18 minute read

Adolescent Peer Culture

Gangs, Parents' RoleOVERVIEW

Helen Vrailas Bateman

Dewey G. Cornell Daniel C. Murrie

Helen Vrailas Bateman


The view that peers play a central role in adolescence is widely accepted as fact. In the popular image of adolescence, however, adolescent peer groups often play a negative role in adolescent development. Traditionally, the adolescent peer culture of modern society has been perceived as a primarily negative influence, separate from that of adults and often leading to problem behaviors. Alcohol abuse, drug use, truancy, and premarital pregnancy are attributed to a separate youth culture. There are, however, an increasing number of researchers who object to this negative image of adolescent culture and who argue for a more positive image of adolescent culture in modern society, its unique and important contributions, and its robust relationship with and similarities to adult culture. In the following section, these disparate points of view and the evidence for them are briefly examined.

What Is Meant by Peer Culture?

The term peer culture, as introduced in 1988 by William Corsaro, was derived through Corsaro's study of children in nursery settings and contains the following aspects of social interaction:

  1. Children in these settings appear to adhere to and behave according to a set of "social rules" and behavioral routines. If such rules and routines are breached, then comments and negotiations between children follow.
  2. Children in these settings share a mutual understanding of actions and norms for procedures. This shared framework of understanding enables children to systematically interpret novel situations.
  3. Children in these settings engage in activities that focus on themes that are repeated and that all members of the peer group recognize.

Corsaro also examined the relationship between the social systems shared by children and the culture of adults (namely, teachers and parents). Corsaro suggested that there was a dynamic interchange of elements between the two cultures, with elements that appeared in one culture reappearing in the other. In 1994 Corsaro and Donna Elder discussed how this interchange between cultures is particularly interesting in adolescence, during which the adolescent peer culture, while maintaining its own unique social system, introduces rules and systems that facilitate belonging in the adult society. Other researchers have shared this view of a distinct adolescent peer culture with its own structure. Support for this view of adolescent peer culture comes from a variety of sources.

Societal Factors Contributing to Adolescent Peer Culture

While contact between adolescents and their peers is a universal characteristic of all cultures, there is a great deal of variability in the nature and the degree of such contact. In American contemporary society, adolescents spend significantly more time with their peers than with younger children or adults. The pattern of age segregation in American society did not become the norm until the onset of the industrialized society. Changes in the workplace separated children from adults, with adults working and children attending school. The dramatic increase of mothers in the workplace has further contributed to the reduction in the amount of time adolescents spend with adults. School reform efforts during the nineteenth century, which resulted in age-segregated schools and grades, have reduced the amount of time adolescents spend with younger children. Finally, the changes in population are considered a factor that may have contributed to the emergence of adolescent peer culture. From 1955 to 1975, the proportion of the population that was adolescent (between the ages of fifteen and nineteen) increased dramatically, from 11 percent to 20.9 percent. This increase in the number of adolescents might be a contributing factor to the increase in adolescent peer culture both in terms of growth in size as well as in terms of its impact on society's other cultures (adults, younger children).

Research supports the view that adolescents spend a great deal of time with their peers. In 1977 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Reed Larson, and Suzanne Prescott examined adolescent's daily activities and found that they spend more time talking to their friends than engaging in any other activity. In a typical week, high school students will spend twice as much time with their peers as with adults. This gradual withdrawal from adults begins in early adolescence. In sixth grade, adults (excluding parents) account for only 25 percent of adolescent social networks. Another important characteristic of adolescent peer culture is its increasingly autonomous function. While childhood peer groups are conducted under the close supervision of parents, adolescent peer groups typically make an effort to escape adult supervision and usually succeed in doing so. (Note, importantly, that this is in reference to informal peer groups.)

Adolescent peer culture also differs from that of younger-age children in the patterns of relationships between peers. Adolescence is characterized by the emergence of crowds as an important social context of development. This is a departure from the peer culture of younger children, which is defined by dyadic (two-person) and small-group relationships. Another unique characteristic of adolescent peer culture is the increasing contact with peers of the opposite sex. Unlike younger children, who adhere to sex-segregated groups, adolescents steadily increase their levels of association with members of the opposite sex. Adolescence is marked by the increased need and ability for intimate relationships both in the form of friendships and in the form of romantic relationships such as dating.

Are Peer Relations Necessary for Development?

The question of the role that peer culture plays in adolescent development has to start with the issue of the necessity of peer relations in human development. Research using monkeys that were reared without peer monkeys showed that growing up peerless resulted in monkeys that were socially disadvantaged and depressed. Studies with humans suggest that lack of harmonious peer relations during adolescence is related to poor mental health later in life. Evidence from follow-back studies of adults consistently supports the view that psychological and educational maladjustment in adulthood is associated with histories of problematic childhood peer relationships. Longitudinal prospective studies also indicate that children who were identified as socially rejected by their peers in fifth grade were twice as likely to be delinquent as adolescents. Researchers found that children who had poor peer relationships at the age of nine were more likely to develop into adolescents who engaged in higher levels of sub-stance abuse, had more conduct problems such as aggression and attentional problems, and committed more delinquent offenses. In 1995 Virginia Burks, Kenneth Dodge, and Joseph Price reported that children who were rejected by their peers in middle childhood had higher rates of depression and loneliness six year later. A large body of research therefore indicates that peer relationships are a very important factor in human development.

The Nature of Adolescent Peer Culture

James Coleman's work on adolescent peer culture was extremely influential in shaping views on modern adolescent culture. In 1961 Coleman suggested that an adolescent subculture had emerged in industrialized societies that was distinct from that of more agrarian cultures (such as the Amish culture). According to Coleman, social and economic forces that encourage age segregation shape the socialization of adolescents in industrialized societies. In a rapidly changing society, parents' skills easily become obsolete. Parents therefore cannot transmit their accumulated knowledge to their children, and hence they have fewer opportunities for direct influence over their children's development. Education takes place in school settings, for longer periods, further reducing the influence that family-centered learning has on adolescents. The period of schooling required in modern societies is becoming lengthier, and even within schools, children are segregated according to age in separate grades. These age-segregation patterns, according to Coleman, precipitate the creation of a separate adolescent culture in which adolescents speak a "language" increasingly different from that of adults. Modern industrialized societies encourage this "separate adolescent culture" by creating specialized marketing that cultivates and targets the adolescents' unique taste in music, clothes, and entertainment.

Such isolation from adults, Coleman claimed, results in the creation of adolescent societal standards and behavioral norms that are far removed from those of adult society. Adolescents look to their peers rather than to their parents and teachers for guidance and approval, thereby diminishing the ability of adults to influence adolescents' development. Coleman suggested that because of the aforementioned conditions, examining adolescent culture within the schools, its compositions and characteristics, is the only way in industrialized societies to understand and influence contemporary adolescents and their development.

Coleman's influential study examined adolescents and their parents in ten schools. Coleman found that on the average high school students are not very interested in academic goals but rather tend to focus more on social and athletic goals. This lack of focus on academic achievement, coupled with the decreased influence that parents and teachers have on adolescents' decision-making processes, led Coleman to declare that the existing school climate and culture was inadequate in addressing adolescent needs in industrialized societies. Coleman suggested that changes in the school culture should include a schoolwide emphasis on scholastic achievement as being the most desired outcome for students (rather than the present emphasis and glorification of athletic accomplishments) as well as an educational system that enables adolescents to become "active" rather than "passive" learners. Coleman argued that by becoming active participants in their learning processes, adolescents can assume roles of responsibility and leadership that are more appropriate to their developmental needs and are therefore more likely to result in higher levels of engagement in academics and adherence to school norms. High school teachers should encourage creative, hands-on learning activities in high schools and engage in teaching practices that focus on intrinsic rather than on extrinsic motivation.

Subsequent research, for the most part, has supported Coleman's findings of the central role that peer culture plays in adolescent development. Some critics, however, object to the "oversimplification" of peer culture that is depicted by Coleman's work, calling into question his unidimensional description of adolescent culture. Instead, these critics argue that research supports the view that there are multiple adolescent cultures that can be very different from each other. For example, a 1968 study of Canadian adolescents conducted by David Friesen contradicted Coleman's work by finding that most students preferred to be remembered as outstanding scholars rather than as outstanding athletes or as popular students. Other studies suggest that there are significant differences in the importance adolescents place on grades, athletic ability, and appearance based on adolescents' gender and grade level. Critics also suggest that the nature of adolescent peer culture also changes over time, reflecting social, economical, and historical changes in society. Subsequent examination of the proposed lack of influence of parents on adolescent culture has also yielded mixed findings, with some studies suggesting that parental values remain very influential in shaping adolescent behavior such as the patterns of friendships adolescents have with their peers.

Adolescent Peer Crowds and Cliques

In 1990 Bradford Brown suggested that, rather than having a monolithic approach to adolescent culture that depicts it as primarily "deviant," it is more appropriate to examine and understand the multiplicity of adolescent peer cultures and the factors that influence such variability in values and aspirations.

When examining peer groups, a distinction should be made between cliques (small, highly inter-active groups) and crowds (large groups with more emphasis on reputation than on interaction). As noted earlier, peer groups and peer group membership change from childhood to adolescence. Some of the changes already mentioned are that adolescents spend more time interacting with their peers than younger children do, less time interacting with adults, and more time interacting with opposite-sex peers. Adolescents also seem to gravitate more toward group and crowd membership. Research supports the view of an adolescent culture comprising very different groups and cliques, each with a unique blend of behavioral norms and beliefs. In 1975 Leo Rigsby and Edward McDill proposed categorizing the various crowds along two orthogonal dimensions: the degree to which they are committed to the formal (adult-controlled) reward system of school and the degree to which they are committed to the informal (peer-controlled) status system. In 1998 Margaret Stone and Bradford Brown further developed this categorization axis and found that all adolescent groups could be categorized across the two orthogonal axes of academic engagement and peer status. Within these axes various groups were formed (the "rebels," the "jocks," the "populars," the "normals," the "brains," the "black crowd," and the "wannabe black crowd"). The broad range of crowds had well-differentiated norms, beliefs, and goals and lent support to an image of adolescent culture that is far from monolithic and static. Stone and Brown also cautioned against generalizing their findings across all settings. Cultural and socioeconomic conditions can alter the type of groups that comprise a given adolescent culture.

Reasons for such changes in peer relationships can be attributed to multiple aspects of adolescent development. The need to establish a unique and autonomous identity different from that of one's parents is one of the driving forces behind adolescents' need to reduce their psychological dependency on their parents as well as on other adults. An additional benefit to belonging in various crowds and cliques is the opportunity to explore different value systems and lifestyles in the process of forming one's identity. Adolescents' social-cognitive maturation enables them to seek groups that can meet their emerging social and cognitive needs as well as their emerging values and beliefs.

Biological changes also play an important role in adolescents' need to form relationships with the opposite sex–both friendships and dating relationships. Finding the "right" clique to belong to can provide adolescents with a very much needed emotional and social support that can help them successfully navigate the demands of adolescence. Finding the "wrong" clique, on the other hand, can lead to maladaptive consequences that can include deviant behavioral patterns. The question of the direction of peer group influence on adolescents, however, is not a simple one. The traditional way of thinking about peer influence is that it is unidirectional and direct; that is, the peer group exerts a direct and overt influence on the adolescent's behavior. Research indicates, however, that the influence is interactional. Adolescents tend to choose peer groups that share their own beliefs and norms. Conversely, peer groups tend to approach like-minded adolescents to join their group. While peer culture tends to influence adolescent behavior, it has become clear that peer culture accounts for only part of the variation in adolescent behavior. For example, adolescents' smoking and alcohol drinking patterns are attributed to peer pressure only 10 to 40 percent of the time. It is also important to note that peer culture influences are not limited to deviant behavior. As discussed above, many peer groups have positive influences on adolescents regarding academic achievement. When adolescents were asked to describe the degree and direction of peer pressure from their friends, the most commonly mentioned and strongest pressure adolescents reported was to stay in school and to finish high school. An interesting aspect of this bidirectional influence between cliques and individuals is the issue of the similarity between participants of adolescent cliques. Research indicates that cliques typically comprise adolescents who are similar in multiple dimensions, such as age, socioeconomic status, and race. Moreover, some research indicates that adolescents can be members of multiple groups and that there are similarities across group boundaries, reinforcing the image of adolescent culture–even within a homogeneous group of adolescents–as a complex system of multiplicity of styles and relationships not unlike adult society.

Changes in Peer Culture during Adolescence

During adolescence, important changes take place in the structure of the groups and cliques that adolescents belong to. In early adolescence, adolescents tend to form cliques with same-sex individuals. The same-sex cliques evolve into mixed-sex cliques during middle adolescence. Finally, in late adolescence and early adulthood, these cliques gradually give way to dyadic dating relationships. This development parallels the increasing ability and need for intimacy that develops during adolescence. Even the nature and boundaries of the groups and cliques change during adolescence, with the groups becoming less important to adolescents' self-image and less insular by the end of high school. In 1994 Brown, Mory, and David Kinney presented evidence that outlines the developmental trajectory of adolescent crowds. In middle school, the crowd system consists of only two crowds–the "trendies" (students who have high status) and the "dweebs" (lower-status students). The "dweebs" comprise the majority of the student body. The boundaries of these two middle school crowds are fairly rigid. As adolescents transition to high school a more elaborate social structure that is comprised of many different groups appears, thus enabling the majority of students (who had previously been classified as "dweebs") to seek membership in groups such as the "normals" or the "punkers." Status differences between the groups are fairly salient during the early years of high school. By the end of high school, however, the boundaries between some of these groups seem to disappear, and status differences seem to diminish. This study illustrates very well the dynamic and changing nature of peer groups and peer culture during adolescence.

Adolescent Peer Culture and School

Peer acceptance and membership in a clique is an important aspect of becoming an adolescent. Peer crowds and cliques can have a profound influence on how adolescents adjust to a school setting. As noted earlier, adolescents in school settings can become members of various cliques each with unique norms and beliefs. Laurence Steinberg, in his 1996 book Beyond the Classroom, reported the alarming results of studies that suggest that in today's schools, less than 5 percent of all students are members of a high-achieving crowd that sets high academic standards. Even more alarming is that in most schools there appears to be a great deal of pressure from the "prevailing" peer culture to underachieve in school. Steinberg reported that one out of six students deliberately hides her intelligence and interest in doing well in class out of the desire to be accepted by her peers. When adolescents were asked which group they would like to belong to, five times as many students selected the "populars" or the "jocks" as selected the "brains." Moreover, an additional indication that high-achieving students with aspirations to academic excellence are not popular in schools today came from the fact that, when asked, the "brains" were least happy with the group they belonged to (nearly half wished they could be in a different crowd). Longitudinal data confirms the fact that initial membership in a peer group that is academically oriented is correlated with higher grades, more time spent on homework, and more involvement in extracurricular activities. Beyond significantly lower academic achievement, adolescents whose friends in school were members of a "delinquent" crowd were more likely to exhibit more negative behaviors inside and outside the classroom (including conduct problems and drug and alcohol use).

The strong relationship between a positive and supportive peer culture in school and classroom settings and students' academic, emotional, and social adjustment is also evident in research that examines students' sense of belonging and sense of community in a school setting and their academic, social, and emotional adjustment. In 2002 Helen Bateman found that students define a supportive peer community as one that:

  1. Shares their values and educational goals.
  2. Actively supports their learning needs.
  3. Provides a safe and pro-social environment in which adolescents can learn.
  4. Values their contributions.

Students with a higher sense of community in the school and classroom have higher grades and higher academic self-esteem. Students with a higher sense of community also display higher levels of learning orientation and greater interest in complex problem-solving tasks. Finally, students with high sense of community also display higher levels of social skills and pro-social behavior.


It is clear that convergent evidence from many different areas of research suggest that peer culture has a very strong influence on students' adjustment to school during adolescence. Given the sensitivity of adolescents to peers, the effects of this informal social organization of the school community in crowds and cliques can surpass and counteract the effects of any formal school norms (such as regular attendance, the importance of academic achievement, and proper conduct). The issue of adolescents belonging to "positive" peer communities that encourage academic engagement and pro-social behavior should therefore become a central point of concern for parents and educators during the period of adolescence.


BATEMAN, HELEN VRAILAS. 2002. "Sense of Community in the School: Listening to Students' Voices." In Psychological Sense of Community: Research, Applications, and Implications, ed. Adrian T. Fisher, Chris C. Sonn, and Bryant J. Bishop. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

BROWN, B. BRADFORD. 1990. "Peer Groups and Peer Cultures." In At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, ed. Shirley S. Feldman and Glen R. Elliott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

BROWN, B. BRADFORD; MORY, MARGARET S.; and KINNEY, DAVID A. 1994. "Casting Adolescent Crowds in a Relational Perspective: Caricature, Channel, and Context." In Personal Relationships during Adolescence, ed. Raymond Montemayor, Gerald R. Adams, and Thomas P. Gullotta. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

BURKS, VIRGINIA S.; DODGE, KENNETH A.; and PRICE, JOSEPH M. 1995. "Models of Internalizing Outcomes of Early Rejection." Development and Psychopathology 7:683–696.

COLEMAN, JOHN S. 1961. The Adolescent Society. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

CORSARO, WILLIAM A. 1988. "Routines in the Peer Culture of American and Italian Nursery School Children." Sociology of Education 61 (1):1–14.

CORSARO, WILLIAM A., and ELDER, DONNA. 1990. "Children's Peer Cultures." Annual Review of Sociology 16:197–220.

CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, MIHALY; LARSON, REED; and PRESCOTT, SUZANNE. 1977. "The Ecology of Adolescent Activity and Experience." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 6:281–294.

FRIESEN, DAVID. 1968. "Academic-Athletic-Popularity Syndrome in the Canadian High School Society." Adolescence 3:39–52.

RIGSBY, LEO C., and MCDILL, EDWARD L. 1975. "Value Orientations of High School Students." In The Sociology of Education: A Sourcebook, ed. Holger R. Stub. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

STEINBERG, LAURENCE. 1996. Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. New York: Touchstone.

STONE, MARGARET R., and BROWN, B. BRADFORD. 1998. "In the Eyes of the Beholder: Adolescents' Perceptions of Peer Crowd Stereotypes." In Adolescent Behavior and Society: A Book of Readings, ed. Rolf E. Muuss and Harriet D. Porton. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

U.S. BUREAU OF THE CENSUS. 1996. Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)