Socioeconomic diversity at school is often considered to be a desirable objective. Diversity would reduce academic inequalities, by bolstering the results of students originating from working-class families; as well as it would help pacify inter-class relations, by reducing prejudices and promoting forms of openness to otherness among youths. In practice, however, we know little about students’ social life in diverse settings. In particular, the extent to which school diversity results into actual mixing among students remains unknown. Can friendship ties cross class boundaries? Or do friendship networks remain segregated, as students mostly bond with same-background peers? This raises the question of homophily, the principle by which relationships occur at a higher rate among similar individuals.
In his PhD thesis, Timothée Chabot examines socioeconomic homophily at school, trying to explain how it emerges, what determines its strength, and how it can be reduced. He followed a cohort of 860 French middle school students over three years, collecting both survey questionnaires and face-to-face interviews about their relationships with one another. This data was then analysed using the toolbox of Social Network Analysis (SNA), as well as through qualitative methods.
Altogether, there is both a fair amount of mixing among students, yet clear homophily nevertheless. Most students engage in positive interactions with different-background peers, particularly at the level of weak friendships (“pals”, acquaintances, or persons that one gets along with). Additionally, socioeconomic distance is not associated to increased conflicts among students – meaning that, even when they are not friends, different-background students can coexist just fine. However, stronger relationships (such as one’s closest friends) and, more importantly, relationships that stretch outside of the school (notably the friends invited at home) are much more impacted by socioeconomic distance.
This homophily, Chabot argues, is not primarily driven by discriminatory friendship choices on the part of students. Rather, students’ socioeconomic background affects many aspects of their lives, which in turn facilitates the formation of certain relationships while hindering others. For instance, same-background students tend to live in the same neighborhoods; they tend to pick the same curricular options and to have similar school results; and their parents know each other more often; all of which contribute to making friendships among them more likely. Additionally, even weak levels of homophily can aggravate through network and group mechanisms, as one’s initial friends partly determine who they meet, hang with, and eventually become friends with. In that sense, homophily appears as a social and relational phenomenon, more so than a psychological one.
Finally, one key insight of the PhD thesis is that school administrations have some latitude in creating contexts that are more or less favorable to mixing. In particular, institutional differentiation – such as ability grouping or special tracks – clearly reinforces homophily, by stigmatising certain students and making socioeconomic differences more salient. Academic competition can also elicit tensions among different-background students. On the other hand, the presence of middle-class students in a school may attenuate social differentiation, and support friendship making between working-class and upper-class youths.
Read Timothée Chabot's thesis in CADMUS.
Timothée Chabot defended his thesis at the EUI on 20 December 2021. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) where he works on the impact of life trajectories on social inequalities during aging.