Bullying as a Group Process

What is bullying?

A review of scholarly resources produces several definitions of bullying.  Idsoe, et al, (2012) define bullying as “a subtype of aggressive behavior in which an individual or a group repeatedly and over time direct negative actions against individuals who are not able to defend themselves, meaning there is an imbalance of power between perpetrators and victims, (p. 901).”   Carney, (2009) defines bullying as encompassing three key characteristics:  “harm is done, an unfair match exists, and the actions are repeated over time, (p. 179).”  Cassidy, (2008) defines bullying as “negative actions—physical or verbal— that have hostile intent, are repeated over time, and involve a power differential between the bully and the victim, (p. 63).” As a social interaction that involves harm and a power imbalance, I feel it is important  to begin discussing bullying as a social process that reflects group dynamics and social norms.  From this perspective “bullying may be regarded a group phenomenon in which most children…have a defined Participant Role, (Salmivalli, etc all, 1996, p. 11).”  This post discusses bullying as a group process.

Bystanders & Participants

Bullying is a complex process defined by peer culture social norms.  It takes place in a social context and involves more than just the bully and victim.  When bullying happens, everyone can be “seen as having different roles in the process, driven by diverse emotions, attitudes, and motivations, (Salmivelli, 2010, p.  113).”Many bystanders are available to participate in the creation of a social context which gives this specific exchange meaning.  Even if these bystanders don’t actively participate, they conduct themselves in ways which promote the continuation of bullying behaviors. “What matters more than their real attitude to bullying…is how they behave in [such] situations (Salmivalli, et al, 1996, p. 2).”  The specific role a child holds in a bullying encounter and their response to this situation depend on their social and calculations of risk.  “…through their behaviour in these situations they take a position towards what is going on. This…has effects on the outcome of the episodes of harassment (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).”  In addition to bullies and victims, several other participatory roles can be observed:

Bully Assistants

Some children can be observed “eagerly join[ing] in the bullying when someone has started it and act as assistants of the bully, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).” The ringleader will “initiate the harassment of one or more victims…assisted by students who actively help and support them (e.g., catching the victim), (Huitsing, et al, 2012, p. 494).”

Bully Reinforcer

“Others, even if they do not actively attack the victim, offer positive feedback to the bully. For instance, they come to see what is going on, thus providing an audience for him/her, or they incite him/her by laughing or by encouraging gestures. These students can be called reinforcers, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Furthermore, a remarkable number of students tend to stay away and not to take sides with anyone: they have been named outsiders. Not even these children are, however, non-involved. In their way, they allow bullying to go on by silently approving it (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Finally, there are also students whose behaviour is clearly anti-bullying: they comfort the victim, take sides with him/her, and try to make the others stop bullying. They are defenders (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”

social roles as self-fulfilling prophecies


“For victimized students it seems especially difficult to attain a different role amongst their peers. Even in a completely new class with no former classmates…Insecurity and fearful expectancies are likely to arise. Unfortunately, these are easily communicated to the new classmates, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 455).”

Social roles consist of norms, beliefs and behaviors that are associated with expectations of conformity.  They limit our ability to act independently and pressure us to engage in behavior that maintains our social status. Social roles are self-fulfilling prophecies in that we become what others believe us to be (Salmivalli, 1999).  In addition to determining our behavioral responses they heavily influence our self-perception. “When individuals categorize themselves as belonging to a particular social group, they self-stereotype in terms of the norms, values, and beliefs that define the group. In this way the defining features of the group become internalized and shape group members’ own self-definition, (Turner, et al, 2014, p. 4).”

The Popular Kids

6915722162_cbcc5e5857_b“[bullying] defines what is different …[and] creates the group of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and through the definition gains acceptance for the values represented by ‘us’. This definition creates a status within the community and the means of bullying create fear of the social punishment to follow. (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008, p. 342)”

Difference between Cliques vs. Crowds

“Cliques are small groups of friends who hang out together a great deal and are personally close.  Crowds by contrast are larger, ‘Reputation-based collectives of similar of similarly stereotyped individuals'” (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 236).”  Clique members often share similar interests, attitudes, and behavior patterns.  In contrast crowds norms are based on the reputation and stereotyped identity peers have of the typical members.  Cliques engage in selective entry and exit processes while crowd affiliation is more fluid.

What is Popularity?

Popularity Defined by Study Participant:  “When a girl said someone was popular, she meant first that the student was widely known by classmates and second that he or she was sought after by a friend, (Merten, 1997, p. 360).”

Researchers have differentiated between two types of popularity:  “A sociometrically popular student is well-liked by her or his peers. Sociometric popularity is a measure of peer acceptance. Perceived popularity, however, is a measure of social visibility, much like the classic stereotype of adolescent popularity. (Borch, et al 2011).”  In other words, sociometric popularity is associated with prosocial characteristics and are perceived as “seen as kind and trustworthy (Thornberg, 2011 p. 6)” by peers.  In contrast, perceived popularity is not the same as being liked by your peers and is not mere a function of someone’s individual characteristics.  Instead, perceived popularity is a reflects how children make judgments of an individual based on their understanding of relevant social norms (Thornberg, 2011).

Popularity & Norm Reinforcement

Enforcing a Physical Attractiveness Standard:  “This kid in our grade is really weird looking.  he has really big ears and is really tall and awkward looking.  One of the seniors called him ‘dumbo and really hurt his feelings, (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).”

Norms “prescribe appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group, (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  They provide a standard of behaviorr pertaining to an individuals social status. “Popular students are role models and exemplars of cool, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”  Consequently, they  define norms in order to reinforce their authority and differentiate between in group and out group status.

Techniques of Exclusion

Example of Exclusion:  “If a nerd goes over and sits next to a jock or somebody who’s really popular…they would probably tell them to leave, Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

Ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429).” It serves the purpose of relieving the group of deviant members who violate social norms, ensuring group cohesion, and conformity.  Thornberg, (2011) notes that “everyday school life involved both inclusion and exclusion practices, like two sides of the same coin, (p. 7).”  It is an implicit part of the process in which adolescents define in group versus out group status.  Techniques of social exclusion include the following:

“(1)…harassing outsiders and turning others against them; (ii) harassing and being mean towards clique members with a weaker standing, (iii) going along with…other high-status clique members’ mean acts…(iv) stigmatisation [of] a particular clique member for a period; and (v) expulsion… from the clique” (Thornberg,  2011), p.5).”

Boundary Maintenance

Signal of Popularity: “…being allowed to hang out with them [the popular crowd]….If your friends with the popular people you’re considered more popular. (Bishop, 2004, p. 239).”

Preserving one’s status is an ever-present concern in the dynamics of the clique. Ostracism and bullying are a functional byproducts of this.  According the “social misfit hypothesis” (Thornberg, 2011), individuals with behaviors that contradict peer group culture can experience social rejection.  Those who conform with peer group expectations avoid ostracism.  Since the benefits of popularity are clear, membership into high status groups is sought-after position by many and barriers to entry are substantial (Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

In-Group “Mean-ness”

Bulling does not just occur as an expression in-group vs. out-group behavior.  In an article titled “The Meaning of Mean-ness” (Merten, 1997), notes that high levels of conflict exist in high-status cliques as a means of preserving one’s status in the social hierarchy.  This internally focused mean-ness  also protects the group’s status in the larger social system.   Merten, (1997), describes his observations of a junior high clique below:

“Minor losses in relative popularity were frequently experienced as significant losses in status…One’s position in the clique was important, because it both symbolized one’s popularity and was salient in protecting it…hierarchical position was an essential factor for the successful use of meanness… (Merten, 1997, p. 354)”

This is an especially intriguing insight for me as an “outsider looking in”.  From this perspective Merten,  (1997), notes the following: “because most of the clique’s meanness was directed toward its own members, most outsiders continued to think…it would be nice to have a [friendship like that], p. 365).” The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Social Norms & Pluralistic Ignorance

“Social norms are produced among students at school…social exclusion and isolation are the consequences of non-conformity to these norms, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 2).”  They are typically defined as “a rule, value or standard shared by the members of a social group that prescribes appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  Norms are useful when attempting to understand the behavioral choices of bully behaviors.

In the school setting, and especially the classroom, group membership is mandatory and involuntary.  Bully victims are left with no means of escape (Salmivalli, 2010).
An “emphasis on status and popularity in the school social environment promote[s] a social hierarchy in the peer culture. Bullying is…a result of the negotiation and struggle process of this social hierarchy. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 5).
Individually, a bully is motivated by a desire to establish a “powerful, dominant position in the peer group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”
Collectively bullying provides the dominant clique a way of defining norms (Salmivalli, 2010)….the popular crowd represent[s] a powerful influences on peer pressure. (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).
Bully reinforcers & assistants turn bullying into a group activity based on a need for acceptance and improve their social position (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”

16201896020_4a09fc4397_b“It is important to note, however, that what is “normative in a classroom does not necessarily match with the private attitudes of individual children, (Salmivalli, 2010).” In other words, children act on the basis of a self-perceived understanding of social norms and not private attitudes.   When nobody challenges the bully, a child misinterprets this as a social norm that “bullying is okay (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 117).”  This is pluralistic ignorance:

PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE – “a socio-psychological phenomenon that involves a systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs and public behavior in certain societal contexts” (Bjerring, et al, 2014, p. 2445).

The Importance of Social Competence

“Social competence may be viewed as being prosocial, altruistic, empathic, and cooperative. In this view, social competence is seen as behavior that is socially approved and leads to being liked. Alternatively, social competence may be seen as the ability to achieve one’s goals in social settings (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 645).”  In this respect it is both a prosocial and antisocial activity.  This confusing and dichotomous construct is useful in understanding the mixed reviews students display of popular and unpopular students

Popular Kids

Popular peers have large numbers of peers and play a central role in the social network. Described as interpersonally skilled, they are able to obtain their goals, “even if it means using aggression, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245)).”  They are describe as having high academic and athletic ability while displaying of “dominance, attractiveness, and deviance” (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

Unpopular Kids

Unpopular students are social isolates and frequent victims of bullying.  Described as deviant, unattractive misfits by peers, this study suggests that they are not, however disliked by them.  Instead, they are seen as “not possessing the socal skills to rise from the bottom of the hierarchy…and unaware of how to fit in with peers, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

The Consequences of Non-conformity

“Being a nerd is like having a communicable disease….students avoid hanging out with the student since it sends a signal that they are a nerd as well.”  Bishop, p. 237).”

As stated earlier, the social misfit hypothesis states that bullying is reaction to a deviation from peer group norms.  When an individual’s behaviors and attitudes are defined as deviant in this context, ostracism and rejection are a result (Thornberg, 2011)….

The situation is self-perpetuating & quickly becomes impossible to turn around.  It is this characteristic of bullying that causes children to feel hopeless & suicidal.

According to “taken-for-granted norms….deviance is in the eye of the beholder. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” Individual’s not properly acclimated to an unfamiliar social environment struggle to fit in.
The victim [is] seen as a student who did not behave as he or she should have…[deviance disturbs] the existing…status quo…and demands on conformity, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” 
“once classmates categorize you, changing categorization is difficult, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”
“students who are labeled as outcasts find it difficult to make new friends and often lose old friends which limits their ability to develop social skills that can help them get out of their predicament (bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).
“social roles…sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, the individual starts to resemble more and more, the expectations directed towards him” (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453).”
“Harassment induces some victims to withdraw from social interaction….[a] climate of intimidation …can induce withdrawal (Bishop, p. 237).
ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429)”  Occurring without explanation, no guidance to resolve matters is provided.

Images: 1, 2, 3.


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