The experience of doing activities in groups, particularly when these involve a common goal – such as making music in the aim of performing together – has often been seen as a way of building positive relations between individuals. As such, it underlies many educational programmes targeting children and young people. Yet, little research has looked at whether these collective experiences could lead to negative ties. On the other hand, existing social network research addressing negative ties, especially that concerning children and young people, tends to investigate affective relational states, such as dislike relations. It tends to neglect other relations, such as ones arising from these collective experiences, and how they can be associated with negative experiences and outcomes.
To address these gaps, the present paper presents a mixed-methods case study of the social networks, experiences and outcomes of children in two French primary schools. The study investigates both schools as they are going through the first year of an in-school intervention which aims to improve students’ social relations through collective music-making. It uses a combination of psychometric scales, social network measurements – including friendship and dislike relations – and ethnographic fieldwork to investigate students’ social networks, social experiences, and related outcomes. These features make it possible for the study to investigate whether collective experiences in the school and music programme can lead to a wide variety of negative ties, experiences and outcomes.
The study finds that the collective nature of students’ activities, whether in the school or music programme, led students to experience a form of ‘embeddedness’ – a dependence on their environment – which, at times, could create or promote negative ties and experiences. For instance, this ‘collective embeddedness’ meant that social contagion was routine, could happen very quickly, and happened for a wider range of negative phenomena than is typically considered. It also meant that the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ events and information was blurred, and could lead to a form of invasiveness which fostered negative relations between students. In addition, the explicit dependence that sometimes tied students together could lead to negative relations between students when they felt they were being constrained by others. The study contrasts these findings with students’ positive and dislike networks over time, as well as their sense of community in school and related outcomes. It finally looks at the role of staff members in creating and mediating some aspects of ‘collective embeddedness’, and how this sometimes brought into question the quality of relations and trust between students and adults. The study therefore suggests that more attention may need to be paid to adults when investigating students’ negative ties in collective settings.
The paper concludes by considering the generalisability of the processes it identifies. It namely suggests that the negative aspects of ‘collective embeddedness’ cited above can be present in other settings, namely when these are also intensely social and where participants exhibit little control over their social lives.