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Adolescent relationships – a sociological approach

March 25, 2013

In her review of adolescent relationship processes, Peggy Giordano begins by explaining that:

“It is well recognized that relationships outside the family become increasingly important during adolescence. Although several very important studies of basic social processes have been conducted by sociologists (Coleman 1961,Waller 1937), historically much of the research and theorizing about adolescent relationships has been carried out by developmental psychologists. Sociologists have a strong interest in the adolescent period, but much work has focused on specific outcomes such as delinquency, sexual behavior, or academic achievement. Traditionally, relationship variables most often enter the picture as potential predictors of these dependent variables, rather than being the primary objects of inquiry. In the past decade, however, sociologists have increasingly focused on relationship processes, and the availability of large data sets such as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) has greatly facilitated this research. Innovative ethnographic studies, multilevel analyses, and other longitudinal data collection efforts have also added to our knowledge about the nature, meaning, and impact of adolescent relationships.” (p.257)

Giordano proceeds with a sociological approach and the intention of “highlighting (a) ways in which structuring variables (Cullen 1983) such as gender and race influence key aspects of these relations, (b) the impact of broader network processes in general and as they influence dyadic relationships, (c) the content of what is communicated within the adolescent’s social networks (and the cultural worlds that are created through these interactions), and (d) the situated, malleable nature of social relationships and in turn the role played by human agency in network processes. These conceptual assets,” Giordano explains, “suggest some limitations of the dominant perspective on adolescent relationships, attachment theory, and fruitful avenues for additional research.” (p.258)


Under the above title, Giordano explains: “The family continues to maintain its position as the most researched social domain within the study of adolescent relationships. Nevertheless, the literature is also characterized by a dramatic increase in attention to peer relationships. Early work tended to pit these two arenas against one another, with the objective of discerning which reference group tends to be most influential during the adolescent period (the so-called parent-peer cross-pressures literature—e.g., Brittain 1963, Floyd & South 1972). Aside from a few well-publicized popular treatments of this topic (e.g., Harris 1998), there is now rather wide consensus that parents continue to be critically important sources of support, control, and socialization, even as autonomy is negotiated and peers take on a heightened salience. Within the general domain of peer-related studies, there has been increased recognition for the need to distinguish and give individual research attention to different types of peer relations (Savin-Williams & Berndt 1990). Both theoretically and empirically, scholars have placed the most emphasis on close friendships, and a significant body of research has also developed around the social world beyond the dyad. Studies such as Add Health have enabled researchers to link respondents’ friendship nominations to the data and to the friendship nominations of others, thus facilitating analyses of the nature and impact of even wider networks of affiliation. This adds to a developing literature on adolescent crowds, a research tradition that has conventionally focused on issues of reputation as well as interaction and affiliation (i.e., individuals similarly labeled as jocks or nerds may or may not actively associate with one another). Finally, a particularly exciting development in the study of adolescent relationships has been recent theoretical and research attention focused on romantic relationships. In many ways, romantic and sexual partnerships can be considered the “last frontier” in the study of adolescent relationships.” (p.258)

Ref: Peggy C. Giordano (2003) Relationships in Adolescence. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2003. 29:257–81

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