CRF Blog

Bullying and Social Status

by Bill Hayes

The Los Angeles Times reports on a new study on bullying that finds that as students get more popular, it becomes more likely that they will bully others.

Scientists have confirmed an axiom of teenage life: Kids intent on climbing the social ladder at school are more likely to pick on their fellow students.

The finding … lends an air of authenticity to TV shows like “Gossip Girl” and the 2004 movie “Mean Girls.” More importantly, it may suggest that efforts to combat bullying in schools should focus more closely on social hierarchies.

The study by Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee appears in the February 2011 issue of the American Sociological Review. Its very academic title is: Status Struggles: Network Centrality and Gender Segregation in Same- and Cross-Gender Aggression. (This is a PDF file.)

From the study:

Aggression is commonplace in U.S. schools: bullying and other forms of proactive aggression adversely affect 30 percent, or 5.7 million, American youth each school year …. The National Education Association (1995) estimates that each weekday, 160,000 students skip school to avoid being bullied. This aggression has important consequences. Being victimized by bullies positively relates to a host of mental health problems, including depression …, anxiety …, and suicidal ideation …, as well as physical health problems …, social isolation …, and academic struggles…. Many of these outcomes last well into adulthood …. Moreover, it is not only victims who suffer negative consequences; aggressors (compared with bystanders) also experience problems with school adjustment, mental health, and integration ….

Perhaps because psychologists produce the bulk of the literature on aggression, research tends to focus on the role of the involved individuals’ personality traits. With some exceptions …, these traits consist of psychological pathologies or developmental deficiencies, conveying an impression of aggression as a counterproductive response to psychological difficulties or problems in the home. Here, we provide a contrasting view that emphasizes the role of peer status and social context. We argue that the role of personal deficiencies is overstated and that concerns over status drive much aggressive behavior. As peer status increases, so does the capacity for aggression, and competition to gain or maintain status motivates the use of aggression. Aggression wanes only at the highest echelons of status, where its utility is questionable.