Evolution of social relationships between first-year students at middle school: from cliques to circles Articles uri icon

publication date

  • June 2021


  • 1:11694


  • 11

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 2045-2322


  • People organize their social relationships under a restriction on the number that a single individual can maintain simultaneously (the so-called Dunbars number, ~150). Additionally, personal networks show a characteristic layered structure where each layer corresponds to relationships of different emotional closeness. This structure, referred to as Dunbars circles, has mostly been considered from a static viewpoint, and their structure and evolution is largely unexplored. Here we study the issue of the evolution of the structure of positive and negative relationships in early adolescence by using data from students in their first year at middle school obtained from surveys conducted in class in two different waves separated by several months. Our results show that, initially, students have a lower number of total relationships but the majority are more intense and over time they report a higher number of total relationships, but the more intense relationships appear in a lower proportion. We have also found differences in the structure of communities at both temporal moments. While in the first instance the communities that appeared are mixed, made up of both boys and girls, in the second they changed so that they were separated primarily by gender. In addition, the size of each community was stabilized around 15 people, which coincides with the size of the second Dunbars circle, known as the sympathy group in social psychology. As a consequence, in groups with around 20 students of the same gender, they tend to split in two separate communities of about 10 each, below the second Dunbars circle threshold. On the other hand, groups with more stable community structure appear to go through the inverse process of friendship evolution, becoming more focused on their best relationships. All these results suggest how the layered structure of the personal network, as well as the community structure of the social network, emerge directly from the union of both positive and negative relationships. Thus, we provide a new perspective about its temporal evolution that may have relevant applications to improve school life and student performance.


  • Mathematics


  • applied mathematics; complex networks