Dissertation Abstracts

Relational Popularity and Social Status in Secondary School

Author: Dytham, Siobhan , s.dytham@warwick.ac.uk
Department: Sociology
University: The University of Warwick, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Dr Cath Lambert and Prof. Christina Hughes
Year of completion: 2016
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: School , Ethnography , Friendship , Youth
Areas of Research: Education , Youth , Women in Society


This research is based on a study of the relationships and interactional processes which construct and maintain ‘popularity’ in secondary school. The study adopts an ethnographic approach, including group discussions, observations, and visual methods, in a secondary school in central England. The core argument is that ‘popularity’ is socially constructed within relationships, and this thesis develops a notion of ‘relational popularity’. In doing so, this study addresses three questions. Firstly, given the postmodern abandonment of the fixed self and critiques of the individualist focus of research, how can ‘popularity’ be understood from the framework of ‘relational beings’, and what impact does this have on the idea of ‘popularity’? Secondly, what micro-level ‘popularity’ work do students engage in to both construct and position themselves and others as ‘popular’? Finally, how does this conception of ‘popularity’ alter understandings of what the day-to-day experiences of ‘popularity’ in secondary school may be like?

These questions are addressed through the analysis of rich interactional data produced through group discussions with year 9 students (aged 13-14). After discussing an analysis of popular and unpopular social groups, meanings and usages of ‘popularity’, the dominance of ‘the popular girls’, and in-group control and dominance processes, the notion of ‘relational popularity’ is seen to open avenues for more nuanced understandings of ‘popularity’. As such, the thesis argues for the need for more micro analyses of interaction in relation to ‘popularity’ in schools, to support key research which writes about the role of societal discourses in ‘popularity’.

The thesis concludes that ‘popularity’ is not the achievement of popular individuals, but a collective achievement through ‘relational being’. Since ‘popularity’ is not something that anyone can achieve alone, this thesis argues that ‘popularity’ is not something that you are, or something that you do, ‘popularity’ is something that relationships do. The thesis demonstrates that within the schooling context multiple understandings of ‘popularity’ exist, and claims to ‘popularity’ are continually challenged and contested, which can alter understandings of ‘popular’ students and allow a consideration of areas of difficulty and vulnerability for students considered ‘popular’ (and ‘unpopular’). The conclusion draws together the theoretical, methodological and practical significance of this more nuanced understanding of popularity for further research and practice.