Interesting Research: Being Cool at School: Social Status and Music

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Have you got a classroom full of Black Stylists and New Traditionalists? Or is it more a mix between Club Kids, Hard Rockers and a few Musical Omnivores? This rather interesting way of dividing up the musical tastes of high school kids comes from researchers at the University of Toronto, Canada. These sociologists decided to take a really detailed look at what young adults are listening to, and, just as importantly, ask why.

Significant Research
The work is significant for a number of reasons. One, they used a really large group of students – over 3,300. Two, Toronto is an incredibly culturally diverse city, diversity which has been absent from previous studies. And finally, they seem to have uncovered a real change in behaviour in the choices that young people make.

Music and Image
It is sometimes easy to forget the role that music plays in creating the image of the person we want to be. We tend to think that the music we listen to, is the music we like, and that this is a closed loop – a circular argument. But, sociologists will come along and tell you, that your choices are also all about making friends and influencing people. We naturally use our music preferences to help manage what a sociologists would call our cultural capital.

Elite Music
Previous research along these line, discovered that the most academically gifted students would have a strong preference for ‘elite’ music. This was quite a wide category covering classical music, opera and jazz. The researchers had every reason to believe that this was a way for these students to rehearse roles that they intended having as adults in high-achieving careers.

Status and School
Now, we all know how incredibly competitive and status conscious the high school environment is. We also know how teenagers operate astoundingly complex and nuanced ‘rules’ around the subtle differences between a vast range of musical styles. Yet, the long held view seemed not to reflect this complexity.

Student Groups
So, skipping over the details of their research method – but lets just say they asked a lot of students what sorts of music they liked, while getting the info on how well they were doing academically, and finding out how much fun they had (legal or otherwise) when not at school – they came up with seven new music preference categories. These are;
Club Kids: techno, dance, mainstream pop, hip-hop and rap
Black Stylists: soul, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, reggae and dance hall
New Traditionalists: classical music, opera, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, country music and mainstream pop
Hard Rockers: heavy metal, hard rock, alternative, punk and grunge fans
Musical Abstainers: Didn’t like anything much
Ethnic Culturalists: ethnic music, soul, R&B, jazz, classical music, opera, country music, techno, dance, and mainstream pop
Musical Omnivores: an above average appreciation for all eleven genres

All change
If we ignore the Musical Abstainers, for obvious reasons, the critical fact that sticks out is the much wider range of genres to which the vast majority of students are listening. And, possibly even more interesting is that the academic high achievers, the Musical Omnivores, have changed completely! Rather than showing their cultural superiority through the rejection of popular culture and a narrow focus on ‘elite’ genres. It is the breath of their choices which signals to others their high status.

These results also dovetail into research on adults which has show a similar change. High-status professionals use their cultural openness as, at the very least, an indicator of a high degree of self-confidence. It is fascinating to consider that by trying to maintain a young child’s natural openness to all musical styles, we might be helping them eventually become a high achiever. It would be great to hear if these groups make sense to you based on your own students.
You can see their full research here.

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