The Link between Status Orders and Uncertainty: A Theoretical Framework and Empirical Application in the School Setting

Mark Wittek


This article contributes to literatures on status dynamics and network ecologies. I extend existing theoretical frameworks by emphasizing the difference between close relationships bound to face-to-face interaction and status perceptions, which tend to decouple from concrete situations. Distinguishing these different types of ties allows me to derive two streams of theoretical considerations. Both are based on the notion that status perceptions allow actors to reduce relational cognitive uncertainty, which increases if interaction frequencies between actors decrease. First, I argue that larger social systems exhibit greater inequality in the distribution of status compared to smaller ones leveraging previous structuralist and network-ecological accounts. Second, I hypothesize that status perceptions between groups—marked by low interaction frequencies—are more unequally distributed than within groups. I test these implications in the school setting by applying network-analytical methods to three data sets on friendship, popularity, and dislike nominations among more than 23,000 students. The results support expectations that status processes operate differently in larger contexts: in both larger classrooms and grades, popularity and dislike are focused on a smaller set of students, the overlap between friendship and popularity decreases, and popularity becomes more important for the occurrence of friendships. I also find preliminary evidence for the second set of theoretical considerations: popularity nominations are more unequally distributed between than within classrooms and genders. I argue that this is due higher relational cognitive uncertainty between these groups resulting from fewer face-to-face contact.

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