Social Science and the Popular Kids

OK, this has now annoyed me enough to pontificate.

There is a study going around which commentators are discussing under titles like “The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School Are Now Rich“, and “Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run“. The study finds, using data from a 1957 longitudinal study of white males, that the high school students who were most popular at graduation were more financially successful over the course of their careers.

Now, other people have flagged the “generalizing from the experiences of 70-something white men from Wisconsin is sketchy” thing. I want to kvetch around the problem in social science of “operationalization”, which is social-scientist for “We want to study X, but that would be too logistically difficult (or impossible), so instead we will study Y and pretend that it is totally the same.”*

Specifically, the study examines “popularity” using “an objective measure of popularity derived from sociometric theory: the number of friendship nominations received from schoolmates” — i.e., who is named by the most people as one of their three closest friends.

Now, it’s not unreasonable to describe this measure as “popularity”, but it has very little to do with what “the popular kids” means in mainstream American culture (see above, “The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School.”). “Popular”, in the American high school context, is a measure of status. That may go along with being well-liked, but some high schools have more of a “let them hate, so long as they fear wedgies” culture.  “Popular kids” act the role of power in social situations, and thereby have power.

(I note in passing that I think popular kids get an unfair rap in many people’s memories because people resent that kind of social power whether or not it is abused.  Even if the popular kids are no more cruel than anybody else, the fact that they could torture you if they wanted is a source of pain.)

By using “popularity” to describe the property the authors examined, they guaranteed themselves a mass audience, but also guaranteed that most of that audience would inaccurately understand their findings. They also positioned their findings as counter-intuitive (“You mean the nerds will not inherit the earth?”) rather than pedestrian (“People with lots of friends do well in life, huh? Thanks for coming in”).

This is a semantic dodge which displeases me.

*OK, that’s not always what they mean by operationalize, but it would be inconvenient to distinguish more finely.^


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