Peer influence and impact of sub-groups in formation communities

peersFormators often get puzzled when they come to know that they are the last ones to know many things happening among the students. I have listened to Claretians sharing their group adventures and pranks on formators during their initial formation after they have passed through the seminary. Some of these “mischiefs” were not helpful for achieving the goals of their formative journey and it had negative consequences on some companions. Groups of formees act as a collective body with its own corresponding group dynamics. Peer influence in seminaries with a significant number of members need to be given due attention so that it can be tapped in favour of their vocational growth and commitment.

 Informal groups among the students wield lot of influence positively or negatively on the formation process. If the ethos of the group is positive, the formative climate would be more conducive to growth and it could help dealing with individual frustrations effectively.

Let us take, for example, a scene of a conversation among students after a basket ball game about the recently celebrated feast of the Founder. Jim poured out his criticism of the arrangement of the feast by the formator. But Tom intervened and explained the context in which some difficulties arose during the arrangement of the feast which was not known to Jim. The same situation could have also turned out to be an occasion to pooling resentments against the formator and eventually create bitterness in the group, had there been a ‘leader’ among them who had unresolved problems with authority figures..

In a formation house with many students of different age groups and different stages of formation, various forms of group influence are inevitable. Here are a few to mention:

  • Influence of the senior batches on the younger groups both at individual and group levels.
  • Influence of powerful members within the group (Power distribution in the group).
  • Influence of subgroups in the seminary based on ethnic, regional, linguistic or national affinities.
  • Particular affections between members within or across groups. (“particular friendships”)
  • “Gay culture” may exert influence in the formative climate in certain social contexts.

For a young person, his peer group is a source of affection, sympathy and understanding, a place for experimentation. Peer group offers a supportive setting for achieving the two primary developmental tasks of adolescence. These are: (1) identity — finding the answer to the question "Who Am I?" and (2) autonomy — discovering that self as separate and independent from parents and elders.

Friends provide companionship and support for each other in times of stress and are a source of fun and stimulating recreational activities. They are also loyal allies during tough interactions on the playground or arguments on the table. They are confidants and holders of secrets among the peers.

Groups pressure works on weaker members because they have fear of being ridiculed by companions. People often excuse or give a peer the benefit of the doubt for negative behaviour if the peer is liked, while they offer no excuses or sympathy for disliked peers. These characteristics of adolescents and young adults lead to the formation of cliques in formation houses.

Most of the formees in the pre-novitiate stage are in the later part of adolescence or are young adults. Peer influence will be greater on less mature members in any group. When vocationally motivated students are the natural leaders in the formation group, even less motivated students may better respond to formation programs. But when students with vocationally dissonant values dominate their groups, less mature members will easily be distracted in their formative journey. Wise formators take advantage of the positive role of peer influence in formation

Role of formators in using peer influence for formation

Here are some tips:

  • Formators are to be emotionally available to the young formees like good parents so that they do not depend excessively on their companions for support especially in vocational matters. But if there is conflict among the team of formators, formees would develop excessive peer dependence. Regular “Vocational Growth Sessions” (formative personal guidance) are necessary to understand and guide the formees in their vocational journey and balance the impact of peer formation.
  • It is important that the formator nurture capacities of individuals and help the formees deal with their personal struggles so that they are not misguided by peers on important matters.
  • Make the formees participate in decision-making and rule-setting that affect their lives. They need help to learn discernment based on values and understand the criteria for decision making.
  • It is not wise that formators confront the group as a whole for the mistakes of a few formees, He should have worked on his own frustration and seeing things going wrong in the group before he offers confrontation to individuals or to the group. The group will respond better if he taps its positive potential when he offers a feed back about group behaviours that needs to be improved.
  • Prudent formators will channelize peer influence positively by empowering positive energy of the group to pursue formative goals and contain negative influences and prevent them from disrupting common good.
  • Formators need to encourage cross-ethnic team work among formees and value interculturality.
  • Some formees may feel isolation and rejection in their groups. They need to be helped to deal with loneliness and develop relationship skills.
  • When a vocationally unhappy student influences others, formators should take necessary steps to protect the formative environment.

Sub-groups within a formation community

It is a normal thing in a large group that members develop natural affinities with others and form sub-groups based on ethnicity, language, region, nationality etc. A basic understanding about the group boundary1constitution of a group can help us to deal with sub-groups and prevent them from damaging the coherence of the larger group. The following is a basic description of a group from the perspective the boundaries existing in any group.

A well functioning social group is formed by two major boundaries:

  1. External major boundary is that which separates members from non members. When there are no clear boundaries that distinguish members from non-members, the group will be like a crowd. Formation houses that are open to people round the clock without having proper space of privacy and time for community acts suffer from the lack of cohesion.
  1. Internal major boundary which distinguishes leaders from members and clarifies who will represent the group before the public as well as within the group and act as final authority to take decisions. When group members take decisions for the group without recourse to the leaders, there is confusion and dispersion in the group.

Every group will have subgroups within it and they do serve the needs of affiliation and support for individual members. Some members of the community also participate in other groups in the society such an ethnic association. Individuals may develop strong bonds with families or groups outside of the community. All these affiliations and bonds have a healthy role in the life of the members when they respect and maintain their boundaries in relation to the primary community to which they belong (see fig.1).

healthy community

But if the boundaries of the sub-groups are stronger than that of the group’s major boundaries, the group is seriously threatened and the sub-groups tend to separate from the larger group or get expelled. For example, if an ethnic group gets strong in a formation community with its own internal leaders who make decisions for them, the community will either expel them or make arrangements for them to return to their respective province to form their own community. There cannot be a parallel “community” within the community. Similarly when affiliations and bonds with persons and groups are stronger than that of the formation community, the members begin to experience alienation and dispersion which, in the long run, would seriously hamper their vocational journey. The person may leave the community or remain as a “boarder” (“nesting”) without participating wholeheartedly in the life and mission of the community. Fig.2. show different sub-groups with thick boundaries that make them islands within the community).

unhealhty community

As shown in the figure if the boundaries of sub-groups within the community or of groups formed with persons from outside the community are stronger than the major boundaries of the community, it coherence and existence will be threatened. It is the function of leadership to help sub-groups maintain their proper place within the community.

Boundary Violations that affect the integrity of formation communities

The following are some of the situations of boundary violations that adversely affect the life and mission of a community:

  • Sub-groups (based on tribe, caste, region, nationality etc) form a clique to bargain for their interests at the cost of common good. It becomes difficult to deal with when the formator/superior comes from another tribe, caste, region or nationality because the group can play the “communal card” easily in favour of them.
  • The formator forms alliance with a member and involves him in decision making process, “spying” or offer opportunities without following criteria.
  • Bonding of members with outsiders and letting them interfere with the internal affairs of the community. This happens when a member seeks support for his grievance from groups outside the community who are not the legitimate forum to petition his grievances.
  • Two or more members form cliques to gratify their needs or woo their woes without taking the larger interests of the community.

A healthy community needs to give sufficient space for subgroups to play their legitimate role in a community. It includes offering opportunities to celebrate cultural events, speak native language and feel connected with one’s roots. It also guarantees space for persons to develop affective bonds and relationships within and outside communities which are in harmony with one’s vocation. When formators try to do away with subgroups in order to form an ideal “egalitarian community”, they tend to” misfire” rather than construct community. It is more formative when formators seek equilibrium and integration between sub-groups within the common good of the formation community.

In a formation house the students used celebrate the cultural feasts of the various ethnic groups in it. These feasts were organized by the respective ethnic groups and unfortunately they became an occasion of competition and exhibition of their ethnic pride . It often led to jealousy and conflict between the cultural groups.

There were times the formators imposed limits to exaggerated exhibitions and even stopped the “extravaganza” to avoid problems.

A new formator changed the scenario by inviting a shift of attitude and mode of celebration. The celebrations were presented as opportunity for the community to appreciate and enjoy the cultural richness of the subgroups. He made the other groups to take initiative to learn and celebrate the cultural feasts under the guidance of the respective students whose culture was celebrated. It became fun, learning and celebration for the whole community.


This article deals with peer influence in formation communities. We should not overlook the impact of peer influence in the vocational journey of a formee. At times peer group may wield more influence than the formator in critical moments of the life of a formee especially at earlier stages of formation. We have looked into peer influence in a formation community and the dynamics of sub-groups in it. The formators need to take these psycho social factors into consideration so that they can channelize all the forces in a group to reach the goal of helping the formee to realize their missionary dreams.

- Mathew Vattamattam cmf

For your reading

 Eric Berne, The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups, 1979

Daniel J. Levi, Group Dynamics for Teams, 2010

McRae M. and Ellen L. Short, Racial and Cultural Dynamics in Group and Organizational Life: Crossing Boundaries, 2009

Rupert Brown,  Group Processes: Dynamics Within and Between Groups, 2001

Kenwyn K. Smith and David N. Berg, Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics,   1997.