Young girls’ friendships


Special friends, group hugs, someone to talk to – it all sounds idyllic, but Rosalyn George describes how, for girls at primary school, friendship can be more like walking through a minefield.

TW  Why did you undertake the research?

RG  It arose out of my own experience of schoolgirl friendships when I was at primary school. I found myself being excluded or included for no reason I could understand. I felt bewildered, dismayed and isolated by the whole process. I didn’t think too much about it, I put it to the back of my mind, and then when I had my daughter I noticed the same pattern repeated. When I spoke to friends they said that’s what had happened to their daughters, and to them, and their friends and nieces. It just seemed to be quite a major problem and a major concern what was happening among these very young, primary age girls.

So I looked to see what literature had been written about it and found that while there was a fair amount about older, adolescent girls there was virtually nothing on these primary age girls. The literature there was about primary age girls set them up as being compliant, friendly, warm (not that they aren’t warm), easy going, biddable, etc, and there was no apparent concern that they may not be operating in this way in their schools.

So I decided to do some research on this as I felt there was a huge gap in the literature.

TW  So the research came out of your experience – could this have introduced bias? What effect did this have on your methodology?

RG  I have always believed that the best research comes from the passion you feel for research. In grounded theory you are supposed to come with a clean sheet, but I’m not sure that can ever be the case.

I came with a view that there was a problem, that there was an issue I needed and wanted to address. So my own position within the research was that of a passionate recorder and observer of young girls’ friendships, and of someone trying to make a contribution to the literature on the work about girls in general, because much of the previous work on boys had been the early sociology of education, ethnographic studies of boys and how they operated within their own friendship groups, their own peer groups at school (work done as early as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour, Paul Corrigan’s work, and then the more recent work on masculinities where they have looked at subcultures eg. Connolly‘s work).  I wanted to look at girls, and I chose them deliberately because I felt the literature was fairly light especially, as I’ve said, for primary age girls.

TW  You talk about ‘the nature and function of friendship’ – what do you think that is?

RG  In any literature it says we all need friends. Without friends we become isolated and it impacts on every aspect of our being. However, what I found within a sociological perspective on friendship and the function of friendship, was the sense of belonging and that need to belong, but also a construction around what girls are supposed to have as ‘friendship’.

Girls are positioned as much more relational than boys. Girls are valued for making good relations, for putting other people before themselves, for thinking about others, and for allowing others space as individuals. Because of that value on their friendship, the problem comes with having to do well at school. We have now the notion of the ‘supergirl’ who has to do well at school, has to succeed in exams, has to be good at everything – but it becomes an impossible ideal. If you are always putting someone before yourself, how can you possibly compete with them? Girls are not given permission to compete in the same way as boys are. Having to put others before themselves puts girls in an impossible situation.

TW  How is that reflected in the nature of their friendships?

RG  Because they are seen as being valued for being good, for being kind and valuing others, they perform friendship. In my research, when the girls talked about friendship they talked about, ‘we have group hugs’, ‘we save space for our friends at lunchtime’ ‘ Sometimes we don’t like the girl, but we don’t let others know, she appears to be part of our friendship group.’ ‘We keep her in our friendship group, but really we don’t like her very much’.

TW  This notion of performance is interesting – after all many of the girls held up the relationship between Tiffany and Bianca in East Enders as the ideal friendship they all yearned for.

RG  Girls are told they have to have a ‘best friend’. It was the marginalised girls who said they wanted a friend like Tiffany and Bianca, who were created on the soap opera as having the most ideal type of friendship, which seemed problem free. The girls on the margins yearned for that type of friendship – a friendship where they wouldn’t suddenly be dumped one day and included the next day.  They wanted someone who would always be there to listen to them, to share their problems with, to be friends with, someone to walk home with, to do homework with.  But the reality was that this wasn’t the case at all. So there is an idealised notion, a romanticised notion of friendship which none of the girls experienced as a reality.

TW  You talk there about the marginalised girls, and you also talk in the research about a girl at the heart of a friendship group

RG  In most of the friendship networks you would find a girl leader, placed at the centre, then you would have an inner circle of closer friends, and then an outer circle where the more marginalised girls were situated. However, in order for the leader to maintain her position, the girls in the inner circle could sometimes be moved to the marginalised group, and the marginalised girls moved to the inner circle. Making the other girls’ positions uncertain, left the leader in a position of power. Any challenge to her power, she just moved to the margins, and brought other girls into the inner circle by inviting them home to tea, by going shopping with them, sitting with them –so every other girl was left uncertain. The leader was certainly the most socially skilled, she was as clever, if not the cleverest, in the group, or in her primary classroom.

She was often an attractive, charismatic kind of person and because of this charisma, and because she was articulate, she could often ‘dupe’ the teacher as well – who took on her allocation of popularity. To keep the teacher on board, she would set herself up as the victim of her popularity. She would say, ‘the problem is, I want to be everybody’s friend … but Chloe wants to be my friend, and Tiffany wants to be my friend and I just don’t know which way to turn.’ The teacher would then be very sympathetic, and I have several examples in the research of the teacher saying, ‘this poor popular girl, she has to manage all these other girls, and how does she do it?’

TW  But there are changes in the friendships when the girls go to secondary school

RG  When I started the research, I thought the charismatic quality, or the leadership qualities of the central girls would follow through. I was interested in looking at this. But what I found was that when they went to secondary school (and the friendships got fragmented anyway because they went to different schools) the leaders had lost their power after a year at secondary school.

I think it is the arrangements at secondary school that exacerbated that loss of power. Also, importantly, while at primary school the central girls had never had to examine their friendships.  They had an unquestioning following from the other girls, so when they went to secondary school, they didn’t have any resources to call upon when they found themselves becoming marginalised.

Whereas the girls who had been part of the inner circle or the marginalised group, had learned. You find them saying, ‘when I went to secondary school I looked to see who the noisy group were, or who the powerful group were and I kept away from them.’ Another girl said to her mother she wanted to go to a totally different school from the girls she had been friendly with at primary school, to break away from the friendship group, because at primary school she had found it was so hard to break away.

So, the leaders hadn’t had to reflect on why they were powerful girls so there was no learning that had taken place.

But also, as I have said, it was the structural arrangements of the secondary school. They were sent off with a different group of girls for science, another group for English, maths – all in different places in the school – so the locus of power was dissipated and they couldn’t maintain that hold. By the end of year 7 the girl leaders had lost their power. By the beginning of year 9, Isobel, one of the powerful girls, was very isolated and very lonely, with very few friends.

TW  You are a professor in the Education Department. What do you think are the lessons in your research for teachers?

RG  The problem is not that teachers are not interested, or that they don’t care – because they do.  Teachers are very busy people, and they have good value systems.  The problem is that a lot of this goes on below the radar. Girls talk about the whispering that goes on, whispering behind people’s backs. As in Valerie Hey‘s work on note taking – it all goes on below the radar. Teachers don’t actually see it.

What we need is for teachers to notice those girls who suddenly become marginalised, or where there is a different dynamic, to notice who’s in and who’s out, to actually see what is going on and why. Instead of looking at the group leader, with her charismatic quality, they should try to look at the broader friendship base and to read the intra-group dynamics of that friendship group.

I don’t want these girl leaders to lose their voice, to become quiet – that’s really important. It is not about putting them down. These are not nasty manipulative girls, they are not the queen bees we see in American high school musicals – they are girls who survive within current constructions of femininity, where they are expected to be good, where they are led to believe that adults want them to be kind, nice girls. This is their way of trying to produce that. They don’t have permission to argue, to fight, to be competitive in the ways boys have. The last thing I am trying to do is put down these girls or set them up as an abhorrent type of group. What I want is for other girls to challenge the constructions of femininity where they have to be seen as quiet and accepting, to voice up their concerns – to read why these girls have so much charisma and to try to discuss it, and to be supported in that discussion. This has gone on for generations, and can’t be expected to change overnight .

We need the support of teachers and parents. And we need the support of head teachers, because the parents I’ve heard from feel that their daughter is bewildered, and they don’t know how to handle it. They have gone into the school, where the construction of ‘girls will be girls’ is no comfort to them.

This ‘reality’ is not a reality, it needs to be challenged.

And we need to give teachers the time and space to reflect on this research – there is so much money being spent on anti-bullying programmes and school policies on anti-bullying, and on behaviour problems – but because this goes on beneath the radar, and ‘these are girls, and it’s what girls do – it is just part of growing up’, it is not included in these types of programmes.

Perhaps we need to think about what bullying means. The behaviour in girls friendship groups needs to be included in programmes for teachers. And parents need to feel stronger and know they’ll get support when they bring it to the attention of teachers.

These girls are being affected, their learning is being affected by what is happening and it is a very serious issue.


Rosalyn George is

Her book, Girls in a Goldfish Bowl:  Moral Regulation, Ritual and the Use of Power Amongst Inner City Girls is published by Sense.

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