A Treacherous Climb Up The Social Ladder

While studying the causes and motivations of high school bullying, UC Davis sociologist Robert Faris found that kids who ascend the social hierarchy, especially girls, run a high risk of being victimized:

Faris was interested in understanding bullying at a deeper level, to identify “hotspots” of conflict and aggression in school-based hierarchies. He and his colleague Diane Felmlee, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, investigated whether there were other reasons for students’ aggression toward one another, such as using it as a tool for social climbing.

Their results, published in American Sociological Review, suggest that kids get bullied not only when they don’t fit in, but also when they are simply trying to avoid being victims by moving up the social ladder. “As social status increases, the involvement in aggression–both as perpetrator and now as victims–also tends to go up until they get to the very top, when things start to reverse,” says Faris.

Emily Bazelon explains what this means for how we approach the problem of bullying:

Faris and Felmlee come out with one clear proposal for schools: Bullying-prevention programs should try to de-emphasize hierarchy. The more that students feel there are multiple routes to social success—the choir as well as sports, chess champion as well as class president—the better. That sounds right to me, but also hard for adults to construct. Teenagers have to have their own ways of taking each other’s measure separate from adult wishes and meddling. That’s part of growing up. The trick is for them to lead each other to social rewards that come from building other people up rather than tearing them down. This study is an important reminder that all kinds of kids benefit from making that shift, from all points in the high school universe.