In middle school, does social origin influence friendships?


Social mixing at school – that is to say the fact that children from the working, middle and upper classes attend the same establishments – is generally considered a desirable objective, capable of reducing educational inequalities and foster in students a form of openness to otherness.

However, it is frequently feared that students from different social backgrounds, even when they are in the same establishment, mix little or not at all, reproducing forms of social segregation in their friendships . Thus, a recent article in the newspaper Le Monde wondered whether children already have a “class consciousness” that would make them choose friends from the same backgrounds, thus partially canceling out the effect of the establishment’s mix. One could even fear that social distance could lead to conflicts or harassment between students – a fear mentioned in particular by some parents.upper classes to explain their choice to send their children to less mixed schools (often in the private sector).

What is it really? From a survey carried out in four mixed French colleges, it is possible to see to what extent the social origin of the children influences their relations with each other, both in terms of friendships and enmities and conflicts.

A real but moderate social homophily

First observation: students are indeed more likely to have socially close friends. We speak in sociology of social homophilia to qualify this phenomenon. For example, the children of executives declare on average 28% of children of employees and workers among their “very good friends”, whereas this rate should rise to 35% if the relations were independent of origin. social.

We can nevertheless see that this gap is not overwhelming: relations between different social backgrounds, while less probable, remain quite possible – even in the most homophilic of our four colleges, we still find 22% of children from working classes among the very good friends of the upper categories (against 39% expected). By way of comparison, the effect of gender is much stronger: boys report only 21% of girls among their very good friends, compared to the 50% expected if the relationships were randomly distributed.

Second observation: this social homophily is more or less pronounced depending on the type of relationship. At the level of “weak” friendships (friends, friends, comrades, etc.), it is very limited, sometimes almost non-existent. It becomes more marked among very good friends, and even more so among college friends who are also seen outside the establishment (invitations to the house, outings to the park, etc.).

This result is interesting in that it can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, social homophily seems to increase with the degree of intimacy between students; on the other hand, relations appear to be more mixed within the college than outside it. However, what this second interpretation implies is that attending college increases the social mix of friendships compared to what students experience in the rest of their lives.

Of course, the sociability of college students includes conflicting and hierarchical dimensions. Some students have many friends, while others are isolated, with all the power asymmetries that this may entail. There is also enmity, mockery – reciprocal or not – or even, in the worst case, harassment.

However, on all these aspects, social distance makes little difference. To the question “are there any students you don’t like?” “, college students do not respond more often by naming comrades from a social background different from their own – in some colleges, they are even less likely to name them than those from their own background. Similarly, the answers to the question “Are there students who make fun of you or bother you?” are not related to social distancing. Finally, students from different social backgrounds have about the same number of friends on average; only one of the four colleges studied presents a notable imbalance from this point of view, in favor of the children of the upper classes (they make and receive slightly more friendship nominations on average).

Discrimination in the choice of friends?

As we have said, students are more likely to have friends from the same social backgrounds. Should we therefore see in this the mark of a “class consciousness” in the choice of friends, which would manifest itself in incompatible tastes, centers of interest or relational styles?

In fact, an important part of social homophily is explained by the opportunities for contact between students. Children from the same social background are more likely to live in the same neighborhood or the same street, they do the same activities more often outside of school, and their parents are more likely to know and relate to each other. enjoy. All this mechanically contributes to facilitating homophilic friendships. Once these elements are taken into account, the “net” tendency to choose socially similar friends, if it exists, turns out to be weak.

From this point of view, schools have an essential lever: the distribution of pupils between classes. As soon as children from the same backgrounds tend to be concentrated in the same classes – in particular due to socially connoted options, such as Latin, international programs or SEGPA classes, then the social mix of friendships drops significantly.

Indeed, not only do these separations affect contact opportunities, but they can also give rise to forms of labeling or stigma that reinforce social boundaries: some students thus speak of “Latinists” or “SEGPAs” as a well-identified group foreign to theirs. Dividing the option groups between several classes and only bringing them together for the dedicated courses is thus a simple measure to promote the social diversity of friendships.

In the end, can we say that social diversity “works”? It all depends on the expectations you have of it. If we hope for a sudden and total disappearance of all social differentiation between pupils, then no: the relationships, especially the strongest ones, remain marked by social homophily. Moreover, the educational orientation that occurs at the end of college operates an important social sorting, the children of the working classes being massively directed towards the professional paths  ; the parenthesis of co-education in middle school is thus quickly closing, and it’s a safe bet that friendships between socially distant young people will have more difficulty surviving over time.

On the other hand, if we form the more reasonable hope of a good understanding between children, of an overall peaceful school context, and, despite everything, of the appearance and persistence of at least a few strong friendships between social classes, then everything indicates that the social mix of establishments already does a lot. It is true that local situations vary greatly: depending on school policies, urban configuration or even the involvement of parents, the degree of segregation of friendships may vary greatly.

But in any case, the situation of mixed establishments should be compared to that of the most segregated colleges: in the latter, relations between children from different social backgrounds are, by definition, practically non-existent. The policies of social diversity at school therefore make it possible to promote a certain friendly diversity that the students simply would not experience otherwise.

Author Bio: Timothee Chabot is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED)