On the subject of bullying, psychologists and educators often focus on the individuals involved, i.e. the perpetrators and victims. Sociologists, also wanting to understand the issue plaguing many schools, ask the question: What about the environment that made the act of bullying possible?
In The Sociology of Bullying: Power, Status, and Aggression Among Adolescents, edited by Sociology Professor Christopher Donoghue, the collection’s contributors explore the different types of peer aggression, the social aspects of bullying and the broader community systems that surround bullies and their victims.
Here, Donoghue explains why bullying should be examined from a systemic bias perspective, how schools could improve anti-bullying policies and what bullying looks like today.
What is the difference between the sociology and the psychology of bullying?
Sociologists and psychologists share a common purpose of wanting to reduce bullying inside and outside of schools, Donoghue says, but they have a different perspective on some of the ways of understanding what’s happening among school-age children and how to deal with the problem.
“Psychologists tend to focus a little more on the individual, and sociologists focus a little more on the environment or group level,” Donoghue says. “It’s important for schools to take a whole-school approach to bullying, and that means we focus not only on the bully, the victim and the bystanders, but also the full school community: the teachers, the administrators, the parents, the local community. Sociologists perhaps spend a bit more time thinking about the group level and things like systemic bias and school culture.”
What are common misconceptions about what bullying looks like today?
Here’s what you may not know about how bullying presents in today’s schools, according to Donoghue and other sociologists:
- Stereotypes persist of a strong boy physically bullying a smaller, weaker boy, or girls gossiping with and about each other. “Those types of things do happen but they don’t represent all bullying behaviors and it promotes the idea that bullying is exactly the way it was in the past,” Donoghue says. The stereotypes even appear in media reports about bullying, through the use of stock images of girls whispering in each other’s ears, or a boy looking menacingly at a smaller peer.
- Bullying is not always visible. Cyberbullying is very real, Donoghue says, but it’s often difficult to see in part because it may be taking place in nonpublic online spaces such as video games. Even in instances where a tech-savvy adult is able to find an offending post, “it might be understood only by the victim or children around the victim because it’s coded in a language that only the kids understand.”
- Nonverbal behavior in schools and small groups can also be used as a form of bullying. “It can be hard to interpret if you’re not a child in the school but it can be something as innocuous as a look or a word said at a particular time that means something to the small group,” Donoghue says. “These behaviors are interpreted as a slight or a form of exclusion, but are difficult to pick up and are highly underreported. That’s what a lot of bullying looks like and it’s very challenging to work on.”
How does traditional school culture impact bullying?
Donoghue says sociologists are often interested in the way culture evolves in the school, looking specifically at systemic biases that operate on a group level. “You think about bias in terms of race, gender, but it’s also important to think about the ways schools can be heteronormative spaces in which traditional gender roles and sexual preferences are favored,” Donoghue says.
“That can often lead to a perception of a hostile environment for kids that don’t fit that norm, and the same can be said for kids with disabilities. They may feel they’re in an environment where their skills are less favored or less recognized.”
How can anti-bullying policies in schools be more effective?
Donoghue says that many anti-bullying policies in place today are designed in such a way that fit aforementioned bullying stereotypes, and, especially when such policies are harsh or severe, it can lead to a culture of underreporting among kids.
“Most states have a clear definition of what bullying is and by virtue of what a policy or law is supposed to do, it’s going to define behavior that is tangible,” Donoghue says. But in fact, kids who feel confined by a rule or policy will “adjust their behavior so their acts are not defined as bullying by the school policy.”
“What we should be doing is spending a lot of time talking to children about how to identify [bullying] and letting them know there’s an environment in which they can speak up and describe what they’re experiencing,” Donoghue says. One recommendation to improve anti-bullying policies in schools would be to have a constant, open channel for children, teachers, parents and school administrators to describe their experiences. “You can get that through interviews in schools or small group meetings that are less threatening than an obligatory annual anti-bullying meeting or public address that is not always a comfortable environment. Opening venues for people to just talk when there isn’t necessarily an incident or crisis at the school can be really important for learning more about what’s happening.”
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