While a number of researchers have examined bullying, particularly in the wake of high-profile school shootings, these researchers largely ignore the ways that bullying is actually defined by students.
Typically both students and researchers include physical and emotional abuse in their definitions of bullying, yet students differ from researchers in how they label others "bullies." Brent Harger, a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Sociology and now assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Penn., found that many students view bullying as a false dichotomy in which others are either "bullies" or "non-bullies." In this false dichotomy, students argue that if somebody is to be labeled a bully, he or she must fit that label at all times. This applies to how students label themselves, too.
As a result, students may participate in behavior that researchers would label bullying but define themselves as non-bullies because of other factors such as getting good grades or participating in extracurricular activities.
Because they do not identify themselves as bullies, students are able to dismiss anti-bullying messages in schools as "not for them." As a result, anti-bullying policies in schools may prevent the labeling of students as bullies but not the behaviors that outsiders would define as bullying.
"While my conference presentation focuses on student definitions, a number of adults in the schools also used this type of false dichotomy, such as a principal who said, 'I have one bully in my school,'" Harger said. "Just as with the students, defining bullies in this way prevented adults from seeing that a number of individual actions could be labeled bullying and led them to conclude that bullying was not a problem in their schools."
Harger will discuss his researchat the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
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