Peer Pressure

So, if I know blogging (and I do, as a select few people can attest), then I know that it's an exercise best undertaken after a few glasses of something interesting and at least a few hours of emo solitude accompanied by some suitable music from one's iPod. Given that the latter part of this evening seems to fit those criteria perfectly, it stands to reason that this is an excellent time for some blogging (for want of a better term).

So, if you will, I propose that we spend some few minutes discussing the concept of peer pressure.

The first thing to be said, according to the hazy framework that I came up with before logging on to type this, is that peer pressure isn't a bad thing in its own right. If we take a broad view of the matter (as one always should at some point in any examination of a social phenomenon) then it become clear that peer pressure is the very fabric of society itself. Society is, in one sense, the result of a collectively held set of views. Were it not for peer pressure in some form it seems highly unlikely that we would ever arrive at such a 'collective' set of social norms which form the foundations of society. Perhaps this observation equates to an assertion that the 'nurture' school of thought prevails over the 'nature' school, but that is an argument far beyond my capacity and therefore one that I leave for others. The important part of the observation for present purposes is that, to some extent, what others think shapes what we think. That, surely, is a difficult proposition to challenge.

I do not propose here to consider the fundamental ramifications of that statement. To do so would require an evaluation of the relative merits of subservience and anarchy at a global level. Instead I will take the easy way out and propose a potentially flawed assumption: that society as it presently exists is at least similar to society as it should exist. That is to say: we exist in something resembling a desirable system of social order.

So we can see that, at least at this basic level, peer pressure has an important stabilising effect on society. What remains to be considered is the more common meaning of peer pressure: the influence that a particular (usually relatively small) social group has on its constitutive members. Extending the logic from the previous scenario, it is difficult to conclude that this sort of peer pressure is a negative thing per se. Without delving into philosophical arguments of autonomy and individuality, it is difficult to conclude that a phenomenon that simply encourages people to conform to a commonly held set of beliefs is inherently a bad thing.

Of course it is crucially relevant that I have thus far kept the discussion neutral with respect to what the aforementioned beliefs actually are. In order to make sense of anything at a basic level it is of course necessary to strip it to its core. That is what I have attempted to do thus far with the idea of 'peer pressure'. However, that approach in itself requires a certain caution: very few social phenomenon exist in such an essential state in reality. Thus considering them in such a way can be dangerously artificial. Peer pressure may be one of those phenomenon that cannot be usefully considered in such a way.

The concept of course relies upon there being a group of 'peers' from which the pressure originates. The negative connotation that the concept of 'peer pressure' carries arises not from the true nature of the phenomenon itself, but rather from the context in which it is most commonly used. If one pauses to recollect on the occurrences of the phrase 'peer pressure' in one's own experience, I imagine one will soon realise that it is a phrase almost exclusively used by a dominant social group referring to the beliefs or attitudes of a less mainstream social group.

Therefore, on one construction of the phenomenon, the term 'peer pressure' is not so much "negative" as it is "oppressive". The phenomenon itself is entirely neutral (leaving aside the fundamental philosophical argument already mentioned): it is its use which adds the negative colour to the phrase. Thus the very use of the phrase itself has come to be, at some level, a tool of oppression. To say that something is an example of 'peer pressure' is to suggest that it is a negative example of the core phenomenon, simply because the term is almost exclusively used in a negative way. Thus the speaker casts a negative light over a particular practice, while escaping responsibility for explaining why it is that the practice should be considered negative.

It is at this point that I am forced to admit that I have no real conclusion to this discussion. As with many conversations I force on others, the point of the exercise is not to convey any particular view which I have formed; but rather to pose a question in a more detailed format.

We shouldn't accept, by default, the negative connotations of a phrase like 'peer pressure' without considering what it is that the words actually mean.

There is some irony to be found in the idea that our general understanding of 'peer pressure' is itself influenced to large extent by the true concept of peer pressure.


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