Social Roles

Comte and Durkheim thought that society’s basic unit was not the individual, but the family – a small group. There is plenty of evidence for their assertion, and the essay “Girls, media, and the negotiation of sexuality: A study of race, class, and gender in adolescent peer groups” is but one more piece.

As the authors interviewed girls in both an inner city and a suburban school, they noticed that there were quite a few differences… but that those differences were overshadowed by similarities. The students in both facilities were overwhelmingly influenced by popular media and clique norms, with gross conformity to the expectations of their peers even as they protested their uniqueness.

This division – private resistance and public conformity – illustrates the siren pull of normative culture and the economic cost of independent thought. This is highly on my mind of late, spurred most recently by a cartoon that extolls joining the herd and being an alpha male… because that’s the way people are, and if you want to succeed, that’s what you have to do. Such a mindset requires a subscription to the normative culture – something that’s hard to resist without others on your side.

There are plenty of studies where people will conform to even the slightest peer pressure, even when the facts in front of them are plain. How much harder is it, then, for these children shown “normal” mass media, reinforced continually by their peer group?

To resist that is difficult, costly both in terms of the informal (but all too real) reputation economy of teenage years, and cognitively costly in the effort of self-reflection rather than conformity. This cost is evident in the repeated pattern of children making pop-culture centred choices despite their protestations.

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