Thoughts on Theses: Blaine Werner
Issue   |   Wed, 05/06/2015 - 00:09

Blaine Werner is a psychology and religion double major.Werner wrote a senior thesis on peer groups. His adviser is Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Katherine Clemans.

Q: What is your thesis about?
A: What my thesis asks is: Are there universal peer crowds? If so, what are they? And are there any factors that predict the emergence of peer crowds? A peer crowd is ... we think of “jocks,” “nerds” and “popular kids.” It’s not necessarily an interaction-based category — it’s more of a reputation-based one. So all the nerds might not interact with each other. It has less to do with interaction of the crowd designated and more with reputation. And there are many different elements of perceived behaviors, of popularity and social status, of those particular peer crowds, the norms and values that are associated with those particular peer crowds.
The reason I’m asking such broad questions is because the literature has been pretty inconsistent in the operational definitions of those peer crowds and the methodologies used to determine those peer crowds that exist. When a psych research team investigates a particular behavior with adolescent peer crowds, it tries to identify peer crowds and identify if there are particular behaviors associated with particular crowds. For example, there’s the “deviant crowd,” and they’re perceived to have high smoking behavior, high recidivism, high marijuana usage. The jock crowd is associated with high alcohol consumption and engages in riskier sexual activity. Most studies look at one high school and they determine the peer crowds, re-label the kids at that school into the peer crowds that they’ve determined exist, then they investigate the particular behaviors of those crowds based on the kids in them. The problem is, the high schools are generally homogeneous, large, urban, white public schools of a middle socioeconomic status. There’s not a lot of external validity because, how can you generalize across all high schools across the country when every high school is very different? There were certain factors that I thought were involved in the type of peer crowds that emerge at a particular high school: enrollment size, public vs. private, academic performance of the school and median household income level in the area.

Q: What was your research process like?
A: The survey I had was released to recent high school graduates. It asked, what are the peer crowds that existed at your high school, what were they like, a free response to describe the crowd and eight different behaviors — how often did members of this crowd smoke, drink, things like that. I was also looking to get as many high schools represented as possible. I got 145 high schools represented in my sample, with a fair amount of geographic diversity, and also socioeconomic and academic performance diversity. Enrollment was from 40 students to 5,200 students. I got 145 different high schools and 165 students. Then, I had 10 Amherst College students code my data. They were told to come up with a coding scheme for common crowds that emerge; I reviewed those 10 coding schemes and determined which ones overlapped. I came up with 11 total peer crowds, including: athlete, high social status, artsy, ethnic-based, academically oriented, deviant, religious kids, outsider and average.

Q: How does this compare with data from the literature that you’ve read?
A: This is a huge step back from the literature. My criticism of the literature is when you’re investigating peer crowds for a particular behavior, you’re probably going to end up being biased in terms of the peer crowds you identify because you’re looking for ones that are based on those particular behaviors. What my study tried to do was to ask what are the peer crowds, rather than looking to see if they exhibit particular behaviors.

Q: Why is it problematic to think of things in terms of behaviors?
A: My thesis is a response to a meta-analysis, essentially a study of studies in 2007 on peer crowds. The studies they investigated were inconsistent in the methodologies they used to determine the peer crowds. One study might be saying a jock crowd is high school kids who play a sport for more than two hours a week, and another study might say a jock is someone who identifies [as a jock] ... and another study might say a jock is someone who other people might say is an athlete. So those are inconsistent. In the meta-analysis they came up with five peer crowds. The deviant crowd was the most consistently identified, but the deviant crowd isn’t the most represented crowd. You’re not going to have a large deviant population — you’re going to have a rather small one. So the question becomes, how are they so consistently identified? It’s probably because their behaviors are the ones researchers are looking out for. There’s a sense that there’s something awry or erroneous in the methodologies being used.

Q: What’s the most valuable thing you think you’ll take away from the process?
A: I think my biggest takeaway is what it means to make an original academic contribution to the world. I think my thesis is pretty dope because it’s a step back from 50 years of psychology research. It was just cool to read all these studies and say, “my thesis is going to try to improve a field of study.” I could also engage in a conversation with someone who studies this and have some arguments to make. And arguments beyond what I read in the literature — arguments based on an experiment I had actually performed myself.

Q: How did you decide on this thesis topic?
A: Initially I was going to do a psych and law thesis with [Professor of Psychology] Allen Hart, and then he went on sabbatical and announced it rather suddenly in the middle of the summer. I was really going to be set far back, so it came down to, either I don’t do a thesis or I do a thesis with a professor that I hadn’t planned on doing it with. Catherine Sanderson, who is my academic adviser in the department, emailed the whole department and said, who would be willing to take on another thesis student? Katherine Clemans suggested this one, and it seemed the coolest, the most interesting, the most up my alley, so I went with it.

Q: Do you have any advice for students considering writing a thesis?
A: Do it. But do it for the right reasons. There are a lot of different good reasons. I think most of the theses I see succeed are based on an intense interest and passion in the specific topic because when it’s March and it’s due in two months and you’re pulling all-nighters on it, something’s got to be feeding your energy. And it should be your devotion to that particular topic. It’s going to be hard, even if it’s your favorite topic in the world. If I hadn’t done a thesis, I don’t know what walking away from college would have felt like. It feels like I did something with what I’ve learned here.