Everyone knows how bullying works, because we’ve seen it in a thousand teen movies and some of us have experienced it ourselves: the loners and the misfits, the chess club members and the mathletes, they’re the ones who get bullied, right? Everyone picks on them, contributing to their social marginalization and making them feel even more isolated.
But what if that’s not how social combat, as sociologist Robert Faris calls it, actually works? Faris, along with colleague Diane Felmlee, just published a study in the American Sociological Review taking a closer look at social combat and how it plays out in school environments. The study is especially important right now, as bullying is a growing social issue and many parents, educators and other people who work with youth are interested in finding an effective way to foster strong connections in school environments.
He found two surprising things in the study. The first was that popularity doesn’t shelter people from social combat, with the exception of the very top of the social hierarchy. Secondly, he learned that social combat can actually be more damaging for people in the middle and upper ranks of the hierarchy than it can for those towards the bottom. These counterintuitive results are absolutely fascinating, and they shed new light into how social combat works.
What his study shows is that social combat isn’t just about picking on people who are perceived to be weaker and more vulnerable. It’s also about climbing the social ladder, and the tactic many people use to do that involves put downs, insults and other acts of meanness. The further people climb, though, the more they have to lose, so when others respond in kind on their own way into the higher echelons of school society, the more worried they get about their social standing. The study doesn’t suggest that lower-status individuals don’t suffer, but rather that social combat can have a chilling effect for those with a higher social standing.
Once people climb up to around the top 4 percent of school society, they apparently bully less, and aren’t bullied thanks to their position. The decline in bullying makes sense, as they have no incentive to do so when there’s nowhere else to climb. And, while their peers might try to catch up to them, it’s harder thanks to their powerful social status.
What does this mean for adults wanting to create safer, more nurturing school environments?
Many anti-bullying efforts have focused on building tolerance and breaking down barriers between different social groups, on the assumption that people won’t bully each other if they’re taught to respect the differences in their communities. However, this approach only addresses one piece of the puzzle — while students are mocked, teased and treated cruelly for their disabilities, sexual orientations and other differences, they’re also bullied in an attempt to climb the social ranks.
Consequently, anti-bullying programs need to focus on breaking down ranks and hierarchies, showing people that they can develop a respected social status without having to be cruel, and creating a mutually rewarding learning environment. Since the adult world is unfortunately built on the very same hierarchies and “get ahead at all costs” mentality, adults might be better served by looking inwards at our own society and exploring ways we can change it in order to model a more functional world to children and teens.
Photo credit: DozoDomo.