May 17, 2008

Sticks, Stones and Semantics: The Ivory Tower Bully's Vocabulary of Motives


This ethnography focuses on the techniques of normalization used by university professors who are accused by their colleagues of bullying behavior. We examine how the organizational structure and institutional values of the university provide protective coloration for academic intimidation and discourage both the detection and effective labeling of such behavior. In noting that attempts to label bullying behavior frequently fail because the judgments are seen as mere matters of opinion in an environment whose principal currency of exchange is opinion itself, we modify and extend Sykes and Matza's discussion of neutralization techniques to academic settings.

While we cannot speak to the presence or absence of guilt feelings on the part of alleged academic bullies, or to whether neutralization techniques successfully assuage such feelings, we can nevertheless discern the operation of these techniques to resist the imputation of unflattering social identities and/or to lay claim to public identities that are highly esteemed within the academy.

Moreover, we identify three additional techniques of normalization that are employed by alleged ivory tower bullies: appropriation and inversion, in which accused bullies claim victim status for themselves; evidentiary solipsism, in which alleged bullies portray themselves as uniquely capable of divining and defining the meaning-structure of events; and emotional obfuscation, which takes the form of employing symbols and imagery that are chosen for their perceived ability to elicit an emotional response on the part of an academic audience.

By E. D. Nelson and R. D. Lambert, Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001

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