Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

A Futile Struggle? Power and Conformity in High School and the Society at Large

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

A Futile Struggle? Power and Conformity in High School and the Society at Large

Article excerpt

In his essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," George Simmel describes the nature of different sized groups. He states, "The earliest phase of social formations found in historical as well as in contemporary social structures is this: a relatively small circle firmly closed against neighboring, strange or in some way antagonistic circles. However, this circle is closely coherent and allows its individual members only a narrow field for the development of unique qualities and free self-responsible movements" (Simmel 133).

No statement so clearly reflects the structure of Natick High School. High schools like mine and those neighboring it are typically small, mine having about three hundred individuals in each class. Our school pitted against its neighboring schools by way of rivalry. And from the day I entered it I confronted a foggy yet specific view of what was considered cool.

Now, if one were to look back and examine the nature of coolness, he or she would find, like all cultural phenomena, that it is always changing. The finer points of coolness tend to also vary from group to group or from school to school. For example, after arriving in my freshman year at Northeastern University, I found many of the same styles of dress and musical taste while finding others that varied greatly from those I had seen among students coming from New Jersey and LA. Even other students from neighboring towns in Massachusetts didn't match the expected schema of coolness that I was used to. Therefore, it is important to interpret my high school experience in terms of a confined, relatively small group structure that was influenced by all kinds of outside and internal factors. As a result, it may be regarded as a useful sample for the study of human interaction involving social hierarchies and competition for acceptance.

Upon entering the high school I noticed the system at work. Some individuals just seemed to be superior to others. These individuals comprised actually a very small percentage of my classmates, but they seemed to have a presence in the school which rewarded them more of my attention than others. This provided them with a higher social capital, which are "the aspects of social structures which make it easier for people to achieve things" (Wallace and Wolf 372). But how did these individuals come to have such power? George C. Homans describes power as the "ability to provide rewards that are valuable because they are scarce" (Wallace and Wolf 326).

These students seemed to possess little to offer the rest of us in terms of material rewards. Rather, what these students seemed to possess was the ability to punish rather than reward. Highly confident, these students were just a bit surer of themselves. In turn they had the ability to punish others for not meeting their set of criteria for normalness. If a fellow student found himself or herself on the radar to be put-down, their social status would in turn suffer. Their power, therefore, was based on their self-confidence and others' fear. These students were cool, more or less because they decided that they were. They could then dictate their norms to everyone, offering punishments if we did not comply. From the first day of high school, the so-called "popular kids" were more or less decided upon, and they continued to be so until graduation.

From that first day, I searched for various strategies in my head in order to gain acceptance and move up on the social ladder. While I found that my personal ideas of coolness was very much different from others, I would often compromise these ideas, seeking a balance between my own and other people's standards. As soon as I became used to acting a certain way I noticed that my own style and ideas changed to match those of others. The process perfectly demonstrated what Charles Horton Cooley called the " looking-glass self," comprised of three elements which are "the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification" (Wallace and Wolf 203). …

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