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Are We A Culture of Bullies?

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By Megan Fuller

Incidents of bullying are in the news fairly regularly and many, maybe most, schools are instituting anti-bullying programs. I asked some middle school students if they had anything to say about bullying. This small prompt initiated stories of one incident after another.  I was told that of the children who are bullied, many are bullied almost constantly throughout the school day; before and after school, in the hallway between classes, and during lunch. Just listening to these stories made me feel beaten down and depressed. As a society we certainly do not condone the tragic results of bullying; a young girl jumping in front of a train, young men bringing guns to school to kill their nemesis.   If we don’t condone the results, it stands to reason that we should not condone the behavior.

Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as:

[U]nwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. 

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

If bullying is unacceptable behavior within our culture, and by this definition it is, why is it so prevalent?

Anthropologists have studied bullying in a variety of ways; origins, cross-culturally, typology, in the media or online. Each tactic reveals different information about bullying, adds to our knowledge base, and has practical applications. Scientifically, it is important to look at bullying from as many angles and from as many disciplines as possible so that policy makers have a solid base of research from which to draw and aren’t just left making capricious decisions based on nothing.

Hogan Sherrow, Professor of Anthropology at Ohio University, has a great blog post on ScientificAmerican.com in which he outlines the origins of bullying.  As his reason for doing such research he states, “[w]ithout the deep understanding the origins of a behavior provide, efforts to prevent bullying will continue to fail.” In Sherrow’s research he uses a definition of bullying similar to the one provided above adding that “intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen in a one-on-one or group basis.” He looks to establish whether bullying is singularly American or if it is found in other cultures. Review of the literature shows that “bullying is ubiquitous across human cultures.” The next question Sherrow seeks to answer is if bullying is unique to humans.  He finds “there is ample evidence that many other animals, including other primates, engage in bullying-like behaviors.” Often within primate society intimidation and aggression are used to enforce group behavior or to establish dominance and ensure reproductive success. Sherrow concludes, “[t]he tendency to bully, or coerce, others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history…” and that “addressing bullying through culturally based social programs” will not serve to eliminate bullying.  Knowing that bullying is biological rather than cultural we can already answer the titular question.  No, we are not a culture of bullies—we are a species of bullies.

Humans, however, are not just biological beings. An overlay of culture informs our behavior of biological functions from the way we groom ourselves to the way we go to the bathroom. A study, partly funded by the World Health Organization, looked at bullying and its effect on the health of victims across 28 European and North American countries. The authors found “[t]he proportion of students being bullied varied enormously across countries. The lowest prevalence was observed among girls in Sweden (6.3%), the highest among boys in Lithuania (41.4%).” Results such as these indicate that, although we are a species of bullies, culture influences the amount of bullying that goes on and most likely the types of bullying as well.

Professor Burlingame, on atasteof anthropology blog, writes that in the United States “[t]he basic impetus for bullying lies in dealing with difference” and “in gaining power through the subjugation of others.” Because children see intolerance and stratified power relationships in everyday American life, Professor Burlingame points out, they are apt to create the same sorts of relationships in school. Of course, school is only one place where young people congregate—children are also spending plenty of time online using social media and gaming. Relationships in the cyber-community mirror those in the real world, except in the virtual world there is a significant lack of adult supervision. Resident Anthro points out in his blog post “The Culture of Bullying” that in online gaming “[w]hen someone is mocked for low skill, a poor k/d spread, or an ‘inability’ to perform well … they are being bullied.” He goes on with his analysis saying, “[i]t’s the ‘Jones’ effect. When you see someone doing something you want to be a part of it, and when people aren’t encouraging online the only people you hear are those who are bullying… This creates a culture of bullying in online gaming.”

Since the only way to eliminate bullying from the gene pool would be to round up all the bullies and sterilize (or kill) them before they had children—a kind of Big Brotherish solution—we, as a society, need to figure out a cultural way to help ameliorate the problem. Within the articles referenced previously are ideas to help minimize the impacts of bullying.  The authors of the cross-cultural study suggest that, “[t]he most important tool for diminishing bullying is addressing the school environment. It is recommended that the problem be highlighted for teachers and pupils by special work sessions, and that it be made harder to actually perform the behavior by increasing inspection in breaks and at other occasions, when bullying is likely to occur.” They also suggest letting the children define what is socially acceptable for the group. Professor Burlingame also endorses classroom intervention. She points out that “[d]ifference doesn’t have to be seen as threatening on any level” and that “reinforcing that no one way is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for everyone can be done at every grade level” and in all classroom subjects. “The goal of this kind of lesson is to support diversity while maintaining respect for, and pride in, one’s own cultural traditions and practices.” Lessons in diversity can teach both acceptance and empathy—giving students the ability to see the world from other people’s perspective. In an online gaming atmosphere, Resident Anthro feels the best option to deal with bullying is to, “put down my controller and turn my system off.” He reminds gamers to “check ourselves at the controller and remember that, just because you’re anonymous doesn’t mean that your actions are meaningless.”

Just this brief review of the literature available online has certainly added to my personal knowledge base regarding bullying but it also leaves me with further questions. Even though aggression is no longer necessary to find the best mate, does bullying still have a function? How does bullying correlate to behaviors in adulthood? How does bullying correlate to other biologically based behaviors? Answers to these questions may already exist in the literature as the research I’ve  done is far from exhaustive. I am certainly interested in hearing from readers regarding any research of which they are aware and how it compares or contrasts with what has been presented here. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a conversation.


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