Peer Relations Research

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Peer Relations Research


Peer relations research examines the types and quality of social interactions among same-aged peers. Researchers typically focus their investigation on the quality of each individuals peer interactions within a given social unit. The particular social unit under investigation can range from a dyadic relationship (e.g., best friendship) to a small group (e.g., clique) to a large peer group. Dyadic relationships are characterized as close, intimate, bidirectional social relationships where the peers choose to interact with one another. In contrast, a peer group is loosely defined as a large set of peers who interact with one another as a matter of opportunity (e.g., all students in fifth grade). Cliques are small groups within a peer group whose membership is typically based on perceived areas of similarity. Cliques include both a network of bidirectional relationships as well as a group identity (e.g., nerds, jocks ).

Within a given social unit, researchers have examined a wide variety of dimensions that typically fall within one of three broad categories: social behavior; social support; and liking. Antisocial interactions (e.g., aggression), prosocial interactions (e.g., cooperation), and social connectivity (e.g., withdrawal) are commonly assessed social behaviors. For example, researchers may measure the amount of conflict that occurs within a friendship or how socially isolated a child is within a peer group. In contrast, social support research focuses on the functional attributes of a relationship, such as trust, intimacy, and aid. For example, researchers may examine the degree to which members of a clique provide companionship and advice for one another.

Numerous studies have been devoted to assessing the level of liking within a social unit. In large part, this emphasis is based on evidence that the experience of liking versus disliking significantly impacts social behavior as well as a broad array of functional outcomes ranging from self-esteem to delinquency to use of mental health services. In a cyclical fashion, liking, social support, and social behavior influence one another over time. For example, poor social skills interfere with the formation of social support networks and decrease liking within the peer group that, in turn, decreases opportunities to practice social skills with peers and exacerbates social behavior problems.

Traditionally, four sources of information have been used to study peer relations: (1) observation ; (2) self-report, where persons evaluate the state of their own peer relations; (3) other-report, where key, non-peer adults (e.g., parents, teachers, counselors) evaluate the state of anothers peer relations; and (4) peer-report, where peers evaluate the peer relations of members of the same social unit. With observation methods, social interactions of interest (e.g., cooperative play) are observed (in real-time or via taped archives) within a targeted environment (e.g., playground). The observer is an impartial third party who is trained to evaluate the interactions along dimensions of interest (e.g., frequency, duration, quality).

Self- and other-reports are commonly gathered through paper-and-pencil questionnaires with descriptive items (e.g., troublemaking friends) rated along some scale (e.g., five options ranging from Never to Always). In addition to rating scale questionnaires, sociometrics are a common peer-report methodology through which members of a peer group nominate those peers who match specific social descriptors (e.g., fights a lot). The number of peer nominations received for a particular item is totaled for each member and standardized across the nominating group. Thus a given members social functioning is assessed relative to that of the entire peer group (e.g., highly aggressive). Sociometrics have the advantage of increased reliability and validity due to multiple informants as well as increased sensitivity to variations within a specific group context.

A unique feature of sociometrics is the ability to assess peer group structure. By comparing liking and disliking nominations, researchers can distinguish a members place within the social structure, including salience within the peer group (i.e., Social Impact = liking + disliking nominations) and degree of acceptance versus rejection across peers (i.e., Social Preference = liking - disliking nominations). Further John Coie and his colleagues (1982) sociometric algorithms identify distinct social status groups: (1) Average = some liking and disliking nominations, but no extreme level of either; (2) Popular = many liking and few disliking nominations; (3) Controversial = many liking and disliking nominations; (4) Neglected = few liking or disliking nominations; and (5) Rejected = few liking and many disliking nominations. Social status is highly predictive of patterns of adjustment over time. In particular, rejection is a significant risk factor for maladjustment across social, emotional, and behavioral areas of functioning.

Development, gender, and group-level factors also need to be considered in the study of peer relations. Peers provide different social functions at different stages of life. Males and females have different social needs and interaction styles. Reputational biases within the peer group can also serve to exacerbate particular social patterns.

SEE ALSO Peer Cliques; Socialization; Soft Skills


Cillessen, Antonius H., and William M. Bukowski. 2000. Conceptualizing and Measuring Peer Acceptance and Rejection. In Recent Advances in the Measurement of Acceptance and Rejection in The Peer System, eds. Antonius H. Cillessen and William M. Bukowski, 310. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coie, John D., Kenneth A. Dodge, and Heide Coppotelli. 1982. Dimensions and Types of Social Status: A Cross-Age Perspective. Developmental Psychology 18 (4): 557570.

Kupersmidt, Janis B., and Melissa E. DeRosier, 2004. The Role of Peer Relations in the Development of Negative Outcomes: Explanatory Processes. In Childrens Peer Relations: From Development to Intervention, eds. Janis B. Kupersmidt and Kenneth A. Dodge, 119138. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Melissa E. DeRosier