Keeping a Wave Upon the Sand

Newspapers often capture the most horrific incidences of bullying in their headlines, and report high (and verifiable) levels of bullying and peer victimisation.


The Guardian
23rd July, 2011

An important motivation for my research is reducing the level of bullying and peer victimisation, particularly in schools. So when I stare, confused, at near-blank Word documents write research papers, I like to report the current levels of these phenomena in the population I’m writing about. Newspapers often report on single surveys or events – in research, I need a fuller picture.

With this comes a perennial problem. There are so many ways of trying to get at the big picture. This time around, the most recent figures I could find were given on 23 May, 2013, in a Guardian DataBlog. This piece is fantastic, not least because it makes a timely point on what we actually know about bullying, but because it links to the original data file. 

I could go with that. But, as Ami Sedghi points out, this is child helpline data – and helpline calls don’t tell us about the actual level of bullying going on. The alternatives then, are self-reports of bullying, where all children are asked to say what has been happening to them within a given time-frame, like the example below from Owens, Daly, and Slee (2005):


or peer reports – where other children are given a class list, and  “nominate” children in their class according to whether they are bullied, like in Fox and Boulton (2006):


These measures yield different outcomes, with peer report usually leading to slightly lower levels of reported bullying, that are nonetheless correlated with the levels of self-reported bullying (in our ESRC School Bullying and Humour Project research, we used both measures, to get the best of both worlds).

So – the way in which bullying is measured affects its apparent prevalence. But it’s more complicated than that. Researchers over the past 40 years have been unable to agree on what counts as bullying. This is important because a paper by Olweus (2012) demonstrates that the reported prevalence of cyberbullying depends upon whether it is asked about in the context of a definition of bullying or not. In reality, there are myriad definitions, which are often dependent on culture, age, and schooling, as Dorothy Espelage and her colleagues note in the first chapter of a recent research report.

Espelage goes further than this. She suggests that we should stop using the word bullying altogether, and instead research ‘peer victimisation’. Since bullying by (most) definition(s) involves repetition, she argues, schools wait too long to act in cases of one-off severe nastiness, so they can act in accordance with school’s bullying policies. I could add to her argument – a lot of definitions of bullying don’t take account of the child who is called names repeatedly, but where each name is coming a different child.

wave sand

Add to this, that what one child perceives as peer victimisation, another may perceive and/or receive as banter, that more passive forms victimisation (e.g., ignoring others) are difficult to disentangle from innocent non-attention to a person, and that targets and witnesses are reluctant to report what is happening, and it becomes obvious why we struggle to research what is going on.

Discerning the prevalence of bullying at a set time, is rather like, as  Rogers and Hammerstein put it, trying to keep a wave upon the sand –  bullying is difficult to get hold of. Reports of past events are relied upon. To try and reduce bullying, we must nonetheless try to work out what is happening. 


School’s Out For Summer?

Leaving aside the very British question of whether summer is actually something of a misnomer for the upcoming season, I’d like to use this post to discuss a tweet I saw from a colleague earlier this week:

What do university teaching staff actually *do* all summer, with no students around to be taught? Now that I’ve finished my marking, I wanted to write this post, to reveal what academics do get up to, and to set out my own plans, which should help me stick to them (in theory…).

So – firstly – lecturers aren’t just employed to teach. They’re also employed to write grant proposals, get grant funding, do research, and write up the research that they then pass on to their students to read. University departments do very little in the way of research without this grant income, and the research that is outputted is assessed in an exercise called the Research Excellence Framework, which determines how much central funding is allocated to the department. The next REF submission is due this December. So lecturers are all pretty busy now with research.

But, I’m not a lecturer, I’m a Teaching Fellow. So what do I do without students (bar the odd research student)? Why isn’t School out for me? It turns out that I need to do research, too. I would anyway, because I research a topic I’m passionate about, but without research, I wouldn’t get very far in my career. Employers in academia (remembering I’m on a temporary contract) are looking for my research to be REF-able. And I’ve made it this time – my research will be submitted in the Department’s REF to help it get as much income as possible – but I have to think ahead to the next REF, in 2018. To be REF-able then, I have to do research now. It can take up to two years between submitting a paper and having it published.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Thus, my summer will be spent analysing data and writing. I aim to write several things. Firstly some papers that I’m working on collaboratively, on the ESRC Humour and Bullying Project. Secondly, my PhD papers that have yet to be submitted, need to be trimmed down and submitted to journals. And thirdly, I will be writing a small research grant proposal with a colleague in the Department.

That said, it won’t all be hard work. Not only because I am taking a few days’ leave to go away to Taize (yay!), but because summer is conference season for academics. Since the wheels of publishing in academia turn slowly, conferences help researchers keep up-to-date with current developments, and generate ideas for new research. This year, I’m heading to Reading for CogDev2013 to present research findings on defenders and peer victimisation.

That’s the plan. The kind of thing that lecturers do all summer.

Peer Victimisation and ‘Granny Research’


comment2Following the overwhelming response to a BBC Education article on the ESRC Humour and Bullying research project, which we responded to here, I’ve had a closer look through the comments made on the research article.

My grandmother and me.

My grandmother and me.

One thing that stood out was that some commentators felt that the research was a waste of time because they “could have told [us] that in 5 minutes” or because we were researching the “patently obvious” with little value beyond common sense guesses. In other words, our research was “granny research” – research where my grandmother could have told you the findings, before we’d even begun to design the research materials. I want to use this blog post to explain why it was necessary to show the cyclical link between self-defeating humour and victimisation using research, rather than just common sense.

One reason why research is necessary, is that the findings can often be surprising. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Milgram’s (1963) studies in obedience. In interviews with psychiatrists, students and members of the public, which took place before the study, these people said that only a few people in a thousand would likely obey the experimenter to the end, and ostensibly deliver a 450-volt level shock. Sixty-eight percent of participants did.

Other research too, shows that findings can be counter-intuitive. For example, in my research area, participants cast as group members in a resource allocation task, where they have to allocate resources to the ingroup and the outgroup don’t give the most resources to the ingroup. What happens in this situation, is that participants will maximize the  difference between resources allocated to the ingroup and the outgroup, in the ingroup’s favour, even if this means they end up with less than they could have had (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971).

And, of course common-sense intuitions can be contradictory. Studies in relationships might start with the adage that “birds of a feather flock together”. But they could start with the equally anecdotally plausible adage that “opposites attract”. Research is needed to determine under which circumstances each of these propositions may be true.

A further, and perhaps a more important reason why research is needed, is that common sense explanations may be biased by the researchers’ life experience. A researcher with experience of policing, for example, might suggest that football hooliganism is caused by a few random hooligans in a football crowd. But research by Clifford Stott shows that, in fact,  hooliganism can emerge from a shift from personal to social identity of anyone in the crowd – anyone can then act as a member of the “football crowd” versus the police, us versus them.

Research creates the conditions to test your hypotheses – conditions where what you think might be the cause is (as far as possible) the only thing that you change before you note the effects. In the “real world” of course, the cause-effect relationship you’re observing via common sense interpretation is messily tangled up with a lot of other possible causes – so research helps to tease out one cause (or correlate) at a time.

Coming back to the self-defeating humour and peer victimisation link – since we measured both of these things at two time points, we were able to establish cause and effect – because what happened at Time 1 cannot logically have been caused by what happened at Time 2. And we found that, when other things were held constant, the cause and effect link went in both directions, in a cycle. And we couldn’t have determined that from common sense alone.

Researcher’s First Radio Interview

Had something of a baptism of fire last week, when the BBC published an article relating to research on the Humour and Bullying Project and it was picked up by BBC Oxford.

photo (7)

And I got an email whilst en route from the project dissemination event  at Keele University to Oxford on Wednesday asking if I’d be prepared to give them an interview. Gah.

I did give an interview (following a very nerve-ridden train ride home) and it was okay (according to the other researchers on the project). If you really want to, you can hear it at this link:

I also followed it up with an interview with the Communications Officer at Brookes, and they published a piece on their news pages.

Several things I learnt that day:

  1. Don’t take a day of annual leave following a project event. Or if you do take a day of annual leave, do note that it won’t be a day of annual leave: it will be a day of emailing. 
  2. Always stay on email: the opportunity would have passed by, had I not kept checking my email. 
  3. Communications Officers are wonderful people. They do the negotiating with the press, and make sure that the story that you want to tell isn’t adversely distorted. 
  4. Do take the opportunity to be pre-recorded. This, at least, reduced my nerves a little, as I knew it could be re-done if necessary.
  5. Do grab the opportunity, because it’s worth it in the end.