Were you a jock, nerd, druggie, goth, or a plastic in high school? Students are often labeled by the crowd they hang with, or by their activities, or by their choice of fashion or music. Educational psychologist Bradford Brown has been studying adolescent social labels since the 1980s, and talks about how those terms have changed over time. For one thing, as schools get bigger, there are more labels.
We also know that crowd labels in middle school differ from those in high school. Early in middle school, kids call each other names like “the runaround crowd,” “the door crowd,” “the skip rope crowd”—a map of concrete activities that go on at recess. But, Brown said, by the time they’re in high school, they use their relatively more mature brains to map their social worlds in more abstract terms. The result are true crowd labels—“jocks,” “punks,” “brainiacs”—that don’t refer to actual individuals in the lunchrooms and hallways, but to categories that teenagers carry in their heads. Using a crowd label as a kind of mental shorthand explains why idiosyncratic ones might not happen that often—the more generic the name, the more usable it is.