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Bullying - Preventing School Violence
10 CEUs Bullying - Preventing School Violence

Manual of Articles Sections 15 - 27
Section 15
Conceptualizing and Defining Bullying in Schools

Question 15 | Test | Table of Contents | Bullying CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

Bullying turns out to be a difficult concept to define. There was, on the one hand, a strong feeling that everyone knows what it is; on the other, there was real difficulty in specifying precisely what was to be understood by the term. One prominent and influential British educationalist, Delwyn Tattum (Tattum & Tattum) defined bullying as follows "Bullying is a willful conscious desire to hurt another and put him/her under stress" (p. 147). This definition appealed to many readers. Bullying was seen as being in the mind of the perpetrator. Bullying was a state of mind, a feeling or an attitude. More behaviorally inclined thinkers disagreed. Many people, it could be argued, have malign intentions that they never put into effect. Indeed, others may be blissfully unaware of their evil intent. Could this then be bullying? Alternative proposals were made. Olweus saw bullying as follows: A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of one or more other students (p. 9). This was in some respects more satisfying. Actions were involved. It remained tote clarified what constituted "negative actions." Who was to judge—the perpetrator, the victim, the observer? Must bullying always have the quality of being "repeated?" Could not one be bullied in a single encounter? But, perhaps the most important question was this: How does being bullied differ (if at all) from being the target of aggression? These questions led to new and different formulations of bullying. Gradually more and more researchers felt obliged to make a distinction between being treated negatively by someone of equal or similar power, as in what is sometimes called "a fair fight" and being treated negatively by someone—or a group of people—who are more powerful and against whom one is unable to resist. A distinguishing feature of bullying became the presence of an imbalance of power that favored the perpetrator of the negative act(s). As to who is the judge of whether an act is "negative" the consensus moved towards taking the word of the victim. Only the victim could say whether actions were hurtful. The victim was therefore the judge. This was not without problems. Could not the hurt be unintended? Maybe there was something in the notion that bullying involves a desire to hurt after all! Less obviously, could not a person be bullied without knowing it—perhaps realizing it, if at all, much later in retrospect? Despite these difficulties, the orthodox view is that bullying is to be inferred from the feelings of those who are targeted,, or think they are targeted—in short, from those who feel oppressed. This is suggested in an influential definition proposed by David Farrington: "Bullying is repeated oppression of a less powerful person, physical or psychological, by a more powerful person."

The key word here is "oppression." The MacQuarie Dictionary defines oppression as "the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel or unjust manner" (p. 1197). Once the concept of bullying has been linked with that of "oppression," it becomes clear that one cannot examine bullying without raising issues of justice. It is a curious fact that discussions of bullying commonly do not bring in considerations of right and wrong. Yet, much of the difficulty in determining whether a forceful act is an example of bullying lies in deciding whether the act is just or unjust. The issue arises most clearly when we ask ourselves whether an authority figure—a general, a policeman, a teacher, a parent—has gone beyond what is to be expected of them when they censure or punish someone. And, of course, expectations change over time. A school prefect in a 19th century English Boarding School could chastise his fag  [private schools to describe a junior pupil required to perform certain services for a senior] for not cleaning his boots without being accused of bullying him. Today that would be insufferable. Expectations change also from place to place. In Scandinavian counties the law does not permit a parent to strike a child. The parent who did strike a child would be called a bully. In most parts of the world hitting a child (in moderation) is seen as an appropriate disciplinary measure. How then should bullying be defined? It is fair to say that there is no universally agreed definition, and perhaps there cannot be an agreed definition as long as there are differences in what constitutes the proper, justifiable use (as opposed to the abuse) of power. My own view (Rigby, 2001b, p. 6) is that in conceptualizing bullying we need to take into account seven elements:

Bullying involves a desire to hurt + hurtful action + a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor + a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim.

I must add, that I have in mind here "malign bullying." I concede that sometimes one may bully someone, giving rise to a sense of oppression on the part of the victim, which was not intended. In such cases, the problem, though by no means unimportant, is more easily resolved and is of less concern than what I have called malign bullying.

How Bullying may be Perpetrated
It has become common for writers on bullying to list the behaviors that may constitute bullying. The first kinds of bullying that come to mind are of a physical nature: hitting, kicking, striking, spitting etc. For some, that is where the list ends. But clearly, on reflection, bullying may also involve verbal abuse. In schools this often takes the form of name-calling and other means of ridicule. If we consider the ways in which people-not just children— seek to hurt each other, we are led to include indirect or manipulative means, as in isolating people, spreading rumors about them, or breaking up their friendships. Schools generally view physical bullying as the most serious. This is often not the case. In a study of 14—year—olds in Australia, it was found that indirect forms of bullying were far more hurtful and upsetting than other kinds among both boys and girls (Rigby & Bagshaw). Both boys and girls saw the deliberate act of breaking up someone’s friendship as causing most pain. We should also bear in mind that when a person is being repeatedly bullied it is not uncommon for him or her to be subjected to different kinds of bullying: physical, verbal, and indirect.
Table 1 shows one attempt (Rigby) to classify the kinds of actions that may be used in the course of bullying someone. Such lists are useful in considering what might be involved in bullying between children in schools. But, is important to recognise that (a) the behavior becomes bullying when it is employed against someone who is less powerful than the aggressor and unable to resist effectively and (b) the use of force of a particular kind is unjustified.

Table 1. Categories of Bullying





Unfair criticism

Name calling

Persuading another person to criticize or insult someone
Spreading malicious rumors
Anonymous phone calls and emails


Threatening or obscene gestures

Deliberate turning away or averting one’s gaze to ignore someone


Menacing stares
Throwing things
Using a weapon
Removing and hiding belongings

Getting another person to assault someone

Relational or social bullying

Forming coalitions against someone

Persuading people to exclude

- Rigby EdD, Ken; What It Takes to Stop Bullying in Schools: An Examination of the Rationale and Effectiveness of School-Based Interventions; in Appraisal and Prediction of School Violence; Michael J Furlong et al (eds); Nova Science Publishers Inc: New York; 2004

Personal Reflection Exercise Explanation
The Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues. Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience. Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education, occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health, home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be approximately 250 words in length. However, since the content of these “Personal Reflection” Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a “work in progress.” You will not be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.

Personal Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information about conceptualizing and defining bullying in schools. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What is Rigby’s definition of bullying? Record the letter of the correct answer the Test.

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