Confusion in Terminology
Terms such as peer rejection and popular tend to have many meanings. Sometimes these meanings extend beyond the concepts they purportedly describe, and sometimes there are a variety of ways to view a particular concept. This has resulted in confusion about the role of peer relations and social positions in the development of antisocial behavior, and it has helped to obscure information that can be important in the intervention process.
Rejected Sociometric Status vs. Social Isolation. In describing a student as being rejected by peers, an image is created of a child who is friendless, lonely, and picked on by others. Although this can be an accurate conceptualization, it is not necessarily so. Rejected status is not synonymous with social isolation (Hartup, 1996). Rejected status refers to how well a student is generally liked by others and is not an index of whether a student has close friends or associates. Most youth with rejected status have some friends or associates (George & Hartmann, 1996). The importance of this point is that behavioral patterns of rejected youth who are isolated are likely to be maintained by different mechanisms than those of rejected youth who have friends or associates. Consequently, rejected youth who associate with peers (particularly other antisocial peers) are likely to need social interventions that differ from those for youth who are isolated.
Popularity, Prominence, and Social Influence. The term popular can have several distinct meanings. Parkhurst and Hopmeyer (1998) examined differences between sociometric popularity (i.e., frequently nominated as liked most by peers) and perceived popularity (i.e., frequently nominated by peers as being popular). Although there was overlap between the two, many sociometrically popular students were not perceived as being popular, and many students who were perceived as being popular were not sociometrically popular. Sociometrically popular students were nominated by peers as being kind and trustworthy, and not aggressive, dominant, or stuck up. In contrast, students who were perceived as being popular were viewed by peers as being aggressive, dominant, and stuck up, and not trustworthy or kind. This is consistent with social network research which indicates that aggressive students are sometimes highly prominent and influential in the classroom or school (Adler & Adler, 1995, 1996; Xie, Cairns, & Cairns, 1999). These studies suggest a need to look beyond popularity as an index of how well a student is liked, and also consider the role of the student in the social structure.
Mistaking Bullies for Whipping Boys. There are sub-types of aggressive and rejected youth, which can lead to confusion in attributing a specific factor or outcome to the general category of rejected status when it is true for only a subtype of rejected youth. Some rejected-status youth are withdrawn and nonaggressive, and report feelings of loneliness and social incompetence; others are withdrawn and aggressive; and still others are aggressive and not withdrawn, and do not report feelings of loneliness or incompetence (Bierman & Wargo, 1995; Hymel, Bowker, & Woody, 1993; Parkhurst & Asher, 1992). Also, some aggressive youth have prominent positions in the social structure, others are secondary or peripheral followers, and others are socially isolated (Farmer & Farmer, 1996; Xie et al., 1999).
Aggressive and disruptive youth may play a variety of roles in the social structure (Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, & Van Acker, 2000). Some aggressive and disruptive youth may be prominent bullies who wield considerable influence on the classroom social structure, others may be followers who gain favor with prominent peers and maintain their status in the peer group by being aggressive and disruptive, and still others may play the role of victim and engage in aggressive and disruptive behavior in reaction to the provocation of peers or because they lack the social skills to meet their needs in socially competent ways. When referring to the social position of aggressive youth, it is useful to move beyond a term such as rejected and describe the behaviors of the student in relation to the actions (e.g., acquiescing, assisting, retaliating, scapegoating) and perceptions (e.g., bully, cool, easy to push around, nerd) of peers.
Rejection as Process vs. Rejection as Status. Sometimes the term peer rejection is used to refer to a specific socimetric status category that is based on the degree to which a student is liked and disliked by peers. Other times it is used to refer to processes of ostracization, teasing, and scapegoating by others. This may result in erroneous conclusions when it is assumed that a student has rejected status because he or she experiences teasing and ostracization by peers or when it is assumed that a student with rejected status is frequently teased or ostracized by peers. Nearly all youth experience ostracization and teasing (see Adler & Adler, 1995, 1996; Cairns et al., 1989; Evans & Eder, 1993). In fact, students in the most popular groups can be highly vulnerable to extreme social aggression from associates, as they are constantly working to maintain their status, even at the expense of their friendships (see Adler & Adler, 1996; Merten, 1997). Conversely, an aggressive and dominating bully may be unliked by most of her or his peers. Despite being disliked (i.e., having rejected sociometric status), the bully may not be frequently teased or picked on by peers, but instead may be the initiator of social as well as physical aggression toward others. When the event of being teased, cast out, or shunned by peers (i.e., rejection as process) is confused with the condition of being generally unliked by peers (i.e., rejected status), the risk is increased for misunderstanding the factors contributing to the student's behavior and later developmental outcomes.
Aggression Leads to Rejection. It is well established that aggressive and disruptive behavior is associated with rejected status (see Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993). However, not all aggressive and disruptive youth have low social positions. Studies of social network centrality, peer behavioral assessments, and behavioral configurations indicate that in some classrooms very aggressive and disruptive youth are highly prominent in the social structure, and are perceived by peers and teachers as being popular or cool (Luthar & McMahon, 1996; Rodkin et al., 2000; Xie et al., 1999). This suggests that a student's status may depend in part on the norms and values of the peer context. To examine this, Stormshak, Bierman, Bruschi, Dodge, and Coie (1999) investigated the relationship between behavior problems and peer preference across different first-grade classroom contexts and found that the acceptability of aggression varied from classroom to classroom. Aggression was considerably more likely to lead to low preference when it was nonnormative in the peer context, and more likely to be positively associated with peer preference in highly aggressive classroom contexts.
Low Self-Esteem vs. Bravado. A common view is that aggressive and rejected-status youth have low self-esteem that is due to their social incompetencies and that they would like to change their social behavior and improve their relations with peers. There is support for this view for some youth (see Gresham & MacMillan, 1997). However, some rejected-status youth do not report concerns about their social competence and do not appear to see a need to improve their peer relations. Hymel et al. (1993) found that low self-esteem was a concern for rejected-nonaggressive youth, but not for aggressive-rejected youth. The aggressive-rejected youth had relatively positive views of their social competencies. This is consistent with other work which shows that some of the most aggressive youth view themselves as popular and do not express concerns about their social relations (Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Rodkin et al., 2000). In other words, in some classrooms and schools, aggressive youth display considerable bravado and little concern about whether others like them as they control the social system through intimidation and coercion (Cairns, Cadwallader, Estell, & Neckerman, 1997). Such youth may develop maladaptive social goals (e.g., social dominance, retaliation) rather than prosocial ones (e.g., making friends, being well liked), and such goals may be reinforced by affilations with antisocial peers (Erdley & Asher, 1999). As antisocial students divorce themselves from conventional behaviors and values and renounce the lifestyles of prosocial peers (Cairns et al., 1997), the question becomes, Who is rejecting whom? Therefore, care must be taken to not simply attribute problem behavior to issues of self-esteem while overlooking ways in which the behavior is being reinforced by the social context.
Peer Rejection Leads to Problematic Outcomes. The emotional consequences of peer rejection are sometimes viewed as being the cause of adjustment problems in adolescence and adulthood. Although this may be the case, it is not yet well established in the literature. In fact, recent investigations have indicated that the relationship between peer rejection and later outcomes is complex, and have suggested that the predictive association between peer rejection and maladjustment depends on whether it is present in combination with a constellation of risk factors. This is reflected in longitudinal analyses of the outcomes of subtypes of rejected and aggressive youth. Bierman and Wargo (1995) found that aggressive-rejected boys showed more problematic outcomes (i.e., conduct problems, social rejection) in later childhood than either aggressive-nonrejected or rejected-nonaggressive boys. French, Conrad, and Turner (1995) found that rejected-antisocial adolescents exhibited elevated adjustment problems (e.g., substance use, deviant peer involvement, depression, school difficulties), whereas rejected-nonantisocial youth exhibited little problem behavior in 2-year follow-ups. Also, comparisons of antisocial-rejected and nonantisocial-rejected youth with their respective antisocial and nonantisocial comparison groups revealed few differences. As French et al. (1995) concluded, these findings call into question the unique contribution of peer rejection to the development of psychopathology and the utility of rejected status as an indicator of later disorder.
Corresponding with this view, Vitaro, Tremblay, Gag-non, and Pelletier (1994) compared the predictive accuracy of teacher-based behavioral categories to sociometric status categories. Kindergarten boys were followed up in the third and fourth grades on behavior problems, self-reported delinquency, and academic performance. Behavioral categories were better predictors of problematic outcomes than was sociometric status. Similarly, Magnusson and Bergman (1990) found that peer rejection alone in early adolescence is not related to long-term problems in adulthood. Instead, peer rejection was identified as a predictor of adult adjustment problems only when it co-occurred with a cluster of problems, including aggressiveness, low school motivation, poor concentration, and hyperactivity.
Therefore, in considering the outcomes of rejected-status youth it is necessary to not only consider whether a student is rejected, but also whether there are other factors contributing to the student's adjustment difficulties. In addition, there may be distinct outcomes for youth with distinct social and behavioral profiles. Youth who are friendless and lonely may be more likely to experience internalizing problems (Parkhurst & Asher, 1992). Youth who associate with deviant peers appear to be at greatest risk for outcomes such as school dropout, conduct disorder, substance abuse, and criminal behavior (Bullis et al., 1998; Cairns & Cairns, 1994; Dishion et al., 1995; Fergusson & Horwood, 1996).
All Friendships Are Good. A common interpretation of the peer rejection literature is that friendships are good because they promote emotional and behavioral adjustment. Recent work has tempered this view. Whether a friendship will have positive or deleterious developmental effects depends on both the quality of the relationship and the characteristics of the friend (Hartup, 1996). Giordano, Cernkovich, Groat, Pugh, and Swinford (1998) examined the level of intimacy (i.e., caring and trust) in adolescent friendships in relation to adult outcomes in 10-year follow-ups. No association was found between adolescent friendship intimacy, adult criminality, violence against one's spouse, or adult mental health adjustment. These investigators conclude:
The findings reported in this study stand in contrast to those generally found using measures of peer status. The strategy of deriving a peer preference score from classmate reports has been criticized because it produces a measure of popularity or rank from among classmates, rather than an assessment of the nature of youths' friendships. This becomes problematic when researchers assume that low status youth are in fact friendless and then develop interventions designed to teach the child friendship-making skills. While this may be beneficial with some youths, it may not be appropriate for others. (p. 65)
Following from the points made by Hartup (1996) and Giordano et al. (1998), the lack of social attachments may sometimes have a protective function (Bender & Losel, 1997; Cairns & Cairns, 1994). Social interactional processes are reciprocal, and there is potential for peers to be behavioral contagions. In some situations, being placed with an aggressive peer may provoke aggressive behavior from previously non-aggressive youth (e.g., Snyder et al., 1997). In addition, in settings where aggressive and disruptive behavior is associated with increased popularity, previously diligent, studious, and cooperative youth may engage in problem behavior to gain acceptance from their antisocial peers (Stormshak et al., 1999). Furthermore, research on social affiliations clearly indicates that aggressive and disruptive youth tend to be associates of aggressive and disruptive peers who support and complement their problem behavior (Cairns et al., 1988; Dishion et al., 1996; Farmer & Hollowell, 1994).
- Farmer, Thomas W.; Misconceptions of Peer Rejection and Problem Behavior; Remedial & Special Education; Jul/Aug2000, Vol. 21, Issue 4
Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information regarding common misconceptions of cliques and peer rejection. Write three case study examples
regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
What are three erroneous assumptions concerning cliques and peer rejection? Record the letter of the correct answer the