Are cliques the result of human nature, or a cultural/societal thing?
November 5, 2013 11:16 AM   Subscribe

OK... I'm probably going to mangle this question, because I'm not a sociologist or anthropologist, or remotely knowledgeable in those fields. So, I'm probably using all my terms incorrectly. But, long story short - it's been my experience that most behaviors that laypeople, in casual conversation, call "human nature" are really just cultural phenomena. In other words - a behavior that someone from the United States thinks is "human nature" might be completely absent in another culture or society. It that's true - then it's not really "human behavior" at all. So - my question - is the tendency for kids in grade school to form cliques "human nature" - or a phenomena that's specific to certain (e.g., our) cultures?

I think that's an important difference, because if a behavior really is "human nature" - it's probably much more difficult (maybe impossible) to change than if it's just part of a particular culture (since cultural behaviors/patterns/mores can change over time).

For example - in a hypothetical conversation... "Why do groups of 'alpha males' engage in hazing?"

One person might say, "That's just the way alpha males act when they're together (i.e., it's just human nature)."

Someone else might say, "No - there are plenty of examples of groups that DON'T act that way; therefore, it's not 'human nature.' That's just behavior that some particular cultures tolerate (or even encourage)."

I think this is an important question, because I think our culture justifies/tolerates/excuses some pretty terrible behaviors or rules by suggesting that they're based on, or derived from, human nature.

I don't want to add a political bent to this, but I can think of some obvious, glaring examples:


Men philander because it's "human nature" for men to [blah, blah, blah]

We shouldn't allow women to vote because their "different human nature" makes them less [blah, blah, blah]

We shouldn't have integrated schools or permit interracial marriage because it's human nature for different races to [blah, blah, blah]

In other words, defenders of those ideas protect themselves from criticism by suggesting that it's just "human nature" to behave a certain way.

So - my specific question - it seems like elementary schools are increasingly trying to cope with the consequences of cliques (e.g., social pressure, outcasts, bullying, etc.).

One person I know argues that this is pointless - that cliques are an inevitable result of "human nature."

But I wonder if that's true.

Is there a good argument to be made that the formation of exclusionary cliques in schools is just a result of our cultural mores? Is it possible that we can ameliorate the negative consequences of cliques the same way we're slowly making progress against racial/sexual/religious discrimination, bullying, etc., by changing our social mores?

If the latter - how would you argue this? What would constitute good evidence?

Thanks in advance.
posted by stuehler to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
"It's human nature to run away from fire, eat raw food that we chase on bare feet, and sleep outside. We can do better than human nature."
posted by Etrigan at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is there a good argument to be made that the formation of exclusionary cliques in schools is just a result of our cultural mores?

ABSOLUTELY. Just take a look at the kids in democratic schools and you'll know that cliqueishness and bullying are functions of culture and social engineering.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:21 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I believe what you're basically looking for are the notions of ingroups and outgroups and social identity theory. Whether it's inborn or not, I'm not up on the research or anything to know whether there's evidence either way; I just remember covering the notions in classes. It is, at any rate, very much a thing that people who're interested in human psychology and behavior are interested in studying and not just speculating about, so you're not wrong about it being bigger than just 'oh everybody does it'.
posted by Sequence at 11:22 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anthropologists and behavioral scientists have collected all manner of different social behavior, when it comes to the forming of cliques, but I believe the basic tenet that, given favorable circumstances, cliques can form in human interactions, is not being disputed. Something circular seems at work in your question. Isn't being social human nature?
posted by Namlit at 11:36 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think most human beings simply seek validation: That comforting confirmation that whatever they think, feel, do is a GOOD thing because other people agree. You can do this by finding a clique that matches your views or by pissing on everything that you doesn't agree with you. Sadly I think most people can only lift themselves up by pressing others who are not like them down. It may not be human nature, but I see it all around me.

IMHO is it a matter of self-esteem. If you have that in your pocket, you don't need validation.
posted by three blind mice at 11:38 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you're basically getting at it is the very long and complex debate over nurture v nature. What qualities of people and societies are innate and what are conditioned? It's an interesting question and the answer is that it's an extremely complex interaction between the two. There's a lot of science both ways, and where the science stands right now depends largely on what particular phenomena you're examining. Our brains are very structured things, have very sort of set ways of processing things - but they are also very, very plastic and change drastically in response to external stimuli. A lot of this research is pretty nascent, and I think it's going to be an interesting couple decades for this particular question.

However, it should be noted that often folks will employ the "human nature" argument as an unfounded way to give credence to their unexamined view of something. There are real arguments to be made from so-called "naturalism" or whatever, but more often than not this position is usurped to justify some strongly held belief someone has but has no actual evidence for. It's akin to the "just the way it is" argument, which is usually hogwash.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:38 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

What I've read about the literature on bullying (and it isn't much, to be honest) indicates that you're not going to get a school that doesn't have, to some degree, popular people and less popular people; but you can get a school where the less popular kids are still treated pretty decently.

Anecdotally, I had a workplace that had all the typical middle school bullying stuff -- there was one person who regularly gave people the silent treatment, said vicious stuff behind their backs, etc -- and a workplace where there are definitely defined groups of friends but people still act friendly and professional to everybody they work with. If there can be that much of a cultural difference in workplaces, why not in schools?
posted by Jeanne at 11:47 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes, of course, this is cultural behavior and not some biological innate thing. Not all students at all schools even within the US form cliques. For it to be "human nature" (or, as anthropologists would call it "a cultural universal"), it would have to be much more widely demonstrated.

Just to give you a hint about how few things are considered cultural universals, the ones I learned about in anthropology classes in college (I was an anthro major) include:

- language
- abstraction in thought
- names
- families/households
- concepts of morality
- gift giving
- hairstyles
- shelter

They usually aren't super specific like "having cliques in school environments". I suppose if you zoomed out to bullying, you could find some cultural universal that fits what you're talking about (I noticed "conflict" on wikipedia's list). But, no, a lot of what gets described as "alpha male behavior" is just not consistent across cultures or considered a biologically innate reality for all humans.
posted by Sara C. at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Pure anecdata, but: I was the new kid in a K-6 school (entering in 6th grade, and everyone else had known each other since they were five) and got the shit kicked out of me on the regular. Then we moved, and I started as the new kid in 7th grade in a K-8 school and the kids there...said hi and became my friends, or at least didn't kick the shit out of me. Both were public schools.
posted by rtha at 12:21 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think it's not really relevant to the question - American schools are more cliquish than schools in some other countries, therefore we can demonstrably do better regardless of whether cliques are or aren't human nature.

This shifts the goalposts to providing evidence that not all countries have schools as cliqueish as the USA. I don't know of studies, I'm just running off anecdotal experience. In hindsight, my insight is: School uniforms. I hated them, but I had no idea how powerfully they worked, and they worked so well that I had no idea they were doing all those things. Ie, they almost completely erased the markings of poverty and wealth between us. We would mingle across class gaps without knowing or caring. They undermined any tendency to consolidate into groups based on shared visual identity such as sports/goth/cheerleader/etc, so cliques were more about friendships and social circles than pecking orders and stratification. The simple act oif removing basic clique-markers has the (in hindsight, obvious) effect of reducing the level of cliquish behaviour. Therefore it doesn't matter if clique behaviour is natural - it responds to cultural cues, which are within our power, and those cues can make it better or worse.
posted by anonymisc at 12:28 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Uh, more anecdata: In fifth grade, I went to two schools (we moved a lot). One was in England. We wore uniforms. I had a grand total of one friend, and was frozen out of every other clique in our year, of which there were several. The other school was in France; uniforms there, too. Kids were not all French - in fact, none were French, but were from all over (US, UK, Spain, Germany, one Indonesian kid) - and there were only language-based cliques that weren't really cliques as much as they were "yay we can really understand each other!" affiliations. I was mildly bullied in England and not bullied at all in France.
posted by rtha at 1:25 PM on November 5, 2013

Pirsig's Lila gives a very nice, light framework to understand this kind of thing.

He divides the universe into static patterns of value at four levels: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. Each pattern is dependent on the one below but also devoted to avoiding its limitations: so birds develop flight, a biological static pattern of value, to give the middle finger to gravity (an inorganic pattern). Sheep group together in flocks, a social pattern of value, to defend against their predators biological need to eat them. Humans develop laws, an intellectual pattern of value, to control social problems like crime. The social justice movement (a social pattern) rages about rape culture to break down negative static patterns and ultimately increase empathy and equality (intellectual patterns).

I'd call cliques social patterns of value that form as a reaction to larger social patterns of value (i.e. the culture in which they are formed). They're not intrinsic, but they're also not surprising - it's like flocking behaviour.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:36 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit removed from my sociological theory classes, but cliques are pretty much a learned behaviour. Certain things, particularly certain taboos (such as incestuous behaviour) are as close to "human nature" as one can get, but cliques are, IIRC, learned behaviour. I can't quite recall which theorist talked about this stuff, but I'm fairly certain it has to do with being afraid of "the other".

You also have all the notions of culture, sub-culture, counter-culture to deal with and, tied in with all of that, would be some form of identity theory.

Essentially, I think cliques come from banding together against "the other" (those who are different) and they're reinforced by claiming that culture/sub-culture/counter-culture as an identity. For example, if I'm really into, say, Star Trek, then I can claim to be "a Trekkie" and can claim that I belong to that particular sub-culture. The words "warp drive" and "photon torpedoes" and "number one" all have special meanings to me that are likely lost (or misinterpreted) by others, so I definitely belong to the Star Trek sub-culture, just by being able to communicate with them, using the vocabulary that is intrinsic to that group. (There's a specific word for this, but I can't remember it. It'll come back to me, but not in time to edit this post...)

Having said that, while there are plenty of examples of people banding together against "the other", in a variety of cultures, my impression is that this is not inherent, but rather learned behaviour. I wish I could think of any theorists to back up my claims, but again, I'm a little far removed from my theory classes to be able to do so.

Hope that's helpful.
posted by juliebug at 1:48 PM on November 5, 2013

I went to a school very, very similar to the Sudbury model overeducated_alligator mentions and while it was an amazing school and by no means a jungle, there were still cliques, geeks and losers.

When I personally wonder about human behaviour, I look to primates. Primates definitely have in groups and out groups. While fruitlessly searching for a clip from Life: Primates, I could only find this clip that illustrates primates in hot springs; what it doesn't illustrate that the David Attenborough one I was looking for does illustrate, is that in each troop, only the troop elite are allowed into the springs. The others are not cool enough to be let in.

This is mirrored in a diverse range of primate social interactions. While I don't think there is a way to know if that behaviour is innate or learned, the fact that primates engage in it means, I think, that it's part of our natures. I don't think that means we have to accept it, of course; concious free will is a great thing.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:07 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your skepticism of human nature claims warms this anthropologists' scold, embittered heart. I think your suspicion about the uses such claims are put to is spot on.

I can't speak to the specifics of cliques, but since grade schools are a historically and culturally specific thing, it follows that grade school cliques are unlikely to be a human universal. Certainly people everywhere form groups, and I'm sure there are common patterns among adolescents, but saying that this specific behavior is human nature makes little sense to me.

On human nature more generally:

"Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . .
This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become--in which they grow up and live out their lives."
--Tim Ingold, Against Human Nature (2006:259,273)

Or the classic claim by Clifford Geertz that "There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture."

Both of these cribbed from Jason Antrosio's blog, which is structured as a kind of intro to Anthro textbook and has plenty of useful examples. He's a cultural anthropologist, but as I understand it he has a good grasp of the biological literature.

See also articles and blog posts here.

Somewhere in there--maybe in Jonathan Marks's or Agustin Fuentes's work, you'll also find a good critique of using primate behavior to make claims about what is or isn't "human nature."
posted by col_pogo at 3:26 PM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Okay, I poked around on Wikipedia to try to jog my memory of things. You might want to look at social network theory/analysis, particularly with an eye on Georg Simmel. His stuff on dyads, triads and isolation is pretty interesting, if I'm remembering correctly. :)

Some Wikipedia links that may be useful:

Georg Simmel (Social geometry)
Simmelian ties

Heck, even this one could be useful, particularly if you dig into the references.
posted by juliebug at 3:33 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure "human nature" is the correct term here. I think biology or biological- the idea that this is in the very DNA of a human is what you are after. Human nature is too broad a term. It's human nature to walk around barefoot and yet a huge proportion of current civilization uses shoes. Human nature can easily be influenced by the media or societal expectations, but biology cannot. And therefore if something exists due to biology there will be no historical accounts of that trait not existing in a specific species.

For example. It is biology that makes humans want to socialize because humans have socialization built into the very structure of their brains. There are a few animals on the planet who literally lose their minds if they get no social interraction over a period of time and humans are one of them. Aside from sociopaths which suffer from a deformity of the mind, human who endure long periods completely alone suffer psychotic breaks. Judging from written tablets and cave drawings there has never been a time when humans were not depend on socialization.

It is biology that makes humans, especially men, tend to be more sexually attracted to younger sexual partners than older ones. It's not the media that influences this- this is a universal phenomenon that occurs in every single continent, including villages that have never been exposed to any type of media whatsoever. According to historical human accounts there has never been a time in history where it has been otherwise. You can change human nature, but you cannot change biology. Therefore the fact that there are plenty of examples in the world where cliques do not develop I would say that it is not a biological thing, but a inner cultural one.
posted by manderin at 3:29 AM on November 6, 2013

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