Integrating Biological Measures into the Study of Bullying

Article excerpt

The past decade has seen dramatic changes in the amount and type of attention given to youthful activities such as bullying and harassment, which were once referred to primarily as child's play. The concern is international in scope (Smith et al., 1999), with published research on amounts and types of bullying coming from numerous countries (Carney, Hazler, & Higgins, 2002). This increased interest has encouraged a plethora of major programs and publications on the topic, whereas these were virtually nonexistent prior to 1990 (Hoover & Hazler, 1990).

Current conceptualizations of peer abuse issues are based on psychological and sociological theory as well as on a decade of research with youth, whereas prior to 1990 they were primarily based on what might be termed "general adult consensus." This growth is a sign of major advancements, but full answers to most questions about the development of these problems, their impact, interventions, and prevention tactics continue to elude researchers and practitioners. Seeking the most complete answers to these questions will require researchers to begin expanding their efforts beyond exclusively psychological, behavioral, and social models. The search must be for approaches that are more holistic and that integrate information from the biological processes that are known to both influence and be influenced by these problems (Granger & Kivlighan, 2003).

We build the case for the development and use of these new models by first briefly summarizing the types of current research-based findings about bullying, the primary models used in those studies, and the tentative steps by researchers on bullying to explore the more physiological aspects of the problem. The much more aggressive steps into sociobiological connections taken by developmental researchers are next presented to demonstrate researchers' use of recent advances in minimally intrusive ways to collect biological data and to highlight the potential value of these techniques for research and practice on bullying. The concluding sections of this article are designed to stir the creative thinking of researchers and practitioners. These sections offer sample ideas about how the integration of biological measures into both research questions and intervention/prevention techniques could move the study of bullying forward in significant ways.

* Knowledge Base From Current Research Models

Overall research done on peer abuse has emphasized the behaviors of bullies, victims, and bystanders (e.g., Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; Espelage, Bosworth, & Simon, 2000); characteristics of individual dispositions such as anxiousness, shyness, or aggression (e.g., Bierman, 2004; Coie & Dodge, 1998; Cowie & Berdondini, 2002; Hazler & Carney, 2000); situational context of the environment at home, school, or community (e.g., Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; Rodkin & Hodges, 2003); maturational differences primarily related to age (e.g., Smith, Madsen, & Moody, 1999); and social or interpersonal skills (e.g., Bierman, 2004; Hazler & Denham, 2002; Sutton, Smith, & Swettenham, 1999). A few of these characteristics have been the focus of considerable research (Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Furlong, Morrison, & Greif, 2003) that has demonstrated some level of effectiveness.

One area in which worldwide experts have reached considerable agreement is on specific traits that are related to being a victim and bully (Hazier, Carney, Green, Powell, & Jolly, 1997). Bullies, for example, are viewed as inappropriately perceiving hostile intent in the actions of others, reacting quicker to anger than do others, using force sooner than others, being obsessive about holding to rigid beliefs, viewing image as the way to power, and using aggressive actions to protect their image. They are seen as controlling others through verbal threats and physical actions, tend to have little empathy for the problems of the victim, are poor role models for problem solving with others, and have more problems at home when discipline is inconsistent. …