Sociometric techniques are methods that qualitatively measure aspects of social relationships, such as social acceptance (i.e., how much an individual is liked by peers) and social status (i.e., child’s social standing in comparison to peers).
Sociometric techniques have been used since the 1930s, when Moreno proposed that two dimensions of interpersonal relationships (attraction and repulsion) and the perceptions of individuals involved in relationships combined in various ways to determine nine dimensions of interpersonal relationships (e.g., attracted, attractive, rejected, isolated) . Over subsequent decades, statistical techniques became more complex, and there was increasingly recognition of the importance of distinguishing between the low status categories of rejection and neglect. An important advance in sociometric measurement occurred in 1979, when Peery proposed a classification system that included both social preference (i.e., liking) and social impact (i.e., visibility) dimensions . This classification system became a model for the current classification systems employed in the study of children’s peer relationships . Currently, the two most common sociometric techniques used within peer relations research are the peer nomination technique and the peer ratings technique.
The peer nomination sociometric technique is one method used to determine a child’s social status. Commonly, peer nominations are obtained in school classroom settings where children are asked to select from a class roster the three classmates they like the most (positive nominations) and the three classmates they like the least (negative nominations). Although the use of limited nominations has been typical, some researchers allow children to make unlimited peer nominations. For younger children, peer nominations are often obtained by asking children to select from a set of class photographs the classmates they like most and like least . Sociometric categories of social status are determined by the relative number of positive nominations and negative nominations children receive from their peers. Children are classified into one of five sociometric categories of social status: popular (many positive, few negative nominations), rejected (many negative, few positive nominations), neglected (few positive and few negative nominations), controversial (many positive and many negative nominations) and average . Research has shown that sociometric classification systems developed for use with the peer nominations technique have good reliability and validity in classifying children’s social status [7, 11, 15].
Another use of peer nomination techniques has been to measure perceived popularity, or the child’s level of social visibility within the peer group. Students are typically asked to identify the most popular people in their class; thus, this technique is employed as an index of social reputation, whereas sociometric popularity is an index of likeability. Children who are perceived as popular are not necessarily well liked by the peer group as they are more apt to engage in antisocial behavior than children who are sociometrically popular .
Peer nomination techniques have also been used to identify children’s friendships. Typically, children are asked to nominate their three best friends. If two children nominate one another, then they are considered friends. In some cases, children are also asked to indicate a very best friend, and if that friendship is reciprocated, then the particular dyad is considered to be very close friends .
The peer rating sociometric technique is used to determine a child’s level of social acceptance. Children are asked to rate an aspect of peer interaction (e.g., how much they like to play with a specific classmate), typically on a 5-point Likert-type scale (e.g., 1 = not at all; 5 = a lot). For younger children, a 3-point Likert-type scale with visual aids (e.g., faces ranging from frowns to smiles) is often used, along with photographs of the classmates to be rated . The mean peer rating received is used to determine a child’s level of acceptance in the peer group (i.e., low, average, high). To eliminate the possibility of children being inaccurately classified, most rating scales include a “don’t know” option for children to choose if they do not know a classmate.
In contrast to peer nomination techniques, peer rating techniques do not allow distinctions to be made among the low status groups (i.e., rejected, neglected, controversial). Nevertheless, peer ratings have high levels of reliability and validity . In fact, peer ratings yield more reliable data than nominations given that each child is rated by all participants , whereas peer nominations provide information only on participants who are nominated by their peers. In addition, rating scales are better able than nomination techniques to detect even subtle changes in the level of a child’s acceptance by the peer group.
Ethical Issues Related to the Use of Sociometric Techniques
Not surprisingly, some school personnel and parents have raised concerns about the appropriateness of having children report how much they like their peers. Examination of the impact of having children complete sociometric measures has revealed that participation in these tasks does not appear to have negative effects on children . After completing sociometric measures, children do not tend to change their social interaction patterns. Indeed, children tend not to play with peers they dislike either before or after responding to sociometric measures. Furthermore, children’s feelings of loneliness do not increase, even among the low-accepted groups, and children generally report that they enjoy completing these measures and sharing their feelings. Of course, it is important to emphasize to children that researchers will keep their responses confidential, and children are strongly encouraged not to discuss their responses with peers. Interestingly, however, girls have been found to be more likely than boys to discuss their responses, though they are much more apt to seek out someone to whom they gave a positive, versus a negative, evaluation. The likelihood of children discussing their responses can be decreased if sociometric measures are administered before other structured activities, such as a math lesson, and not before unstructured time, such as recess. Despite findings that participation in sociometric tasks does not adversely impact children, researchers have investigated alternative techniques that do not involve the use of negative nominations, which seem to be the most controversial. Specifically, data from positive nominations and rating scales have been combined, with low ratings being used as a substitute for negative nominations. This system accurately identifies rejected status children when circumstances do not allow for the use of negative nominations .
Relevance to Childhood Development
Sociometric techniques have been important tools for identifying how successful children are within their peer group. A valuable contribution of sociometric measures is that they have enabled researchers to develop profiles of the types of behaviors that are associated with children being liked, disliked, or overlooked by the peer group. For example, prosocial behaviors are correlated with popularity, aggressive and disruptive behaviors are predictive of rejection, and social withdrawal is associated with peer neglect . The use of sociometric techniques has also revealed that the relation of specific behaviors to status sometimes varies as a function of the child’s gender, developmental level, or social context. For example, withdrawn behavior is increasingly associated with peer rejection as children get older, and this is especially true for boys. Research using sociometric techniques has indicated that particularly those children who are rejected by peers are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes, including loneliness, depression, delinquency, and academic difficulties . Given the risks associated with rejected status, researchers have focused on trying to improve the acceptance of rejected children as a means to reduce their vulnerability to maladaptive outcomes. Information about how specific behaviors are related to peer status has been important for informing the design of social skills intervention programs. Such programs tend to be based on the premise that rejected children are often deficient in critical social skills, and within these programs children receive coaching on and practice those skills that have been found to be associated with peer acceptance.
Sociometric techniques have been used effectively to identify children who are having difficulties in the peer group and who may benefit from social skills intervention programs. Moreover, these measures are important for assessing the impact of such interventions. It should be noted that peer ratings seem to be more sensitive to detecting changes in peer status following interventions than are nomination techniques. Although post-intervention, a child may still not be nominated among peers’ top three choices as a most liked student, a rating scale can reveal whether there have been even subtle improvements in the peer group’s liking of that student. Overall, sociometric techniques are useful tools for understanding children’s social relationships, identifying children who may be at risk for later maladjustment, and assessing the effectiveness of social skill interventions.