Not just ‘girls will be girls’

Rosalyn George’s research on schoolgirl friendships has revealed a world of neglected and often painful power relationships.

Young girl being excluded by friendsWhat are the processes of exclusion and inclusion amongst girls’ friendship groups? Can friendship and bullying coexist? Is the leader in the class always the most popular member of the class? What is the role of the teacher in consolidating group friendships? What impact does the process of transition from primary to secondary school have on existing friendship networks?

The rationale for our research into these difficult questions came from the realisation that patterns of inclusion and exclusion were a regular feature of young girls’ lives, and that this widespread experience was, on the whole, socially invisible. Where it was observed, its importance was usually denied or diminished. Girls’ troubled friendships in their primary schools have warranted little serious attention from their teachers or from other adults. They usually perceive the making and breaking of friendships as an inevitable, and almost natural and routine, part of children’s daily classroom experiences. Furthermore, the experience is over so quickly that intervention is unnecessary and probably impossible.

Our research is specifically concerned with the social significance of friendship. Whilst the emotional aspects of friendship have also been explored, the data from the research suggests that friendship is not only a personal matter, but also one which is inherently social. This means that friendship needs to be understood against a background of social and structural opportunities and constraints.

Our research study was concerned to uncover how girls from inner city primary and secondary schools understood friendship, and whether their understanding shifted through changing contexts and circumstances. We were also interested in exploring how and why the girls within a particular friendship group invested the leader with so much power, and the extent to which the girls resisted and subverted dominant discourses of femininity to create their own cultural space. The construction of a moral code within the group, and how it was regulated by the leader and seemingly accepted without question by the rest of the group, was also explored.

Our research showed that this control of the friendship group by the leader resulted in exclusionary practices and apparent betrayal by friends. It therefore led to a seemingly contradictory position in which the role of friend and of bully became conflated in the girls’ discussions.

During the research programme, increasing attention was also paid to the phenomenon of changing relationships amongst these urban girls following primary to secondary school transfer. We found that the issue of race became a significant theme, emerging as important at this point in the girls’ schooling.

This research started out by taking something that the researcher knew to be complex, but which was generally understood and seen as an ordinary everyday occurrence and dismissed as unimportant. She wanted to challenge these assumptions. Her work was featured in the Education Guardian and on BBC Television and Radio.

In turn, the media attention given to this ‘everyday occurrence’ has created a wealth of feedback from listeners, viewers and readers – mothers and fathers amongst them. It has become apparent that these complex issues resonate on an emotional level with many (extra)ordinary people outside the university and the educational establishment. The research, and the response to it, suggests that many adults realise the existence of these intense and destructive interactions in the social and emotional economy of the classroom, which are like wallpaper: always there but rarely noticed.

There have been national level initiatives to deal with bullying, but these programmes fail to address the everyday low level disruption caused by girls’ behaviours. This invisibility of girls’ aggression puts teachers on shaky ground, with many feeling unable and unwilling to challenge or discipline behaviour that they have not witnessed. These young girls need to be encouraged to speak up and feel confident that their teachers will treat their concerns seriously and support them in challenging the emotional minefield that many of them have to negotiate on a daily basis.

Rosalyn George is Professor of Education and Equality at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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