SCHOOL BULLYING AND RELATED CRUELTIES
A great many things interest me, but I have spent most of my professional life trying to understand human conflict and its role in creating, sustaining, and undermining social hierarchies. This interest manifests in two broad research streams, a primary one focusing on adolescent aggression (and other risk behaviors, with the support of a generous NIH grant) in school-based social networks, and a new set of investigations of conflicts among adults. In any case, mostly I’m known—to the extent I’m known at all—for my work on school bullying.
When I began studying it almost two decades ago, most papers about school bullying were written by psychologists, who viewed it as a maladjusted reaction to psychological deficiencies, empathy deficits, and problematic home environments. Which is all true—these are confirmed antecedents of aggressive behavior. But a small number of researchers (myself included) thought that some, or even most, adolescent aggression is not deviant, but normal (in the sense that it is not sanctioned by peers), and not reactive, but instrumental. In short, we suspected teens weren’t just lashing out, they were using aggression to climb social ladders.
This simple theory implies a number of testable propositions, some obvious and others less so. Thus far, my colleagues and I have found robust support for its core propositions, specifically:
- adolescents who care more about being popular, or whose friends care about being popular, subsequently become more aggressive;
- as adolescents gain social status, they tend to become more aggressive—desisting only as they approach the pinnacle of their school’s social hierarchy, when aggression is no longer needed or useful;
- while some characteristics (e.g., poor body image, LGBTQ identities, delayed pubertal development, social isolation) create vulnerable targets for harassment and abuse, victimization rates actually increase as adolescents gain status;
- using a broad measure of aggression (encompassing not just physical violence and overt harassment, but gossip, cyberbullying, ostracism, and other forms of indirect aggression), girls and boys are equally aggressive, but each disproportionately target girls, particularly girls who have started dating;
- our friends are also our rivals, and aggression is especially likely between friends and other structurally equivalent schoolmates (those whose friendships and animosities overlap to a high degree). This “frenemy” effect is also observed in online bullying.
- aggression works: using elite status indicators from yearbooks (e.g., “best looking,” “most likely to succeed,” prom royalty, etc.), I found that sophomores who were more aggressive were more likely to join these elite cliques by their senior year, but only if they targeted victims who were aggressive themselves, high status, or socially close—either their own friends or other members of their friendship group; their victims, meanwhile, had virtually no chance of joining those elite cliques.
The routine use of aggression to gain social status holds a number of implications for researchers and prevention efforts alike. It explains why adolescent status hierarchies are far more fluid than implied by cumulative advantage models of status. It also explains why most bullying prevention programs do not work (at least, not under randomized controlled trials, and some even make matters worse). How can we expect empathy training to compete with the allure of popularity? Even one of the few truly effective programs, KiVa, has been unable to change the behavior of popular bullies, who garner social rewards from their cruelty.
But instrumental aggression also generates a paradox: if adolescents can use aggression to tear down their rivals and gain prestige, then why don’t more of them do it? After all, only a fraction of students engage in bullying (generally less than 30% with even the most expansive measures). In a forthcoming paper, I resolve this paradox by showing that only a minority (between one-quarter and one-third) of students feel that being popular is “very important,” and almost none (3%) valued popularity more than having close friends. These values are reinforced over time in a virtuous cycle, where adolescents who care about having a close group of friends are more likely to retain friends over time, and retaining friends is then in turn linked to prioritizing close friendships over popularity.
The problem is that, in general, most adolescent friendships are of poor quality and low stability. The majority are unbalanced (the majority of ‘best friend’ nominations are unreciprocated), alienated (roughly one-sixth of adolescents in our study do not feel at all close to at least one of their “best friends”), or fleeting (most do not last more than six months). I am currently working to change that, by investigating the underlying causes of friendship instability, and, on a practical level, by working with on-the-ground organizations like Matzmichim, Israel’s largest anti-bullying NGO and my partner organization during my service as a Fulbright Specialist. There is much to be done, but I remain hopeful that conditions in schools can improve and that we can reduce the wanton cruelties occurring in their hallways, cafeterias, and locker rooms.
Faris, Robert, Diane Felmlee, and Cassie McMillan. Forthcoming. “With Friends Like These: Aggression from Amity and Equivalence.” American Journal of Sociology.
Faris, Robert and Diane Felmlee. 2018. “Best Friends For Now: Egonetwork Stability and Adolescents’ Life Course Goals.” Frontiers in Sociology and Social Research, Volume 2: Social Networks and the Life Course, Duane Alwin, Derek Kreager, and Diane Felmlee, eds.
Felmlee, Diane and Robert Faris. 2016. “Toxic Ties: Networks of Friendship, Dating, and Cyber Victimization.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 79:3:243-262.
Smith, Jeffrey and Robert Faris. 2015. “Movement without Mobility: Adolescent Status Hierarchies and the Contextual Limits of Cumulative Advantage.” Social Networks, 40:139-153.
Faris, Robert and Diane Felmlee. 2014. “Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and their Consequences.” American Sociological Review, 79:2:228-257.
Faris, Robert and Susan Ennett. 2012. “Adolescent Aggression: The Role of Peer Group Status Motives, Peer Aggression, and Group Characteristics.” Social Networks, 34:4:371-378.
Faris, Robert. 2012. “Aggression, Exclusivity, and Status Attainment in Interpersonal Networks.” Social Forces, 90:4:1207-1235.
Faris, Robert and Diane Felmlee. 2011. “Status Struggles: Network Centrality and Gender Segregation in Same- and Cross-Gender Aggression.” American Sociological Review, 76:1:48-73 *Winner of the ASA’s Crime Law and Deviance Section’s James F. Short Award for Best Paper.