understanding peer group structure and its relevance for young people's identity, attitudes and behaviour has been immeasurably enhanced by the use of sociometric techniques. Based on friendship nominations, sociometry allows investigators to build up a map of relationships within a social system such as a school year-group, and to identify pupils in different sociometric positions such as groups, dyads, ‘hangers-on' and isolates. In a study of a single secondary school conducted in the mid 1990s, sociometry, in conjunction with qualitative data, enabled the identification of a group of ‘top girls' who, along with those at the bottom of the pecking order were much more likely to be smokers. Subsequent work, exploiting the longitudinal design of that study, demonstrated that the development of smoking between ages 13 and 15 was strongly linked to group membership, with individuals being both attracted to smoking groups (selection) and influenced by them.
These issues were subsequently examined in a study called the ‘Teenage Health in Schools (THiS) study. Although cross-sectional in design, THiS also utilised sociometric data to investigate pupil smoking in nine secondary schools, from which two (one with a ‘high' and one with a 'low' smoking rate) were selected for further in-depth study. The analysis showed differences between the two schools in peer group structure, pupil popularity and attitudes to smoking. In the ‘high' smoking school, smokers were more likely to be in groups and to be popular, and pupil attitudes were generally more positive about smoking. In the ‘low' smoking school, by contrast, smokers were more likely to be isolates, none was popular, and attitudes were more negative towards smoking.
A related analysis of eight of the nine schools showed the effects of sociometric position and popularity varied by gender, school socio-economic status (SES) and by substance. For example, while in lower SES schools, smoking and drug use were least likely among pupils in large groups, this was not the case in higher SES schools, nor was there a clear effect of sociometric position on alcohol.
These analyses demonstrate a complex interrelationship between type of school and peer group structures and related cultures and processes, and suggest the possibility that such differences might be one explanation for ‘school effects' on health behaviours. This is also suggested in the corresponding in-depth study of the two schools, each differing in terms of the emphasis given to education and health respectively, and in terms of rules and rule enforcement about smoking.
Pearson M, Sweeting H, West P, Young R, Gordon J, Turner J. Adolescent substance use in different social and peer contexts: a social network analysis. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy 2006;13:519-536
Steglich C, Snijders TAB, West P. Applying SIENA: an illustrative analysis of the co-evolution of adolescents' friendship networks, taste in music, and alcohol consumption. Methodology: Journal of Research Methods for the Behavioral and Social Sciences 2006;2:48-56
Sweeting H, Young R, West P, Der G. Peer victimization and depression in early-mid adolescence: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology 2006;76:577-594pubmed
Turner K, West P, Young R, Gordon J, Sweeting H. Could the peer group explain school differences in pupil smoking rates?. Social Science & Medicine 2006;62:2513-2525pubmed
Gordon J, Turner K. The empowerment principle: casualties of two schools' failure to grasp the nettle. Health Education 2004;104:226-240
Turner K, Gordon J, Young R. Cigarette access and pupil smoking rates: a circular relationship. Health Promotion International 2004;19:428-436pubmed open access
Turner K, Gordon J. A fresh perspective on a rank issue: pupils' accounts of staff enforcement of smoking restrictions. Health Education Research 2004;19:148-158
Turner K, Gordon J. Butt in, butt out: pupils' views on the extent to which staff could and should enforce smoking restrictions. Health Education Research 2004;19:40-50
Gordon J, Turner K. Ifs, maybes and butts: factors influencing staff enforcement of smoking restrictions. Health Education Research 2003;18:329-340pubmed
Gordon J, Turner K. School differences in pupil smoking: a consequence of a trade-off between health and education agendas?. Health Education Research 2003;18:580-591pubmed
Pearson M, West P. Drifting smoke rings: social network analysis and Markov processes in a longitudinal study of friendship groups and risk taking. Connections: bulletin of the International Network for Social Network Analysis 2003;25:59-76open access
Gordon J, Turner K. School staff as exemplars: where is the potential?. Health Education 2001;101:283-291
Pearson M, Michell L. Smoke rings: social network analysis of friendship groups, smoking and drug-taking. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy 2000;7:21-37
Michell L, West P. Peer pressure to smoke: the meaning depends on the method. Health Education Research: Theory and Practice 1996;11:39-49
- Dyads An isolated friendship pair (see Sociometric techniques)
- Isolates Individuals who either do not nominate a friend within a peer group or whose nomination is not reciprocated (see Sociometric techniques)