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Bookblog: The Cultural Roots of Bullying

Thanks to Dr. Jean Twenge, one of my key questions, i.e. key aspects of my core hypothesis*, is a step closer to being answered, by accounting the self-esteem movement as a primary psychological factor among people under 30. This also means that my project will have to take generational differences into account, particularly when analyzing workplace harassment (BWAISH).

Twenge’s 2007 book, Generation ME (the “ME” is short for Millennial Edition but reflects the selfish attitudes of the folks in question) makes one argument and makes it well: that the children of Baby Boomers and their children were raised to believe they were special, and this has massive implications for all of American society, particularly in schools and workplaces, by causing a sense of entitlement and an abandonment of responsibility. Twenge writes in a snarky, lighthearted style even when doing a big sell, which is good because most of her data is statistical and based upon personality questionnaires and survey data going back decades, which is a fantastically scientific approach but hard to digest without a little humor. Twenge impressively crunches this data, comparing results across economic and political factors to demonstrate large shifts in basic American personality over the past 40 years. She also demonstrates that the changes are still occurring (boosted, perhaps, by technology, a factor Twenge will hopefully address in her next book). Twenge’s age (she’s just past 30 as of publication) is occasionally a distraction more than an asset (she references “Avenue Q” a few too many times), and her cynicism threatens what would therefore be inappropriate ageism. Twenge is attempting to apologize for her generation, but doesn’t address the same behaviors and tendencies as conducted by older generations (and trust me, from working in retail, I can say with certainty that 80-year-olds can be just as bratty and snooty as 20-year-olds).

So, the self-esteem movement has produced feelings of entitlement in people under 40, particularly the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings. This leads to bullying, harassing, and violent behavior when those feelings are challenged or otherwise need to be reinforced. This isn’t the only factor, of course, but I strongly believe that any narcissistic tendencies mixed with a capitalistic one-upmanship worldview means not only acceptance of psychological cruelty, but acceptance of, and furthermore excuse-making for it. (This is an excellent source on this topic.)

* Roughly: that bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. See also here.

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Bookblog: Back to the Fandom Study

Sadly, my investigation into the bullying phenomenon is going to have to wait for a professional or academic backer. In the interest of not making this project too difficult for myself, I am considering other options to build a support network before beginning the interviews, rather than networking through the project.

However, a recent read I picked up at the library, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, has renewed my interest in my folklore studies project on the consutrction of narrative using social and cultural ideas. The book is a nerd’s read for sure, referencing multiple video games, science fiction and fantasy films, and comic books. But as Rose notes, these particular genres are ripe for fandom, which is the psychocultural phenomenon that most piques my interest and the best demonstration of how contemporary humans relate and create according to their stories.

My interest in the passion for story-sharing and making characteristic of geek culture began, of course, with my very nerdy friends in college who had an almost obsessive worship of all things “Star Wars” and James Bond. Though familiar with and fond of the franchises, I hadn’t realized the anthropological potential of this kind of fandom…nor the similarities between Bond and “Star Wars'” resident anti-hero, Han Solo, that empower such fandom.  Inspired, I wrote a literary analysis paper exploring the sociocultural construct of the “folk hero” as expressed in two distinct genres, and analyzed why these figures were of such importance to Americans, especially young male Americans. The possibilities of this research go far beyond the reach of a standard term paper, but I am still interested in expanding the project.

However, I would rather focus on the construction of narrative, which in a nutshell is what Rose does in The Art of Immersion.  Rose focuses on how stories are constructed socially, in particular with the benefits of modern technology. I, however, would focus on how stories are constructed using our common cultural experience and then distributed, reconstructed, and deconstructed through culturally prescribed means of storytelling. In other words, archetypes, myths, and sociophilosophical “truths.” Like Rose, I can think of no better way to explore this than the fantasy and sci-fi genres. And I suppose any genre would do, but I’d rather analyze the questions of gender and sexual power in “Buffy” than in “Jersey Shore,” thank you very much.

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Ah, the joys of independent research and visual anthropology

What do you do when you want to conduct research, but not through a school, not for the government, not through an agency, and not for the paper? Nothing. I have fallen through the cracks. The head of research for Alachua County schools says the research scope of my project does not qualify it as research for which I could apply for approval (and I would need an IRB to work in multiple schools anyway), and the head of public information says because my project is unaffiliated, but not research but not journalism, I have no campus access. And turns out that despite the so-called Age of Web Journalism, you’re still not really a journalist unless you are “traditionally” affiliated.

So, I must return to where I probably should have began: knocking-on-doors anthropology. Silly me, thinking that my courses in Research Methods and Ethnographic Research, my ethics training, and my college degree would help me get ahead in my research interests! However, maybe it is time to go ahead and try the streamlined, formal approach with some other institutions in which bullying takes place.

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Bullying Shall Have No Mercy from Me! (Updated)

I briefly mentioned my bullying project (or rather, anti-bullying project) investigating bullying from the perspective of educators and lawmakers when I posted an excerpt from my research statement. After several months of keeping tabs on bullycide news and reading preliminary sources, I’ve decided it’s time to thrust myself into the project. My projected research avenues:

Avenue 1. Anthropologically-Based Investigation into Bullying in Schools (ABIBS)*

  • Stage 1. Preliminary surveys to educators and school administrators as well as to parents I know. Recruitment of persons interested in participating in stage 2. Being an anthropologist, my research is interview-based and it seems that using surveys actually requires more hurdles to jump than using interviews. Stage 1 is thus skipped.   Update.
  • Stage 2. Formal interviews with educators, school administrators, school board members, lawmakers, and parents recruited to the research project.
  • Stage 3. Workshops and informal interviews in school environment.
  • Stage 4: Publication and presentation of research data in conclusion in formal, documentary film, and workshop forms.

Avenue 2. Broad Workup of Adult Institutional Subjugation and Harassment (BWAISH): Interviews with employees in the customer service, publishing, marketing and sales, and administrative support fields. Like “The Office,” but with anthropological methods. 🙂

* I like acronyms.

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Bullying = arrested development + violence (Research Focus)

The project began last September as research to help activist efforts for anti-bullying programs, driven by my deep sadness at several high-profile bullycides in 2010. Upon finding the very thorough anti-bullying laws already on the books in many states, I decided to launch an independent investigation into those programs, conducting interviews with local educators, lawmakers, and school board members here in Gainesville. At the time, I was also reading Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” and experiencing frustration with the frivolity and stupidity of many people my age, having recently graduated college with no sorrow at leaving many of my classmates behind. I also had recently experienced two severe heapings of bullying and abuse in my own life, and watched helplessly as a loved one dealt with repeated harassment at the workplace. I began to see connections between school bullying and workplace harassment, this kind of aggressive behavior and emotional underdevelopment, and this arrested development and America’s larger social and educational problems. A lot of connections to deal with in a research project. Thankfully anthropology is here to help, using theories of cultural logic and game play. The beginnings of my developing thesis follow:

Several psychocultural factors contribute to the prevalence of bullying in schools, and indeed, in society, but all relate to two major social phenomena: the normatization of violence and aggression, and, as mentioned above, arrested psychological and physical development. These phenomena are not restricted to the United States, but the Westernized, technological world, as an economic, information, cultural, and scientific monopolizer with the cultural logic of industry behind it, creates a particular developmental pattern and necessitates a justification ideology that allows the often violent use of power to maintain its privileges. The U.S., as a two-in-one individualistic and imperialistic national psyche, is a world leader that requires two things: for its citizens to buy into nationalistic ideology while desiring to serve a useful function in society, and for its youth to develop at a standardized clockwork buffered by laws, and to serve as cultural innovators first, social contributors second.

As a species, humans experience a period of arrested development, in which they are born with a relatively large brain and not much else. They depend entirely on their caretakers for food, shelter, and learning; they have to learn to communicate their needs and wants, and they will not be ready for even basic household tasks for at least three years. But psychologically, humans mature at vastly different rates across cultures, if only because social markers of maturity are set differently in each society, and often have no “psychological” component.

Something is missing, in education, parenting, and cultural norms and expectations that children provided with numerous goalposts of maturation—kindergarten, middle school, first school dance, the 13th birthday, high school, sweet 16, prom, losing virginity, graduation, 18th birthday, freshman year, 21st birthday, graduation—are so rarely in line with these markers. Why do so many kindergarteners have trouble speaking, yet are greeted with simplistic alphabet drills and macaroni art? Why do middle schoolers reach sexual maturity but know nothing about their bodies, leading to STDs and teen pregnancy? Why do high school graduates head for college with a minimal knowledge of history, science, foreign languages, and the civic system, yet are legally able to vote? Why do youths reach legal drinking age with no sense of responsibility for their life or families, after four years partying and “getting to know themselves” at college? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation when we start to wonder whether school breaks kids, or kids break schools—and each other.

Young Americans are kept in a dual role of consumer and cultural innovator, a lifestyle ever supplemented by technology and social networking. A cultural focus on individualism and increased leisure activities buffer America’s ever-growing disconnect from the rest of the world and lead to self-obsessed youths who think it’s okay to bully while carving out their place in the world. And parents normatize the aggressive tendencies bred of be-your-own-boss, survival-of-the-fittest ideals while endlessly grooming their children to be better versions of themselves. The tug-of-war between discordant aspects of American culture leads to a peculiar version of arrested development that leads an ever-consuming army of children to grow up into…children.

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Bullying: a silent killer

Bullying has received nationwide attention thanks to a string of high-profile suicides prompted by relentless bullying. Tagged an “epidemic,” “media hype,” and everything in between, public outcry and legal action following each suicide case is changing both the definition of and the response to a common childhood experience. Considering all this, it seems inappropriate to call bullying a silent killer. Yet only bullying in the context of suicide is being reinterpreted as a destructive symptom of a social problem endemic to young people; lines have been drawn around “bullycides” as separate from bullying in general, and this subtle change in definition has both structural and psychological ramifications. Meanwhile, “regular” bullying continues to occur everyday, and while our use of terms suggests it vanishes once people leave high school, it merely becomes recoded and renamed.

Which is where the anthropologist steps in, to elucidate on why and where bullying happens, and to answer critics’ biggest question: Are the “bullycides” really the direct result of bullying? I am of the opinion that both bullying and teen suicides are surface indicators of a deeper structure of interaction, internalized by children and coded into both adolescent and adult institutions. An anthropologist well acquainted with communication theories has a unique perspective on the phenomenon of bullying. When the tragedy of suicide strikes a community, it ripples throughout the nation thanks to expanded media coverage, coverage using the same technology now employed by bullies and manipulators of all ages. Bullying is a silent killer in that its effects are only loud when they are made loud, and even then, for every case that receives media attention, countless more have occurred and will continue to occur.

So my current independent research project is to examine the underpinning causes of bullying and harrassment, and its implications for anti-bullying laws and other measures to counter bullying. I would rather not divulge my theory just yet, as it is never wise to put the cart before the horse, or conclusions before data. Currently I am devouring as many news and academic articles as I can find on bullying, suicides resulting from bullying, and legal action related to bullying and harrassment in schools (I had to limit it somehow, and my particular interest is children and adolescents). I am also reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlain
and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
by Thomas Hine for answers, and intend to conduct some interview- and survey-based research. Below is my research statement:

Anti-bullying laws exist in 45 states, with Massachusetts being the most recent. These laws give law enforcement officials and educators new avenues through which to apprehend and prosecute bullies, particularly in cases that result in suicide. In addition, they require programs that give victims a way to have their stories heard and their cases investigated, and that promote compassion and tolerance in the hopes of cutting bullies off. Unfortunately, cases of suicide still occur, and bullying still occurs among adults, where it goes by other names. This project consists of preliminary research into the social negotiations of children and whether bullying has responded to anti-bullying programs, the ramifications and effectiveness of the new legislation, and possible anti-harrassment measures for adults. In addition, I hope to draw conclusions about the structural and ideological characteristics of the United States that allow for bullying.