Changing conflict culture with social networks

Updated: Mar 25, 2019

Imagine there's a culture of low-level bullying in a school. Everyone knows it goes on but it's tolerated because, somewhere along the way, it came to be seen as normal.

How do you change that?

We've already seen that, when it comes to non-academic issues, teachers' voices are easily ignored. So, what about using students' voices?

Changing conflict culture

Elizabeth Paluck and colleagues recently set about breaking down the various conditions needed to get selected students to help change a school's social climate. They focused on 'conflict', defined quite broadly as things such as bullying, rumor-mongering, verbal and physical aggression, harassment, social exclusion, etc.

They measured conflict in a school in two ways. Firstly, they counted the number of disciplinary events (how many detentions there were). Secondly, they asked every student to indicate how normal these kinds of conflict behaviours are in their school (How often do you see students being mean to a girl because of what she does with boys?)

Measuring social networks

The researchers also measured the social networks within each school. This involved every student answering the question: Whom did you choose to spend time with, face to face or online over the last few weeks, either in or outside of school? The question was accompanied by a list of everyone in the school and each student had to choose up to ten people.

The students in the top 10% of the number of nominations were labelled social referents because of their high level of exposure and the resulting likelihood that they would be influential in setting social norms.

This is quite different to many other approaches which have asked students to indicate the most popular students in their school. The researchers are interested here in social influence and so wanted to find the people who are seen the most. They argued that you can know who is popular in your school but not spend much time with them - and not even like them very much - so you are not going to be so readily influenced by their behaviour.

The intervention

Once these baseline assessments had been made, the researchers set about trying to change the conflict climate for the better in 28 schools across New Jersey. They also monitored another 28 schools without any intervention - these were the control schools.

First they selected 28 'seed' students. This was done using stratified sampling, where students were randomly selected to represent the different year groups and to be equally split by sex.

These seed students were invited to a fortnightly session with a trained researcher. The session took place during the school day but changed times so the students didn't miss the same lesson consistently. They were also designed to be as engaging as possible by being hands-on, student-led, and providing snacks. The attendance averaged over 55% which, given that the students had not volunteered, was pretty good.

During these sessions the students themselves identified conflict behaviours which they felt needed addressing in their school.The seed students were then encouraged to create campaigns to tackle these behaviours. One campaign method involved creating slogans which were turned into online and physical posters. Importantly, the seed students' photos were attached to the posters so that they were seen as the 'face' of the campaign. A second campaign method involved the seed students giving orange wristbands to people seen engaging in pro-social behaviours.

So, what happened?

There was a 30% reduction in disciplinary events in the schools treatment programme schools. The seed students publicly campaigning against conflict behaviour had a significant effect.

Also, the schools where the seed groups were made of up 20% social referents (the highly connected students) the reduction in discipline events was twice that of the average treatment programme school. The social referents were also much more effective at transmitting anti-conflict social norms than the other seed students.

What's interesting is that this research recognises the importance of social networks, and the social identities which come from them, in shaping behaviour. Tapping into these social networks in careful, informed ways, can affect the behaviour of a whole community.