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Competing for hegemony during adolescence : a link between aggression and social status Vaillancourt, Tracy

Abstract

Peer relations researchers have documented extensively the link between aggression and social status, with aggressive children being more rejected by peers. This finding is so pervasive that few question it, despite evidence that no more than 50% of aggressive children are rejected and some aggressive children are sociometrically accepted, socially powerful, and/or perceived as popular. Such inconsistencies raise questions regarding what differentiates aggressive individuals who vary in status. Using more qualitative methods of inquiry, ethnographic studies by anthropologists and sociologists have begun to shed light on this question, demonstrating that students consider other, non-behavioral characteristics when evaluating peers and afford them status. The purpose of the present study was to empirically evaluate in quantitative analyses the relations among social status, aggression and peer-valued characteristics (PVC; e.g., attractiveness, athletic ability, stylish clothes). The central hypotheses were that higher social status would be associated with possession of PVCs, and that the relation between status and aggression would be moderated by the presence/absence of such characteristics. Accordingly, 585 students (287 females) in grades six- to ten completed a peer assessment tool designed to measure three types of social status (peer perceived popularity, power and social preference), two types of aggression (physical, relational), and various PVCs. Findings revealed that perceived popularity and power were strongly linked and both, in turn, were modestly associated with social preference, the traditional, sociometric index of status. In addition, both perceived popularity and power were positively associated with controversial nomination status, as well as to physical and relational aggression. Moreover, all three indices of status were significantly correlated with the possession of PVCs. In other words, students who were perceived as powerful and as popular were also perceived as attractive, athletic, stylish, etc. Results of regression analyses supported the hypothesis that PVCs moderate the relation between social status and aggression, although the pattern of relations observed differed for boys and girls. Specifically, for boys, the positive relation between aggression and perceived power and popularity increased as the level of peer-valued characteristics increased while the negative relation between aggression and social preference decreased as the level of peer-valued characteristics increased. The process for girls was different in that PVCs did not moderate the relationship between relational aggression and perceived popularity and social preference. Taken together, these findings suggest that researchers must look beyond behavior to understand the factors contributing to status. Expressly, the assumption that peers reject most adolescents who engage in aggressive behaviors must be reassessed in light of the present findings. That is, those adolescents who engage in aggressive behavior who also possess (non-behavioral) characteristics that are valued within the peer group are likely to enjoy a high degree of status and power. Finally, the implications of these findings for intervention must be considered, as aggressive behavior may be difficult to eliminate if it is viewed as a source or privilege of high status.

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