Bullying in School: An Exploration of Peer Group Dynamics

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

When one thinks of a school bully, it is common to imagine a socially incompetent boy who uses name-calling, threats, and physical force to get his way. Such a child may be a loner or have a few friends who, like himself, are socially rejected by the majority of classmates. Although there is considerable accuracy in this conception, it is incomplete and provides only one side of a very complex picture of bullying.

In addition to socially marginalized children, research has also shown that some of the most popular and influential students also tend to be involved in bullying (1, 2). We believe that one of the reasons bullying is so difficult to eradicate in schools and in modern culture is because it is often effectively used by both children and adults. At its core, bullying is a form of social power (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, (3)) and it involves efforts to protect one’s own status by taking advantage of the social vulnerabilities of others. Therefore, we argue that the prevention and reduction of bullying in school requires an understanding of the social dynamics that support it.

Why Does Bullying Occur?

Building from research on children’s social networks and aggression (4, 5), we have found that it is useful to think about bullying as a byproduct of the natural social dynamics that occur within schools and classrooms. When children are aggregated together, they associate with others who are similar to them or who have qualities or characteristics that in some way support their own behaviors (6). Often, this results in the development of distinct friendships and peer groups that may require the careful negotiation of relationships among multiple peers. Within this context, a social dominance hierarchy can emerge where some children have greater influence than others, either within their peer group or the broader social structure of the classroom. Further, in some classrooms, youth may continually jockey for status within the social hierarchy (7).

Some aggressive children who take on high status or leadership roles may use bullying as a way to enhance their social power and protect their prestige with peers (8, 9). In fact, some forms of bullying require social power and high status (10). Social aggression refers to causing interpersonal harm by using the social community as a means of attack. Socially aggressive strategies involve non-confrontational and largely concealed methods including starting rumors, gossiping, social ostracism, and character defamation. By late childhood, girls are particularly adept at using this form of aggression, which depends on a relatively good understanding of classroom social dynamics and the ability to manipulate peer relationships.

In contrast, some children with low social status may use bullying as a way to deflect taunting and aggression that is directed towards them or to enhance their social position with higher status peers. Such socially marginalized students may be youth who are “wannabes” (children who are trying to hang around with more popular peers) or they may associate in peer groups with other marginalized peers who are also bullies (11).

Whether they enjoy high status or are socially marginalized, it appears that youth who participate in bullying are in some way socially vulnerable and use bullying as an expression of power. High status bullies use bullying strategies to protect their status and to defend against others who may challenge their social power. Low status bullies may use bullying as a way to gain power, to direct bullying toward others, or to counter bullying that is directed towards them.

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