In The Know Zone

why bullying happens

Why bullying occurs

Research suggests that the increase in bullying that occurs in the transition from elementary to middle school is associated with two social aspects of the onset of adolescence: [13]

  • Growing desire for autonomy from parents
  • Increased reliance on peers as the major social support

Advocates of this view speculate that lack of clear guidelines regarding how to achieve social status in a new school leads to a reliance on the social stratification achieved through bullying. [14]

Some interpretations of group bullying go a step further, arguing that it is a worldwide phenomenon that serves as a sort of aggressive ritual, through which social relationships are constructed and affirmed—albeit at severe expense to the victim. [15] They note, in support of this thesis, that clowning and laughter are more likely to accompanying bullying than anger or serious fighting. [16]

One author likens bullying to professional wrestling, which he sees as a kind of morality play, in which a stoic hero suffers at the hands of an unprincipled, brutal villain, who is ultimately and justly vanquished, amid great histrionics, by the hero. [17] If that analogy is to be accepted, it makes bullying all the more objectionable, since the bullying victim rarely achieves a morally edifying victory over his oppressors.

A closer analogy for the advocate of the ritual character of bullying would be to view the victim as a classic scapegoat—a weak and marginalized individual who is punished for allegedly embodying some threat to the integrity or dignity of the group. This interpretation elevates bullying from merely odious to profoundly disturbing. It calls attention to the fact that isolation, enforced and visible powerlessness and a resulting “right” to oppress is exactly the strategy the Nazis employed to inaugurate the extermination of six million Jews and that Stalin used to justify the policies through which he starved seven million Ukrainian kulaks (small landowners) to death in order to collectivize Soviet agriculture.

While 80 to 90 percent of students indicate that watching bullying makes them uncomfortable, most seem to tolerate the discomfort rather well. Fifty-four percent of the time they reinforce the bullying by passively watching and 21 percent of the remainder actively participate. [18] Only 25 percent of the time do they intervene on the victim’s behalf, even though doing so ends the bullying attack within 10 seconds in a majority (57%) of instances. [19]

A bully frequently has a built-in audience of henchmen who accompany him, assuring that his acts will be applauded and that the victim—and perhaps the bystanders as well—are safely cowed.


[13] Bullying in Early Adolescence: The Role of the Peer Group, p. 2

[14] Ibid

[15] Cheyne, J.; Mimesis and Semiotics of Bullying: A Group- and Self-Defining Ritual; University of Waterloo, 1998; available at; accessed 111 September 2004

[16] Ibid, p. 2

[17] Ibid,

[18] O’Connell, P., Pepler, D. & Craig, W., Peer involvement in bullying: Insights and challenges for intervention; Journal of Adolescence; 1999; 22; 437-52; Abstract available at, accessed 3 September 2004

[19] Pepler, D., Hawkins, D., & Craig, W., Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying among elementary school children; 2001, Social Development, 10, 512-527


In The Know: At Risk Pamphlet/ DVD Package
"In The Know: At Risk-Bullying, It's Not Just Kids Being Kids" Pamphlet
In The Know: At Risk DVD Package