Breaking Down Bullying: Some Anthropological Perspectives and Solutions

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“Breaking Down Bullying: Some Anthropological Perspectives and Solutions” by E.A. Burlingame (2013)

As the number of stories about bullying in America’s colleges and schools increases, the sense that there is little that can be done to stop it also seems to increase. Since 2010 in New York State there has been an anti-bullying statute in place to address it through education and the punishment of offenders. However, when Felicia Garcia, 15, of Staten Island, New York reported being harassed by members of her high school football team, the mediation help she received seems to have done little to alleviate her turmoil. In October of 2012 Garcia committed suicide by jumping deliberately in front of a train. The resulting firestorm from this event has done little other than provide yet another example of how important dealing with bullying is and how difficult it is to know what to do to provide a better solution.

Bullying has been a part of American childhood since at least the turn of the 20th century. Classic Hollywood films – the “Our Gang” series, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “Poor Little Rich Girl” – all present what we in America today would call bullying – children being persecuted physically/psychologically by others. In some of these films the bullying is presented as a part of the rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. My own mother remembers being bullied by a boy who would follow her home after school to call her names and physically intimidate her.

Bullying behavior seems to have been documented in the scientific research of anthropologists. Ruth Benedict notes in her mid-20th century research on the Japanese, and Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee notes in his contemporary research on the Ju/’hoansi, that children in other cultures can play in ways that sound like bullying. Clearly what is considered acceptable varies through time and in every culture. What is considered “right” is a matter of cultural and historical norms...
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