As Barbara Coloroso (2014) argues in her TED Talks lecture, “From School Yard Bullying to Genocide,” a social phenomenon normally written off as routine childhood behavior can have significant consequences. Thus, it is important that researchers take the issue of bullying, by both children and adults, seriously and research the motives for bullies, as well as those of their “followers,” who often refuse to intervene even when they are fully cognizant that the bully is doing something wrong. A research study into bullying behavior would draw upon several disciplines, among them sociology, psychology, and anthropology, and the research design would be primarily qualitative. The first step in such a research study would be to identify individuals who can be properly described as bullies. As the people identified as such would most likely alter or modify the behavior in question if they were aware they were being observed, it would be crucial to conduct the study without their knowledge. Unfortunately, however, observing live subjects without their knowledge and consent violates the rules of ethical conduct for the social sciences, so this would have to be taken into consideration when developing the research design.
An alternative, more ethical, research design for a study of bullying would be in the form of a questionnaire given to individuals who have personally observed bullying behavior, or who have themselves been the victims of bullies. The questionnaire would be open-ended, and allow the participants to describe social contexts in which the bullying occurred, as well as specific behaviors that the bully engaged in while conducting their, in the words of Coloroso (2014), “social assassination” campaigns. It would also be important to gather information on the behavior of the bully’s friends and associates, in order to better understand why these individuals simply went along with it, and did not say anything or try to stop the bullying, even when they personally had nothing against the bullied individual.
Bullying behavior falls into the categories of both criminal deviance and social control. When bullies engage in their behavior, they are, to use the words of Coloroso (2014) “getting pleasure from someone else’s pain.” Often, the bullied individual did nothing to the bully to provoke their contemptuous behavior, but individuals who engage in bullying behavior often display a special talent for spotting characteristics in a person that would make them contemptible to the people around them. Often, these characteristics involve being different in some way from the majority group in the social context in which the bullying is taking place. Bullied individuals are often singled out for social attacks because they are racially different, are eccentric in some way, or have a disability. Bullies take advantage of the difference of this person, and leverage it to gain support from others in their campaigns against that individual. As Coloroso (2014) describes bullying, it is the “routinization of cruelty,” and thus it falls into the category of criminally deviant behavior.
Bullying is also a mechanism of social control. When a bully singles out a person for attack, it is often for several reasons. First, they are attempting to establish dominance in their social group by showing everyone how mean they can be for no apparent reason. Secondly, the bully is making an attempt to dictate social norms within their group, by targeting those who fall outside the realm of what they consider to be “normal” and “acceptable” and singling them out for persecution. In this way, the bully manipulates others around them to makes themselves look like a heroic individual who is simply trying to reinforce social dictates. Clearly, bullying is a social phenomenon that needs to be properly researched, so it can be stopped.