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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

Bullying - The Psychological, Sociological and Cultural Aspects


The Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit in Nottingham, U.K., (Formerly Child and Family Therapy unit), offer a service to families and children who suffer from a wide range of problems. Most of the children seen in the out-patient unit are in school age, so that school related problems are a very common presenting problem indeed. A

large number of referrals to the clinic comes directly from schools or Educational Psychologists. But even other referrals concerning school age children would concern themselves with behaviour problems at school. Aggression tends to be one of the most common phenomena associated with the presenting problem. Quite often it is aggression inflicted upon the child, but also aggression expressed by the child. Bullying is one of the forms

in which aggression in childhood expresses itself. [i]

Around 15% of the referrals made to the North Team of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit between December 1990 and July 1992, mentioned bullying (either referring to the presenting patient as a bully or as a victim of bullying) as one of the factors which made a referral to the clinic necessary in the view of the referrer.

The clinic does not have a set pattern to dealing with bullying when it is presented in one of the patients. Derived from the therapeutic philosophy of most of the clinicians, specific problems, such as bullying, acting out, soiling or withdrawal are not dealt with in isolations but are seen as symptoms of a wider and deeper dysfunction which needs to be addressed.

Therefore, the clinic does not have a set way of going about dealing with bullying if a child is identified as a bully or as a victim of bullying in the course of the therapy. Different clinicians would have different ways of defining and treating the issue. However, several clinicians in the clinic have a special interest in bullying and efforts are being made to try and form some form of response which could be used by other clinicians.

Bullying seems to be a universal phenomena which, as I will show later, is connected to specific cultural and psychological milieus. There is research about bullying throughout Western Europe, Northern America, Japan and Australia which seems to agree on most points. This would seem to be saying that at least in the Capitalist world, bullying is universal. [ii] [iii] [iv] [v]

Most writers on the subject agree now that in order for any actions on bullying to be even potentially successful, it needs to incorporate all the agencies involved. [vi] [vii] This would necessarily entail integrating more then one theoretical framework in any strategic planning of action.

In this essay I shall look at two such frameworks. the first one, which is the one adopted by the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit, is the psychological, psychodynamic approach, which views bullying as a problem that is manifested, and is dealt with, primarily as a result of dysfunctional family dynamics and/or inter psychic dysfunction.

The other approach would rely heavily on sociological explanations and would see bullying as a problem resulting from dysfunctional structures within the school and the classroom, as well as an natural consequences of peer groupings of that age.

I argue that any separation between those two approaches is purely artificial. It is impossible to understand, let alone deal with successfully, the issue of bullying with only one approach.


Dan Olweus, the renowned Scandinavian researcher who has done extensive amount of work in this area since the early seventies, uses the following definition:

"Different forms of collective violence carried out by relative small and loosely linked groups-usually consisting of perhaps 10-15 children in a class-against a single individual in the class". [viii]

He argues that contrary to common belief, the bullied is not necessarily an individual who sticks out because of some distinguishing features, such as wearing glasses, being over-weight or belonging to an ethnic minority. Nor are the bullies, he claims, a homogeneous group who acts out as a collective, but rather a collection of individuals whose role and function are very complex within the process.

Smith and Thompson from the University of Sheffield, relate bullying to harassment and view it as "a subset of aggressive behaviour." [ix]

They note that this hurtful aggression can be either physical or psychological (and this would include teasing), and further support Olweus' point that the bullying party is either a group of individuals or one individual. To distinguish bullying from other forms of aggression they mention three criteria which

are specific to bullying. Bullying has to be unprovoked, repeated and done by somebody who is stronger, or perceived to be so, than the bullied.

David Lane, the Director of Professional Development Foundation in London, provides the following definition:

" Bullying is therefore taken to include any action or implied action, such as threats or violence, intended to cause fear and distress." [x]

He goes on to say that this definition is drawn from the legal definition of threatening behaviour. Nevertheless, bullying is significantly different from threatening behaviour. because of its essential repetitious nature.

Rogers alerts us to the fact that our perception of bullying, and therefore our definition of it, is in a continuous state of construction. He uses the example of aggressive behaviour directed against children from ethnic minorities which will only recently be viewed within the context of racism as well as within the context of bullying. [xi]

In this context, some make a distinction between fighting and bullying. Children fight, which is not laudable but does happen, but is distinctively different from bullying.

"Teachers get remarkably fed up with children who fight or scrap with one another. but they are not bullies because they fight, and the one who wins is most certainly not a bully because he wins. The mindless and degrading violence of strong against weak may be bullying, but fighting, by definition, is not." [xii]


It is still, unfortunately, still not uncommon to hear adults respond to reports of bullying by saying that we all had experienced it and somehow got through. Or that it helps to toughen you up and prepare you for life. Theses attitudes are particularly unfortunate if we consider how wide spread and how damaging bullying can be. While these attitudes still prevail bullying will not be tackled for the serious social, cultural and psychological phenomena it is.

There are therefore two main reasons why bullying is significant.

The first one is the prevalence of the problem. Kidscape, a British national agency working on bullying, found that at least 68% of all school age children had been bullied at least once, 38% had been bullied at least twice while 8% were affected by bullying to the extent of thinking about committing suicide,

running away or being chronically ill. [xiii]

Despite the fact that until very recently, direct research into bullying has been a

neglected area and despite the fact that bullying is such a secretive activity which makes research particularly difficult, other existing figures from research indicate prevalence of anything from 10% to 40%! [xiv] [xv]

The second significance of bullying is in its effect. Professor Pearce, a Child Psychiatrist, states that bullying does matter as it is connected to other and later acts of violence such as vandalism, hooliganism and domestic violence. He points out that aggressive behaviour in children tends to continue. He shows that the following adult problems are closely associated with childhood aggression: Aggressive behaviour., criminal convictions,alcohol abuse, child care problems, employment problems, marital breakdown and psychiatric breakdown.


Who are the bullies? Who are the victims? Are we looking for specific stereotypes, or is the answer more complex?

The first thing which the psychological, psychodynamic approach emphasis is that bullying, like any other event, is an interaction, and therefore can only be understood as one where both parties, the bully and the bullied play a part. Having said that, it is an unequal power interaction and therefore the main responsibility for the aggression has to be with the bully. It is important not to slide into blaming the victim.

Having said that, research does show that the link between the bully and the bullied is rather complicated. [xvi]

Many bullies have been bullied themselves. If we draw parallells from research done of child abuse, this should not surprise us. [xvii]

John Bowlby, through his attachment theories pointed out that it is very common for children to do to other what has been done to them.

"The tendency to treat others in the same way as we ourselves have been treated is deep in human nature". [xviii]

The view that violence inflicted upon children is likely to cause those same children to be violent towards somebody else is not new. Alice Miller wrote extensively about the way in which children have to accommodate into their perception of their parents an element of aggression which become intractably tied up with the loving, caring image they also associate with the same parent. The child has to internalise this contradiction in order to survive. The child has to grow up having to associate care and love with some form of abuse inflicted upon them. [xix]

The relationship within which this aggression has been committed is characterised by the same factors which you find in the bullying relationship: it is continuous, it is unequal in terms of powerfulness and it is painful to the victim. Thus, bullying, like any other aggressive behaviour., is the result of some childhood trauma. And in this case whether one is the bully or the bullied makes little difference as both suffer from the same wound, low self esteem. It is this low self esteem which will lead them to be bullies and bullied. [xx]

It is within the interactive and psychodynamic perception of bullying that we can make sense of this: that the same childhood event can create both the bully and the bullied, who are often interchangeable. It is through this that we can explain the evidence which research produces which shows that the numbers of reported bullies does not tally up with the number of reported bullied.


Staying within the psychological framework but moving into a behaviourist approach, we find that bullying takes on a slightly different dimension.

Surprisingly, there is more optimism here then in the psychodynamic approach. Professor Pearce, a psychiatrist sees bullying as a behaviour. that can be changed as it is based upon choice.

"It is the intentional use of aggression that makes bullying on the one hand so appalling and yet on the other hand it means that the aggression can, at least potentially, be controlled. In the same way that bullying is started on purpose, it can also be stopped deliberately - if the bully so wishes." [xxi]

To facilitate this approach, Pearce portrays three different kinds of bullies: the aggressive one, the anxious one and the passive one.

The aggressive bully is aggressive towards everybody, not just the weak. They are insensitive, domineering, lacking in self control but, contrary to the psychodynamic notion, they are also high in self-esteem. Pearce claims that most bullies would fall into this category.

The anxious bully is more disturbed. They share more of the victim's characteristics such as low self-esteem, insecurity and loneliness, emotionally unstable and provocative. They are as likely to be victims themselves.

The passive bully is the one who engages in bullying in order to protect themselves and to achieve status. They would be easily dominated and led, would be more sensitive to the sufferings of the others but would do nothing about it and themselves would be reluctant to engage in active bullying.

By analysing the bullying scene in this way, Pearce manages to avoide stereotyping the victim. He suggests that the bullying scene is made up on bullies, some of which are also victims. In this way, the focus stays on the aggression.

He goes on to examine different factors which contribute to the creation of a aggressive culture at school and introduces a family therapy model to his analysis. He shows that the effect of aggressive family relations can be devastating. These can be varied and include

"1. A negative emotional attitude from the primary caretaker, characterised by lack of warmth and lack of involvement.

2. A tolerant or even permissive attitude to aggression, with no clear limits for aggressive behaviour.

3. A power assertion approach to children rearing, where physical punishment and violent emotional outbursts are the usual control methods.” [xxii]


Many writers compare the school with the army when looking at bullying. Tattum emphasis the difficulty experienced upon entering into the army and the transfer from primary to secondary schools as an important factor in creating the 'right' atmosphere for bullying. It is during those times of transition when all

pupils and/or soldiers are under some stress which places some of them in a vulnerable position. [xxiii]

Rogers points out that bullying seem to exist in institutions where the element of choice is somewhat reduced, like schools, the army and prisons. He mentions that bullying seems to come to an abrupt end when young people enter university and attributes that to the wider choice people at universities enjoy.

Thus, Public Schools have been, and perhaps still are to a lesser extent, institutions where the element of choice was greatly reduced. Nevertheless, some research show that the incidence of reported bullying is not higher then in other schools. But as Walford points out, this could be attributed both to the greater fear of the consequences of reporting as well as to the higher institutionalised acceptance of aggressive behaviour. which is not seen as bullying by the institution. [xxiv]

According to Rogers, using constructionist theory, the key to understanding bullying, and tackling it, is in seeing it in connection with cultural symbols available to pupils and adults. On one extreme of the constructionist spectrum the solution of abolishing schools stands, as it is in the nature of such institutions to breed bullying. In a more serious tone, educationalists should look at cultural resources available to pupils which offer alternative ways of dealing with daily pressures. Rogers points out that progress in this direction is

slow but uses the example of the removal of racially offensive symbols from school books as a demonstration to its efficiency in dealing with cultural attitudes. [xxv]


Bullying occurs in all schools, in all ages, in all cultures in the U.K. Nevertheless, some researchers have identified some of the factors which, sociologically, contribute to the existence of bullying. Brier and Ahmad identify the following characteristics:

" - The local community is made up of an aggregate of structurally similar groups.

- Maintaining ties with an unusually wide range of kin who live in the immediate locality.

- The community is strongly cohesive with narrow social horizons and a hostile attitudes to outsiders.

- Most salient emotional links are with others like themselves.

- Adults in the community have positive attitudes to aggression.

- - Parenting practices are highly influential in controlling/encouraging aggressive behaviour.

- Low levels of supervision/monitoring.

- Socialisation of the child mainly takes place on neighbourhood streets, where the child only has equally young or slightly older role models.

- Physical prowess is valued more the academic achievement." [xxvi]

This description contextualises bullying as a problem which occurs in a group, in an institution, within a certain set of social rules (or their absence).


Seeing bullying as group activity, as a social interaction which occurs within the society of school, allows us to look at different civil and sociological approaches.

Brier and Ahmad approach this problem by using a pro-active developmental initiative, claiming that it is be both more effective and less costly in dealing with bullying then remedial post-trauma work.

They used a bully court as a way of addressing bullying in one particular school. This approach clearly addresses the problem of bullying via the identification of the aggressors. It introduces into the school a civilian structure they would normally not encounter till much later in normal circumstances. They found that the actual process of organising the court was the most beneficial in terms of dealing with bullying. Through the discussions involved, the participants were made aware of the implications involved in bullying. They were well aware of the need to continuously review the functioning of the court and its credibility in order to ensure that its actions do not turn to be of a sanctioning nature only.

This approach, also discussed by Elliott, emphasises the significance of choice and responsibility in children's actions. It aims to do what bullying has been erroneously thought to be doing, ie preparing the children for life. Through the

utilisation of democratic conflict-resolving mechanism, the children are being introduced to notions of justice as well as collective responsibility to the actions and the welfare of the individual. [xxvii]

Other attempts to involve the school in a macro-micro dialogue would involve parents. School is not seen as the domain of the teachers alone. Parents are encouraged to be more involved in the daily running of the school, at least in some areas. For instance, for a school to introduce an anti-bullying initiative

in the school, the consent and active participation and reinforcements of the parents, or the primary carers, would be crucial. [xxviii]


In the light of the recent white paper about education, detailing the way in which individuals schools are to become more autonomous, parental involvement becomes crucial. Parents are encouraged to take more share in the decision making process of the school. As an act of social policy, the education system is moving away from local government support and sponsorship to more

centralised control, through the national curriculum for instance and greater emphasis on the role of the individual. This two pronged approach, centralisation on the one hand and individualisation of the other, will have a tremendous effect on the way schools are ran and the facilities they are able to

provide to pupils.

As schools are encouraged to specialise and as parents are encouraged to choose which school they want their child in, one possible outcome, at least as far as bullying is concerned, is that parents would choose to remove their bullied child from one school to another rather then try and deal with the problem in that school. The outcome of this for some schools might be an

increasing bullying population and stigmatisation of the school, leading to dwindling of pupils, resources and eventually leading to closure.


Arora identifies the focus of anti-bullying work as

" To change the status of the children from being victims to belonging to the non-bullied and non-bullying group, which constitute the majority of the pupils in the school (normally at least 75%)." [xxix]

Her approach is contrary to the one identified earlier. She claims that to try and change the already existing bullying behaviour of the aggressors would be futile. Therefore, she claims, victim support groups should aim at equipping the victims with new strategies of dealing with the problem.

In his essays about mental institutions, Erving Goffman highlights an aspects of institution's life which can contribute to the understanding of bullying as a social phenomena. He writes about the way in which inmates adjust to the particular culture in which they find themselves. [xxx]

Therefore, bullying in school can be also seen as a response by the pupils to the culture in which they exist. This could be interpreted in two ways. Children bully one another because they are themselves bullied by the school/teachers.

Children bully because they recognise that sort of activity as a valid one which they see practised by adults outside the school's gates.

Goffman described society as an association of different interest groups, all competing against each other for domination, or at least for a bigger part of it. Society achieves some stability when powerful groups are able to split the share between them. But there is always a group, or groups, who are, or feel to be,

left out and exploited. On a sociological level, these would be the bullied groups, the weaker ones.

The significance of the institution's structure in relation to the behaviour of the people which populate it is emphasised by other authors.

"The many elements that comprise the ethos of the school can perpetuate and indeed create the aggression a school seeks to control." [xxxi]

If bullying is an activity picked up by children as a mirroring of an institution's practice, then it would hardly be surprising to find out that racism is a key factor in bullying. Research in this area is still very scant but some attention is paid to the importance of bullying and racial harassment. [xxxii]

In some ways, linking racial harassment with bullying conforms to the

traditional view of bullying which identifies the victim as a 'deviant'. At the same time, as racial harassment and oppression exists in society at large, and as bullying can be viewed as replicating societal trends, it would seem 'natural' that race and class would be significant elements in bullying.

Olweus points out that in order for such thing as pecking orders to exist in human society, we have to assume that the group identity becomes stronger than individual identity.

He argues how in real terms, bullying really occurs between individuals and

the group is more of a background then as agent. He also questions how common whole groups ganging up on one individual situations really are. Most importantly, he points out that viewing bullying as a group activity denotes the victim as deviant. Apart from the apparent dangers of that, it is also untrue, as we have seen before, since most bullies are themselves also bullied. Therefore, the social and individual identity of the bully and its victim are more elusive than appears at first.

Arora and Thompson question whether bullying is a transient phenomena which alleviates as children grow up. They maintain that the main gain which bullies report about is the powerful position it places them in relation to their victim. They also make the point that in identifying bullying, we must remember the

consider the point of view of the observer, who might view the same behaviour as bullying or not depending upon the gender and the social status of the participants in that activity. [xxxiii]

Sue Askew argues through her research that bullying can only be understood within the wider context of the dominant 'masculine' values which exist in society at large and in school in particular. [xxxiv]

While acknowledging that bullying occurs with girl too, she maintains that it is far more widely spread and more serious amongst boys. This would be supported by other research which shows that as well as varying in nature, bullying also varies greatly from boys to girls both in terms of incidence and

reporting. [xxxv]

Skew claims that bullying is an inevitable by-product of the way in which boys relate to one another in 'normal' circumstances. This would include excessive physicality, use of aggressive verbal and non-verbal behaviour as a way of making oneself known, lack of trust, and greater eagerness to engage in conflict. She claims that those characteristics are part of the general stereotypical view which masculinity projects in society, thus making such behaviour seem acceptable. It is then almost impossible for boys not to pick upon the acceptability of those behaviours by adults and by the media, and to use them as a legitimate form of establishing social interactions with their



The study of bullying suffers from a lack of a firm theoretical framework.

I tried in this essay to analyse some of the existing literature on the subject.

Bullying is such that any single-discipline approach to it is bound to fail. It is a phenomena which is deeply rooted in social practices and notion of Western society and as such cannot be divorced from it and merely allocated to the school grounds.

While psychological theories give us some indication of what might be the make up of the participants in bullying and suggest that some of its roots are in childhood events, it is nevertheless important to contextualise those theories.

It is through the understanding of the dominant value system which accepts, condones and even encourages aggressive behaviour that bullying can be tackled.

[i] Pearce, J. (1991), "What Can be Done about the Bully?", in M. Elliot (Ed.), Bullying, London: Longman. [ii] Juul, K. (1990), Mobbing in the Schools. Scandinavian Initiatives in the Presentation of Behaviour Disorders", in Scandinavian Education Vol 12, pp. 102-134. [iii] Rigby K. and Slee P. (1991) "Bullying among Australian School Children" in Journal of Social Psychology, Vol 131, pp. 515-627. [iv] Ekblad S. (1989) "Stability in Aggression Control in a Sample of Primary School Children in China" in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica Vol 80, pp. 160-164. [v] Komiyama, K. (1986) "A Study of the background factors related to Bullying among Junior High School Students in Japan" in Reports of National Research Institute of Police Science Vol. 27, pp. 38-53. [vi] Chazan, M. (1989), "Bullying in the Infant School", in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.) Bullying in Schools, London; Trentham Books. [vii] Wilkenson M. and S. Priest (1991), "The North East Derbyshire Bullying Project: a Multi-Disciplinary Support Network", in P. Smith and D. Thompson (Eds.), Practical Approaches to Bullying, London: David Fulton. [viii] Olweus, D. (1978), Aggression in the Schools, New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 3. [ix] Smith P. and Thompson D. (1991), "Dealing with Bully/Victim Problems in the U.K." in Smith P. and Thompson D. (Eds.) Practical Approaches to Bullying, London: David Foulton, p. 1. [x] Lane D. (1989), "Violent Histories:Bullying and Criminality", in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.), Bullying in Schools, London: Trentham Books, p. 96. [xi] Rogers, W. (1991), "Promoting, Permitting and Preventing Bullying" in M. Elliott (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman. [xii] Jones, E., (1991),"Practical Considerations in dealing with Bullying - in Secondary School", in M. Elliot (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman, p. 17. [xiii] Elliot, M.(1991), "Bullies, Victims, Signs, Solutions", in M. Elliot (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman. [xiv] Tattum, D. (1989), " Violence and Aggression in Schools" in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.), Bullying in School, London; Trentham Books. [xv] Brier J. and Ahmad Y. (1991), "Developing a School Court as a Means of addressing Bullying in Schools" in P. Smith and D. Thompson (Eds.) Practical Approaches to Bullying, London: David Foulton. [xvi] Roland, E. (1989), "Bullying:the Scandinavian Research Tradition", in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.), Bullying In Schools, London: Trentham Books. [xvii] Miller, A. (1990), Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, London: Pluto Press. [xviii] Bowlby, J. (1988), A Secure Base, London: Routledge, p. 91. [xix] Sinason V. (1988) "Smiling, Swallowing, Sickening and stupefying: The Effects of Sexual Abuse on the Child", in psychoanalytical Psychotherapy, Vol 3 No 2, pp. 97-111. [xx] Jefferies, J. (1991), " What We are Doing Here Is Defusing Bombs", in P. Holmes and M. Karp (Eds.), Psychodrama: Inspiration and Technique, London: Routledge. [xxi] Pearce, J. (1991), p. 70. [xxii] Pearce (1991), pp. 78. [xxiii] Tattum, D. (1989). [xxiv] Walford, G. (1989) "Bullying in Public Schools: the Myth and Reality" in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.) Bullying in School, London: Trentham Books. [xxv] Rogers, R. (1991). [xxvi] Brier J. and Ahmad Y. (1991), p. 27. [xxvii] Elliott, M. (1991), "Bully Courts" in M. Elliott (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman. [xxviii] Frost, L. (1991), "A Primary School Approach - What Can Be Done About the Bully?" in M. Elliott (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman. [xxix] Arora T. (1991) "The Use of Victim Support Groups" in P. Smith and D. Thompson (Eds.) Practical Approaches to Bullying, London: David Fulton, p. 37. [xxx] Goffman, E. (1961),Asylums, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. [xxxi] Davison, J. (1985) "Boys will be...?" in ILEA - The English Curriculum:Gender, London: ILEA English Centre. [xxxii] Smith, P. and Thompson D. (1991), "Dealing with Bully/Victim Problems in the UK" in P. Smith and D. Thompson (Eds.) Practical Approaches to Bullying, London: David Foulton. [xxxiii] Arora C. and Thompson D. (1987) "Defining Bullying for a Secondary School" in Educational and Child Psychology, Vol 4, pp 110-120. [xxxiv] Askew, S. (1989), "Aggressive Behaviour in Boys" in D. Tattum and D. Lane (Eds.) Bullying In Schools, London: Trentham Books. [xxxv] Dale, R. (1991) "Mixed Versus Single-Sex Schools: the social Aspect of Bullying", in M. Elliott (Ed.) Bullying, London: Longman Books.

May 1992

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