Guided by methods from grounded theory, field research and qualitative interviewing, social interaction patterns and meaning-making have been investigated in order to understand and explain how school bullying occurs, is maintained, and changed. This research project (2010-2015) was funded by the Swedish Research Council.

A Review on Qualitative Research on Bullying as a Social Process 

The project started with conducting a review on qualitative (and mixed methods) research on school bullying and harassment investigated as social processes. Research has shown that a common explanation among students as to why bullying occurs is that the victim is different or deviant in some way, such as having different clothes, appearance, behaviour or way of speaking. Social norms are produced among students at school and students claim that social exclusion and isolation are the consequences of non-conformity to these norms. Ethnographic studies have identified and linked bullying and harassment to a significant element of intolerance of diversity in peer culture at school. Further, Ethnographic studies have shown a clear link between peer harassment and the process of social positioning in school. Low-status students — especially so-called ‘loners’ and ‘nerds’ — are the typical targets of bullying. Many studies have highlighted how bullying and harassment as well as status and popularity can maintain as well as be produced by gender constructions, gender conflicts, and heterosexual hegemony. According to some ethnographic studies, toughness was used as a predominant method among boys to establish their position in the status hierarchy, which easily resulted in peer harassment and bullying. Among girls, struggling for friendship as well as power and popularity within friendship groups often produced indirect and verbal bullying and other forms of harassment. Finally, some studies illustrate many aspects of school culture and the social process of bullying that create a culture of secrecy (hiding or diffusing the bullying) and dissociating teachers from the peer harassments. 

For further reading, see: Thornberg, R. (2011). "She's weird" – The social construction of bullying in school: A review of qualitative research. Children & Society, 25, 258–267. 

A Grounded Theory Study on Victimizing of School Bullying 

The aim of this study was to investigate how individuals, who had been victims of school bullying, perceived their bullying experiences and how these had affected them, and to generate a grounded theory of being a victim of bullying at school. Twenty-one individuals, who all had prior experiences of being bullied in school for more than one year, were interviewed. Qualitative analysis of data was performed by methods from grounded theory. The research identified a basic process of victimising in school bullying, which consisted of four phases: (a) initial attacks, (b) double victimising, (c) bullying exit and (d) after-effects of bullying. Double victimising refers to a process in which there was an interplay between external victimising and internal victimising. Acts of harassment were repeatedly directed at the victims from their social environment at school – a social process that constructed and repeatedly confirmed their victim role in the class or the group. This external victimising affected the victims and initiated an internal victimising, which meant that they internalised the socially constructed victim-image and acted upon this image, which in turn often supported the bullies’ agenda and confirmed the socially constructed victim-image. The findings also indicate the possible positive effect of changing the social environment. 

For further reading, see: Thornberg, R., Halldin, K., Bolmsjö, N., & Petersson, A. (2013). Victimising of school bullying: A grounded theory. Research Papers in Education, 28, 309-329. 

A Grounded Theory Field Study on School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling 

The aim of this study was to investigate the collective action of bullying and its stigma processes and influences on identities. In accordance with interactionism, identity is a social process, constructed and reconstructed in everyday social interactions. Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in four school classes, investigating six bullying cases. Grounded theory methods were used to explore and analyse data. Co-constructing differentness was found to be a core process in bullying. Bullying often appeared to function like a self-serving and socially inclusive ritual in which the bullies co-constructed the ‘normal us’. Loss of belonging, self-deprecation and identity struggling followed closely upon the sense of becoming socially discredited. Victims were trapped in the collective action. The findings highlight the significance of addressing peer cultures and the social psychology of everyday school life in anti-bullying policies and practices. 

For further reading, see: Thornberg, R. (2015). School bullying as a collective action: Stigma processes and identity struggling. Children & Society, 29, 310-320.