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As the structure of this sentence probably illustrates better than anything else I might say, the set of tribes in which I have some semilegitimate claim to membership includes nerddom.

A commonly related experience of that tribe is having been teased/bullied/harrassed/picked on as kids, and many those accounts are pretty similar: we were smarter than our peers, interested in different things, etc., and were therefore singled out for harassment. Sometimes we argue about the actual reasons. I'm no exception to this pattern, and I've always attributed that harassment to the fact that my tribe displayed interest in the sorts of things that teachers want (and in many cases coerce) children to display interest in, and were thereby marked by our peers as collaborators with the enemy, to be shunned and punished.

But I've gotten to wondering lately whether why we're singled out is even the right question.

One way to frame the question: we observe that harassment happens... for example, some kids harass other kids. The common-sense narrative is of course that there's one group of kids, G1, who initiate harassment, and that there's another group of kids, G2, who are targets of harassment, and we can talk about the properties of G1 and G2.

But there are other plausible arrangements. It might be that there's no reliable group of instigators... different kids initiate harassment at different times. It might be that there's no reliable group of targets... different kids are targetted for harassment at different times. It might be that there's complex interaction: G1 harasses only G2 and G3, G4 harasses only G2 and G5, G5 harasses only G1 and G2, etc. Other arrangements are plausible.

I know a whole lot of research is done on this sort of thing, but Googling gets me nowhere; it's so lost in the endless retelling of the common-sense narrative that I don't know how to analyze it in less than three months.

So I turn to my social media brain for answers. What do we actually know about this stuff?



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 1st, 2014 12:38 am (UTC)
Trying this again, LJ tried to eat it
I know of no research. But from direct observation and experience:
YES, it all changes. Some people tend to instigate--but they don't always. Some people tend to be bullied--but not always. The new kid gets picked on. Then there's another new kid.

I don't recall it very well, but apparently I learned to be very
quick with an insult in middle school, in self-defense, because as
far as I could tell, all conversation was warfare. My sisters were
sometimes angry at me, and I wanted to shake them and say, "What the
hell do you think I have to deal with every 10 seconds for six hours
a day five days a week?!" Maybe once or twice, I was the actual
instigator in bullying someone else. I certainly didn't strike
first, or participate more than a handful of times in my life. But
in that environment, if one of my tormentors was momentarily
vulnerable, hell yes I struck back.

Saying some people are bullies or bullied is kind of like saying
some people are courageous or cowardly. But I'm probably just
saying things that you already know far better than I.
Aug. 1st, 2014 02:04 am (UTC)
 0 VycD*A#* `$R 1Hôrf-6Paa+q|r -s}.὞]d
1) At my (unusual in many ways) elementary/middle school, I perceived harassment to be first and foremost directed by boys at girls and by older girls at younger girls (I didn't have a theory about how boys interacted with each other). There was some element of more popular vs. less popular too, but one advantage of a very very small school was that there wasn't really critical mass for that dynamic.

1a) Oh, and: I also perceived the situation to be different from cohort to cohort. I believed at the time (and have no particular reason to now think I was deluding myself then, though who knows) that my cohort of girls was nicer to the girls younger than us, than the girls older than us had been to us. And the wildly fluctuating gender balance (and age balance) affected the dynamic from year to year as well.

[I should say for context: we had 3 grades in a single classroom, so when I say "older" I mean "the 5th graders picked on the 3rd graders in their shared classroom."]

2) Also: "we were picked on for being smarter than everyone else" is a rather ego-boosting way to frame the story, both at the time and retrospectively. It's quite possible that that's not at all what the harassers thought they had against the harassees.

3) It seems reasonable to suppose that a given individual might sometimes be harassed and sometimes not and sometimes be the harasser, in the same way that one's social role and place in the pecking order can change depending on who else happens to be in the group. On the other hand...I'd be surprised if the common-sense notion that there are certain characteristics that tend, in the aggregate, to be associated with being the harassee.

Edited at 2014-08-01 02:08 am (UTC)
Aug. 1st, 2014 02:50 am (UTC)
Hmm. I am not clear quite what you're trying to ask... Maybe "Is there not actually a single coherent us vs. them going on in the classroom?" but it seems to me it's clear that the answer to that is "there are varying levels of it, but not normally only one single thread, especially over any amount of time at all."

Anyway, whatever the exact question is, I have no data, but since the post seems to be collecting anecdata:

I was a little picked on in school, but not much. In retrospect, I feel like there "should" have been more, from the level of weird-introvert I was, particularly in elementary school. Possibly the teachers were secretly protecting me better than I realized, but it held true over several schools. I think, looking back, it's that I automatically did the "if you don't react, they'll get bored" thing - it wasn't that I implemented it as a conscious plan, it was that I honestly didn't care, most of the time, what the other kids were saying, I was too lost in my own world.
Aug. 1st, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
Because harassment and bullying is related to power dynamics, there are a couple of separate issues. (1) which group(s) have relative power or status, at different times, in different contexts (2) whether certain individuals have characteristics which make them more likely to want to exploit power, when they have it, against others lower on the hierarchy (3) whether certain individuals have characteristics which make them more adept at negotiating power dynamics so that they more frequently end up on the high side, or at least are less likely to be victimized when they are on the low side.

This also means there are multiple avenues to reduce the problem. You can set up the context to minimize status differentials or have many simultaneous relevant status differentials which then kind of average out, you can work with individuals to make them less likely to take advantage or change the environment to reduce their opportunities to take advantage, and you can work with individuals to help them avoid being targets or change the environment to reduce opportunities for someone being targeted.

I went to a normal public school in the midwest, and was rarely picked on for being smart, but often picked on for ethnicity and being uncool or socially awkward. I think nerds tend to conflate the being smart thing and the being socially inept thing, and do not always admit that it is their poor interpersonal skills rather than their intellect which annoys others. Sure, being good at academics isn't necessarily a plus for being cool, but I think that is a much smaller part of the issue than not playing well with others.

Perhaps this is my conclusion because both my friends and the people who picked on me tended to be the other academically advanced kids, and it was certainly the case that some of the academically advanced kids were also cool and popular.
Aug. 1st, 2014 03:25 pm (UTC)
Oh I forgot you were looking for research leads. The famous study on how having a position of power can bring out the bully in normal people is the Stanford Prison Experiment, and there is an infamous school exercise about brown-eyes/blue-eyes that shows a similar thing (an arbitrary group, if given higher status, starts bullying the lower status group). There was also an in-group/out-group study run at a summer camp but I don't remember any names.

For bullying prevention training and effectiveness, I think there is a lot of recent research, but I don't know that it has focused on the particular issues you raised.
Aug. 1st, 2014 02:40 pm (UTC)
I think 'why' is mostly not the right question.

As others have said, an awful lot of bullying is about reinforcing the social hierarchy, so in some sense, the reason that nerds get bullied is because they are unpopular, full stop.

Digging further into 'why are nerds unpopular' could yield some insight, but only addresses the problem of bullying to the extent that one is willing to accept "here's how to be nerdy in a not-unpopular way" as an answer.

(And if that's the goal, you can also inquire about nerdy-but-still-popular kids, which, in retrospect, I think I was one of in elementary school. But my cohort was weird -- we has a huge amount of crossover between the usual cliques in high school -- so who knows how much that generalizes.)

But if "be more popular" isn't an acceptable answer to the problem of bullying, I think you have to start asking questions about what social hierarchies exist and how they are maintained, both in school kids and in the adults around them.

...Which may be the right lens to consider the issue through, but probably isn't going to do much for you on the 'analyze it in less than three months' front. Sorry.
Aug. 1st, 2014 02:52 pm (UTC)
I recently read/am reading "Little Girls Can Be Mean", which is primarily about the bullying done by young girls (think grade 2 through grade 5.) It's being a very hard book for me to read, given my personal experiences with bullying, so I haven't actually read it as thoroughly or as carefully/analytically as I should have. I do need to read it again, alas. ...'once more, with feeling...'

Its focus is *entirely* on girl on girl bullying, and young girls at that, so the dynamics it is discussing are different from those of older kids (middle school/high school.)

But it posits that *this particular type of bullying* is primarily about social relationships, social status, and social interactions - girls do these things as they learn how to be friends, how to gain and keep friends, and how to join a group/form a group/ define their position in a group.

That is to say, it isn't about how smart anyone is, or even how social you are: it's about what kind of social skills you have, and what power you have over the social scene/social backdrop you are interacting with, and how well you can define yourself as ingroup/outgroup.

And sometimes in group is defined by... who is out group.
Aug. 1st, 2014 05:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think this: "we were smarter than our peers, interested in different things, etc., and were therefore singled out for harassment" is accurate. Lots of stupid kids get harassed too, lots of smart kids don't.

In my observation, kids push on other kids to test them and figure out the limits of their relationships/abilities/boundaries. They do that to the adults around them too. It's part of figuring out the world and what their place is in it by seeing how other people react to them. They don't single people out; they push on everyone. But some people get harassed once and never again and some people become serial victims.
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