Shifting a climate of conflict: A multi-school social network field experiment testing the malleability of student-perceived norms and school climate

Recent theory and empirical research suggests that the problem of widespread and cyclical social conflict in schools, often labeled a “climate” of conflict, is driven by students’ perceptions of a school-wide collective norms supporting conflict. Collective norms of conflict describe the typicality and desirability of behaviors that escalate or condone conflict among students at the school. From this perspective, the best strategy for shifting a climate of conflict is not to address students’ personal values or beliefs, but to alter their perceptions of these collective norms. Theories of social norms suggest that certain members of a social group play a disproportionate role in creating and reinforcing the norms of a group. These influential “social referents” are individuals who are highly connected within the group social network, such that their behavior is marked as important to many people, and who are chronically salient, such that their behavior is frequently observed. The ROOTS project, based in 58 schools across the state of New Jersey, employs social network mapping and randomized controlled trial methodology to test an anti-conflict intervention that targets social referent students. Using repeated social network surveys and behavioral records as outcome measurement, the experiment measures both the diffusion of tolerant norms and behavior from referents to peers within a school, and the overall level of anti-conflict norms and behavior for each school. As such, the project addresses longstanding social science questions about the spread of social norms, and the reproduction and change of a community’s overall behavioral patterns, or “climate.”   Click here for more about the ROOTS project