February 16th, 2011

Gil Marsh cover

Missing the point about bullying

Sometimes I wonder what bubble some social scientists live in. They conduct studies and are surprised by the results that everyone already knew to be true.

Take for instance this latest study that "discovered" that some of the more popular kids bully other popular kids to gain status in high schools' pecking order. The bullying isn't usually long term. It can be one or two incidents. And the purpose is to put another kid down so that the bully can rise in comparison.

Highly publicized cases of bullying typically involve chronic harassment of socially isolated students, but the latest studies suggest that various forms of teenage aggression and victimization occur throughout the social ranks as students jockey to improve their status.

The findings contradict the notion of the school bully as maladjusted or aggressive by nature. Instead, the authors argue that when it comes to mean behavior, the role of individual traits is “overstated,” and much of it comes down to concern about status.

“Most victimization is occurring in the middle to upper ranges of status,” said the study’s author, Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Davis. “What we think often is going on is that this is part of the way kids strive for status. Rather than going after the kids on the margins, they might be targeting kids who are rivals.”

Did any of them spend any time in a locker room in high school? Or a cafeteria? Perhaps they should watch movies, like "Heathers." Or spend an evening catching up on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Closer to home, have they spent any time looking at the behavior of fraternities and sororities, who by definition are among the higher status kids of their schools, and the social hazing that's par for the course when someone applies for membership?

Yes, bullying occurs at all levels of the social strata. Surprise! That's why it's been dismissed for so many years as just part of growing up. And why so many adults tell victims to suck it up. They probably witnessed it, or were on the receiving end of it at some point and figure kids can be mean. That's the way it is. You just have to get through it.

What the sociologists seem to have missed is that some bullying isn't a one-off, or occasion-specific thing. There are a few kids who end up being repeated targets. And the results are devastating.

Yes, the study is correct. Kids can be nasty. Everyone knows that already. What you have to be able to do is distinguish kids being nasty from kids targeting someone regularly. The folks conducting the studies have a laudable goal--to reduce nastiness all around. But they should not dismiss the critical goal of preventing individuals from being torn to pieces on a regular basis.