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Classic social development research (e.g., Asher & Coie, 1990) portrays a hostile peer ecology for many aggressive children, who reactively lash out as they sense provocation from others. This characterization is apt for low status bullies, particularly those who are also victims of harassment (Boivin, Hymel, & Hodges, 2001; Perry, Hodges, & Egan, 2001).
Some bullies are friendless and lonely; others gain acceptance but only in small, peripheral social networks consisting mainly of other unpopular, aggressive children (Coie & Dodge, 1998; McDougall, Hymel, Vaillancourt, & Mercer, 2001; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998). Preventative interventions emphasizing the acquisition of social skills and alleviation of social-cognitive deficits derive from a tradition of highlighting associations between aggression and rejection.
Horizontal structure. Our focus is on the peer groups of aggressive children. Groups provide children with multiple routes for integrating into their peer ecology. Some groups echo dominant societal values, but others give social shelter to children who resist adult-endorsed messages (Ferguson, 2000; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; McFarland, 2001). The function of peer groups as vehicles of defiance and nonconformity is perhaps mostly clearly seen in adolescence but has roots in middle childhood.
Children with similar levels of aggressive and antisocial behavior are likely to affiliate with one another (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; Haselager, Hartup, Van Lieshout, & Riksen-Walraven, 1998; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001). However, it is not safe to conclude that aggressive children affiliate only with other aggressive children in easily visible groups of troublemakers. Groups are heterogeneous in nature, and many aggressors are in groups with both aggressive and nonaggressive members.
Farmer et al. (2002) questioned the comprehensiveness of the deviant peer group hypothesis, which suggests that aggressive youth are members of small, peripheral groups on the outskirts of the peer ecology. In a study of fourth to sixth graders, they found that aggressive boys were well-connected to others. Two-thirds of aggressive boys and one-half of aggressive girls affiliated in groups whose members were over 50% nonaggressive.
Farmer et al. (2002) recommended that violence prevention programs extend beyond aggressive youth and deviant groups to address nonaggressive peers who may support antisocial behavior. Aggressive girls were more likely than aggressive boys to fit the deviant peer group framework, possibly because aggression is less normative among girls and hence is more likely to be segregated away from the mainstream peer ecology.
Using Farmer et al.'s (2002) sample, Rodkin, Pearl, and van Acker (2003) examined children who nominated aggressors as among the three "coolest" kids in their school. According to a similarity view, children nominating aggressors as cool will be aggressive themselves. However, if bullying and aggression work via group processes, children in aggressive groups should perceive aggressive children as cool, even if nominators are themselves nonaggressive. Results confirmed this hypothesis.
Analogously, aggressive children in predominantly nonaggressive groups tended to nominate nonaggressive children as cool. These results held for boy and girl same-sex cool nominations. Interestingly, aggressive boys were disproportionately nominated as cool by girls (see also Bukowski, Sippola, & Newcomb, 2000). Taken together, the cool analyses suggest that some aggressive boys have a wide base of reputational support that draws from but extends beyond children like themselves. Consistent with Farmer et al. (2002), aggressive girls had a narrower base of support consisting mostly of girls like themselves.
Among older children, adolescent friends engage one another in "deviancy training" where norms favoring aggression are established and nourished over time, contributing to the development of substance use (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, marijuana) in young adulthood (Dishion & Owen, 2002). Recent sociological investigations emphasize the group contexts in which delinquency processes occur. Haynie (2001) found that the nature of the groups in which friendships are embedded (e.g., their cohesiveness, adolescents' status within the group) conditioned friendship-delinquency associations.
Peer influence on delinquency was most pronounced when groups were cohesive (see also Kiesner, Cadinu, Poulin, & Bucci, 2002), and when target adolescents had high social status. McFarland (2001) stressed the role of social networks in everyday forms of student defiance of authority, downplaying the importance of individual traits, or distal macrosocial features such as race or class.
According to McFarland (2001), many students with advantaged positions in the peer ecology undermine classroom affairs whenever possible. Children on the periphery of the peer ecology may also attempt to disrupt class activity, but they usually fail and are rejected by teachers and peers alike.
Research focused specifically on bullies points clearly to the importance of group contexts. Peer groups where norms favor bullying influence individual levels of bullying for boys and girls over the middle school years (Espelage et al., 2003). Bullies tend to be friends with other bullies (Pellegrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999). Bullies engage their peer ecology (using both aggressive and prosocial behaviors) at higher rates than nonaggressive children, and interact with aggressive and nonaggressive children alike (Pepler, Craig, & Roberts, 1998).
During middle childhood, the relationship between bullies and victims involves much of the elementary classroom (O'Connell, Peplar, & Craig, 1999; Pierce & Cohen, 1995). Some children who are not themselves aggressive validate bullies with applause, or play supporting roles in bully-led peer groups (O'Connell et al., 1999; Salmivalli, Huttunen, & Lagerspetz, 1997). Bullies who use proactive or instrumental aggression are often popular within their groups (Pellegrini et al., 1999) and their groups tend to be larger than those of nonbullies (Boulton, 1999).
Salmivalli et al. (1997) reported that bullying was a group activity in which group members had different, distinct roles (e.g., leading the attack, assisting, reinforcing) and where bullies relied on their network of supporters, subordinates, and scapegoats to establish and exercise influence. Hawkins, Peplar, and Craig (2001) suggest that just as peers can enable bullies, they can also be successful at intervening in a bullying episode. These studies show that bullies preferentially affiliate with one another but are not segregated from their nonaggressive peers.
French (1988,1990) found that only one-half of rejected boys were aggressive and could not uncover a stable configuration of rejected-aggressive girls. Coie and Koeppl (1990) reported that only one-third of aggressive children were rejected. Other research directed towards creating taxonomies of rejected or unpopular children (Boivin & Bégin, 1989; Cillessen, van IJzendoorn, van Lieshout, & Hartup, 1992) found that although some rejected children were aggressive, others were more withdrawn, and still others showed a combination of externalizing and internalizing characteristics.
How did the linkage between low status and aggression become so strong in the first place? Why were aggressors who engaged their peer ecology overlooked? As Olweus (2001) notes, methodology is at the heart of the problem. The connection between rejection and aggression depends on a definition of status that includes likeability (plus the absence of dislikeability) and excludes other constructs, such as influence, dominance, and control over others, with which status and power are typically associated (e.g., Hawker & Boulton, 2001; Hawley, 1999; Pellegrini, 2002; Rodkin et al., 2003).
The most commonly used procedure for measuring childhood social status equates status with likeability by asking some variant of two questions of children: (a) Who are the three kids in your class who you like the most? (LM), and (b) Who are the three kids in your class who you like the least? (LL). These questions are combined to form two new variables: (a) social preference, or LM minus LL ratings and (b) social impact, or LM plus LL ratings. Popular status is assigned to children with high social preference and impact. Rejected status is assigned to children with low social preference and at least average social impact (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982).
Thus, popular children are liked most by many and liked least by few, and rejected children are liked most by few and liked least by many. Under this system, aggressive children rarely attain popular (i.e., high) status, sometimes entering an understudied controversial status classification generally described as a hybrid of popularity and rejection.
Sociometric methods are powerful technologies. They are superb at identifying their intended target of low-status children. They are critical for assessing children's enemies, a relationship that often develops into victimization (see Question 2). We note in our conclusions that greater adoption of sociometric techniques among researchers and schools would go a long way towards making visible the social currents of peer ecologies.
One challenge for the newest generation of sociometric methods is to improve assessments of children with high levels of social status so that aggressive and nonaggressive children are accurately identified. The presence of popular-aggressive children, particularly boys, has recently been uncovered in a number of studies using both qualitative and quantitative methods, and over a variety of ages ranging from middle childhood (if not before) to adolescence.
A common theme of many school ethnographies is that popular elementary (Adler & Adler, 1998; Ferguson, 2000) and middle school (Eder, Evans, & Parker, 1995; Merten, 1997) children, whether male or female, are rebellious, ruthless, and Machiavellian in establishing and maintaining their high social positions. Conversely, boys who are "nice," who strive for academic success, or who are overly sensitive to the needs of others are often tagged as effeminate and as a result risk losing or not achieving popular status.
Adler and Adler (1998) portray middle childhood peer groups as highly stratified by social status. Children are acutely aware of their own and others' placement on the status hierarchy, often deferring to higher status classmates and ridiculing lower status ones. Children in popular and/or dominant groups form an exclusive social circle and have disproportionate influence over the classroom as a whole, and may also be disproportionately subject to group influence (Haynie, 2001).
Conversely, children in low status groups suffer degradation, exclusion, rejection, and ostracism. A very similar portrait of the haves and have-nots and the relationships between them has been drawn by Eder et al. (1995) in their analysis of middle school peer culture.
Turning to quantitative work, Luthar and McMahon (1996) determined that 24% of inner-city ninth graders could be characterized as having a mix of popular and prosocial characteristics, but another 20% had a mix of popular and aggressive characteristics. Parkhurst and Hopmeyer (1998) found that most eighth and ninth graders who were prosocial and well liked were not perceived to be popular by peers, and most students who were seen as popular were not prosocial or well liked.
LaFontana and Cillessen (1998) used hypothetical picture-stories to assess how fourth and fifth graders explained the actions of main characters described as either popular, unpopular, or neither popular nor unpopular (i.e., neutral-popular). These characters acted in ways that had either negative or positive outcomes. Participating children were asked whether story characters meant to cause these bad or good outcomes (i.e., had hostile or prosocial intent). As compared to their judgments of neutral-popular characters, children gave popular characters more hostile intent for negative actions, but not more prosocial intent for positive actions.
Rodkin, Farmer, Pearl, and Van Acker (2000) examined subtypes of popular fourth to sixth grade boys in a diverse sample of urban and rural children. Popular-prosocial ("model") boys were perceived as cool, athletic, leaders, cooperative, studious, not shy, and nonaggressive. Popular-antisocial ("tough") boys were perceived as cool, athletic, and anti-social. Rodkin et al.'s (2000) findings suggested that highly aggressive boys (if they are also attractive and/or athletic) can be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms.
Rodkin et al.'s (2000) basic finding has been replicated in a variety of samples. There is evidence for tough, popular-aggressive boys in third grade, suburban communities (Estell, Farmer, Van Acker, Pearl, & Rodkin, in press) and for older adolescent children the connection between popularity and aggression seems to become even stronger (e.g., Gorman, Kim, & Schimmelbusch, 2002; LaFontana & Cillessen, 2002; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003).
Not all groups containing aggressive children are deviant. Educators who exclusively target peripheral antisocial cliques as the engine of school violence problems may leave intact other groups that are responsible for mainstream peer support for bullying. Some bullies use peers as allies, and this is often difficult to isolate or label as an adjustment difficulty. Also, children with high levels of social status have more input into the emerging norms of the peer ecology than children with low status.
When children with high status engage in or endorse bullying, they send a message to all children that conflicts, sometimes drastically, with the values that adults espouse.
Farmer's (2000) implications for intervention are particularly instructive. Farmer (2000) deals with aggression among students with disabilities, but the message generalizes: The variety of ways that children who aggress integrate into their peer ecologies has been overlooked. Psychologists and educators can usefully ask the kinds of questions that Farmer (2000) examines in depth, such as: Is the bully a member of a group? Has the bully's group formed a coalition with other groups? Is the bully a group leader, a "wannabe"?
Researchers face an exciting if difficult challenge of measurement and assessment. Peer group restructuring may be a promising model for intervention, but children's natural groups must first be reliably identified and measures of social status improved. We suspect that untrained observations from teachers and other adults about students with high social status underestimate the proportion of popular-aggressive boys and girls and distort other relevant aspects of peer ecologies in which bullying occurs.
- Wiertsema, M., Vrijen, C., van der Ploeg, R., Sentse, M., & Kretschmer, T. (2023). Bullying perpetration and social status in the peer group: A meta-analysis. Journal of adolescence, 95(1), 34–55.