I was asked this question by a young person a few days ago and it prompted me to really consider the question before trying to answer it. I teach a sociology class, I also teach psychology courses and I am a counselor. Top it all off, I am a human being. All these different roles enter into the answer I offered after some careful thought.
Yes, there is a difference. Many people make the assumption that if a person is “popular”, that they are automatically part of the “in” crowd. The same assumption is made in reverse. If you are part of the “in” crowd then you must be “popular”, right? Actually, both of those assumptions are erroneous.
First of all, being “popular” means you are liked by many and get along with most people. If people are asked about you, words like “kind”, “friendly”, “gets along with everybody” are commonly used. And being “popular” is a good thing when these are the reasons for it. But, just because you are liked by many doesn’t necessarily make you part of the “in” crowd anymore than being the smartest person in your class makes you part of the “in” crowd. It is also the case that there are “popular” people who are in the “in” crowd.
The “in” crowd has more to do with social/psychological/economic factors than it does with being smart, funny, kind, or any of those other adjectives that we use to describe people who are “popular”. Being in the “in” crowd is a product of many factors, some in our control and some not in our control. Are you an athlete? Do you dress the same (i.e. name brands, seldom wear the same outfit twice)? What is your personality? Do you fit well into that group? There are many social and psychological factors (along with some economic factors) that determine the “in” crowd. Children tend to gravitate toward people that are more like them and these groups tend to remain the same through the school years. If we look at our past, we can see that this social dividing happens early in grade school and stays pretty stable throughout the school years.
Without going into a sociology lecture, the bottom line is you can be “popular”, you can be part of the “in” crowd, you can be neither or you can be both. The most important part is that you feel as if you are part of a group. Ultimately, the groups we are part of as an adult may be very different than those we are part of in school. As long as we recognize that we belong to some group or another, it’s okay. We aren’t, and don’t need to be, all the same, we just need to be compassionate to people regardless of what group they belong to!