March 03, 2007

The Burgher and the Villein: rethinking the problem of bullying

'Discussion of the problem of bullying too often relies on ‘common sense’ notions drawn from three assumptions which could be categorised as myths. This paper attempts to analyse the problem in terms of interactions, drawing on concepts from Simmel and others, in order to reassess the issues and possibilities for taking appropriate action to prevent bullying.

...Yet academic investigation of bullying has been limited. Until recently, the topic has had little interest for educationists or psychologists, the two academic disciplines that one might turn to for enlightenment. Academics with no experience of bullying are unlikely to perceive a need to investigate the problem; those who might have been victims of bullying are perhaps too humiliated or worn down by the experience to be able to apply their minds to it as a generic phenomenon; while those who might have been perpetrators of bullying are unlikely to see it as a problem worthy of academic investigation.

As a result, the analysis of bullying has often been left to superficial explanation and ‘common sense’ presumption, largely drawing on three major misperceptions from the application of inappropriate psychological theory.

Three myths about bullying

  1. The first common misperception is that all bullies are ‘psychopaths’. This may perhaps provide some slight comfort and reassurance for victims, bewildered at the unjustified and out-of-proportion attacks they have suffered: their sense of injustice may be somewhat mollified by the use of ‘psychopath’ as a derogatory term to describe their oppressor(s). But bullying is so commonplace that there would be no hope for society if all bullies were truly psychopaths in the strict sense. It is too easy to credit them with a psychiatric condition which suggests that it is not their fault.

  2. The second misperception is that bullies have low self-esteem. This again is counter-intuitive (cf Emler): bullies certainly play with and undermine the selfesteem of their victims/targets, but frequently display arrogance and self-importance. As with the term ‘psychopath’, it may be reassuring for the victims to believe that those who bully them are psychiatrically deficient, but the principal problem with bullies is not primarily a psychological one.

  3. The third misperception is that victims invite the bullying because of their own psychological weaknesses. This is the most absurd and least acceptable of all the myths surrounding bullying, and may be explained as an excuse for inaction by those who ought to be concerned, but have no personal experience of the phenomenon and lack empathy with those who do. The fact that this ‘common sense’ fallacy was proposed in a serious academic conference by the British Psychological Association (Guardian 7 Jan 2000) suggests that psychology in its current state has no answer to the problem of bullying...'
By Ken J. Peel.

Ken John Peel is the pseudonym, for legal reasons, of a lecturer with over 30 years HE experience, who can be contacted c/o:

Published in: New Era in Education, Volume 83, Number 2, August 2002. Complete paper available online at:

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