Strand 4: Friendships, Peer Groups and Neighbourhoods

Leader: Simon Burgess Strand Publications

Social interactions are an important part of a child’s development (Dunn, 2004). Beyond the family, each child transacts much of daily life with friends and peers outside the home. These friendship and peer groups can be thought of as a mediating factor between the role of family and genetic inheritance, and cognitive, behavioural and health outcomes. Enduring friendships are also an important factor later in life.

We are interested both in the formation of friendship and peer groups, and in the impact of these groups on a range of outcomes. These two issues are self-evidently linked, both from a behavioural viewpoint and from a statistical modelling perspective. We discuss the role of peer and friendship groups in influencing developmental outcomes elsewhere in this proposal and discuss group formation here.

There has been a surge of interest among economists in social networks (Jackson, 2005) and friendship groups form an archetypal social network. The likelihood of different friendship links forming within in a wider group may be influenced by a number of factors. Sacerdote and Marmaros (2005) show that being of the same race is a major factor among US college students. The role of location, or physical distance, is less clear.

In the psychology literature on friendship formation the focus varies developmentally. With younger children, much of the work focuses on individual factors that affect children’s ability to make friends, such as aggression or shyness (Hay et al 2004), and on the impact of friendships on developmental outcomes. In adolescence, there is a greater concentration on contextual influences including schools and neighbourhoods (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn, 2003, Maughan, 2001).

ALSPAC provides a unique resource to study friendship formation within peer groups and neighbourhoods. The feature that is particularly useful here is that the survey respondents are almost all closely located to each other. We have this data for the focus student and most of her peers in the school and in the neighbourhood. We also have data on friendship links.

We are interested in the factors influencing the formation of friendship groups within broader peer groups. Characteristics of the child and the environment, location, and other contextual factors are all potentially important factors. The role of space is something we will be able to investigate. Ethnicity is also a factor of interest, particularly since the Commission for Racial Equality’s warning of the dangers of ethnically- segregated friendships (Phillips, 2005).

4.1 Formation of friendship groups

Researchers: Burgess, Propper; Maughan

Peer and friendship groups for this age group can form at school, in the neighbourhood, and in other contexts such as sports clubs, music, faith, and other activities. The formation of broad peer groups at school is linked to school choice. ALSPAC offers the possibility to locate and characterise the children that the focus child actually interacts with. We will analyse the factors involved in why the focus child makes friends with a particular set of others. This includes the characteristics of the child and her family, the characteristics of the pool of potential friends defined by a broad peer group. This will include socio-economic descriptors of the household, but also developmental and behavioural descriptors of the children. We will also examine the importance of the local environment. How important is the presence of local facilities to enable spaces for friendships to form? We can geo-code the presence of major sports clubs, parks, and other facilities to merge into the dataset.

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4.2 Measuring the sorting of friendship groups

Researchers: Burgess, Wilson

Burgess and Wilson (2005) have characterised levels of ethnic segregation in schools. There is also a substantial literature analysing socio-economic segregation across schools (Gorard, 2000). Recent policy discussions have highlighted the importance of segregation in schools. ALSPAC allows us to go beyond this and study the degree of segregation or sorting in friendship groups. We will ask whether most friendship networks are largely within similar income or socio-economic bands, or whether they cross such boundaries and depend on other idiosyncratic factors. Compared to the pool of potential friends in a school or neighbourhood, are friendship networks just a microcosm of the total, or do they split it up into even more segregated groups? We will look at sorting along income lines, ethnicity, and different dimensions of measured ability and behaviour.

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4.3 Are peer groups biased measures of friendship groups?

Researchers: Burgess, Propper; Maughan, KCL

Distinguishing a narrow friendship group from a broader peer group raises an important methodological question. Most studies of peer effects only have access to summary information on the broad peer group – for example, class average test scores. But this may be very misleading – the people actually impacting on a given child may be a narrow subset of the broad group. Given the ALSPAC data, we can gauge the extent of bias in the approach constrained by the standard data.

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4.4 Comparing friendship groups in England and the US

Researchers: Burgess, Propper; Maughan

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health is a large representative survey of students entering high school in the US. Detailed information on their friendship associations is available for sub-samples of the dataset. Though all the richness of ALSPAC data is not available, this dataset allows us to compare the processes of friendship formation across two different cultures and school systems.

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