Friday, February 09, 2007

Cliques and Cracks

Indulging in a little speculative sociology of the worst sort today. The spark came from a conversation, the philosophy department sponsors occasional open discussions around a wide variety of topics, and this one was about sexual ethics (Aspazia has a discussion of it here). The students painted a stunningly sad picture of repression, anxiety, and guilt, leading to multiple joyless hook-ups; complete alienation from themselves as sexual beings.

Aspazia, Kerry, Confused, Maybe Not and I kept trying to steer the discussion to what might be the underlying causes of this ingrained and unhealthy approach to sexuality and one honest young man admitted that concern about image was so primary in earning social capital on campus that it ran roughshod over all else, sexuality included. The gender issues were made plain, the class issues were there for all to see.

The next day though, when I was thinking out loud with Confused, Maybe Not, I was pushing the class line thinking that it was the crucial link here, but he responded that the culture at this college was significantly different from other liberal arts campuses that had students of similar socio-economic background so surely class wasn't as an key element as I was considering.

Then it struck me, he was right that class underdetermined it. The difference between ours and the schools he was pointing to that had a less poisonous sexual atmosphere was not homogeneity of socio-economic status, but homogeneity of clique within the socio-economic status. The social power on our campus is largely held by those who had it in high school. We have a critical mass of Heathers (some of which I'm convinced have Abercrombie and Fitch tattoos so that even naked they are still wearing a label), whereas the campuses that C,MN was referring to tended to have campus cultures dominated by other groups easily recognized by anyone who went to a middle or upper-class high school. You know the sort of kids who went to the local state university, you know the type who went to Swarthmore or Williams, you know the sort of kids who went to Bard or Reed or Evergreen. The power structure in high school was image driven and so those folks continue to employ exactly the same enforcement mechanisms. Those who were oppressed in high school by those enforcement mechanisms tend to choose campuses that favor their brand of quirkiness.

So the campus culture of colleges perpetuate the high school clique structure, but it then gets passed to the larger world in that certain campuses tend to funnel their students into different parts of American social life. We have an absurd number of students majoring in business management. I have a dear, dear friend who just left the financial field because, in part, he could not stand the fact that it was not just an old boys network, but an old frat boys network. The claim is often heard that academia is packed with bleeding heart liberals. Well, it is certainly true that there is a correlation between amount of education and party affiliation, but I'm not sure that being well-educated or well-informed is necessarily the most operative factor here -- those who are most educated were generally also the most oppressed by the high school social structure and therefore would be naturally inclined to take seriously the sociological factors working in various social problems, something explicitly and intentionally discouraged by the conservative "individual responsibility" frame.

So perhaps, high school cliques are like the crack in the windshield or run in the pantyhose: once it starts it only gets larger. Perhaps in addition to gender studies and ethnic studies, we need to consider clique studies. Is this sort of division inevitable? Is this just a modern day translation of Plato's myth of the metals from the Republic? Sociologist Ferdinand Toennies argued that all societies -- groups notable for heterogeneity -- break up into communities -- groups notable for homogeneity. We are able to draw us/them lines in any group, so that's just the way it is. Or is this under our control? Maybe the society as a whole would be healthier if we tried to stop it at its source and had smaller high schools where cliques would be harder to form for lack of critical mass. Or is it so entrenched in the larger society that the schools are a reflection and not a source? Maybe this is a bad question to ask here, since, let's face it, by in large, the people who choose to read this blog are self-selected folks who are a lot like each other...people I either was or would have been hanging out with in high school...