"POWER IMBALANCE" AS A CHARACTERISTIC OF "BULLYING"

Note: If this is the first page you are viewing in the "Definition of Bullying" section of this website, you might also be interested in discussions of the problematic distinction between conflict and bullying, and the role of intent vs. impact, and if you are interested in definitions of bullying under New Jersey law, you might want to read the overview page for the ABR segment or the overview page for the "Definition of Bullying" section.

In the classical or scientific definition of “bullying,” the concept of a “power imbalance” is a central element.  For example, in the “Uniform Definition” of bullying, published in 2014 by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United States Department of Education (US DOE), bullying is defined as:

"...any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.  Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.” (2014:7, emphasis added)

The idea that bullying involves a power imbalance is important in the classical definition of bullying, because it distinguishes bullying from conflict, explains why bullying can be so damaging to a target, and underlies recommendations that strategies like conflict resolution and mediation not be used to address bullying situations. However, it is important that the role of "power imbalance" in bullying is fully understood, to prevent the mis-application of this concept in ways that are contrary to the welfare of students.

This page examines the role of the power imbalance in bullying, and then provides some important clarifications and caveats, and discusses some of the reasons that the concept of "power imbalance" in bullying has come under criticism by scientists and behaviorists.

Why is "Power Imbalance" Important in the Classical Concept of Bullying?

Bullying is a form of victimization, in which the aggressor will tend to choose a target who has less power, because choosing a less powerful target helps ensure that the aggressor will be able to accomplish her/his goals.   This is similar to other forms of victimization, e.g., mugging; a mugger will typically choose someone with less power, e.g., someone smaller, walking alone, less vigilant, or without a gun, because the mugger wants to increase the chances that the mugging will accomplish the mugger’s goals. In school, the bully’s goals might involve gaining attention, securing social status, or relieving their own frustration if they are, in turn, being bullied by someone else.  On the street, the mugger’s goals usually involve acquiring cash or other valuables.  In both cases, regardless of what the aggressor’s goals are, choosing a victim who can be overpowered is an important part of making sure those goals can be accomplished.  Do aggressors ever mistakenly choose victims who are not less powerful than themselves?  Yes, not all aggressors make rationale and informed choices.  For example, a mugger armed with a knife might mistakenly choose a victim who has a concealed gun.  A physically imposing mugger might choose a target with a small stature, only to find out that their intended victim is an accomplished martial artist.  A mugger who is looking for a fix might not be in a frame of mind to make a rationale choice, and might choose a more powerful victim out of desperation.  Does this change the nature of the aggressor’s act?  It might change the outcome of the incident, but the nature of the act remains the same, i.e., to utilize power to victimize someone else. Therefore, not all acts involving an effort to harm someone using a power imbalance actually involve a power imbalance in favor of the aggressor.

When there is a power imbalance in favor of the aggressor, the same power imbalance that facilitates the success of the aggressor also makes it difficult for the victim to resist the attack.  In school, for example, if a student is targeted because s/he has fewer friends or less developed social skills, it is the target’s social isolation and weaker social skills that make it difficult for the student to resist the aggression of the more powerful peer.  On the street, it is the mugging victim’s lack of physical size, isolation, lack of a weapon, or the element of surprise, that makes it difficult for the victim to defy the mugger.

For these reasons, it is also the power imbalance that makes it necessary for an outside authority—school personnel in the case of school bullying, or the police in the case of a mugging—to step in to stop the victimization. 

The victim’s side of the power imbalance, that is, the fact of being less powerful or the feeling of powerlessness, is the heart of the “experience” of being a victim.  It is this aspect of the victim experience that underlies the psychological damage done to the victim, undermining the victim’s own sense of personal integrity and control.  If the aggressor has misjudged and chosen a victim who is powerful enough to resist the aggression, then the intended victim might not suffer the same psychological damage, although the question “why was I chosen?” can still undermine psychological well-being even in a target who was able to successfully resist.  Furthermore, because the damage done to the victim is based on the victim’s experience of powerlessness, a power imbalance that is perceived only by the victim, and is not also perceived by the aggressor or by any observer, can be as real in its consequences for the victim as an “actual” power imbalance would be.

Finally, it is the power imbalance that makes responses like conflict resolution and mediation inappropriate strategies for an authority to use, when stepping in to stop the victimization.  Conflict resolution strategies are designed to address situations in which parties can come together as relative equals to negotiate a resolution or compromise, and in which each party has some concession to make toward that resolution or compromise.  In the case of a situation involving victimization, the imbalance of power falsifies efforts to negotiate, and one party—the victim—has no concessions to make. 

In summary, understanding that bullying is a form of victimization because it involves an imbalance of power, leads us to understand that: a victim cannot be expected to achieve a positive outcome without outside help; an authority is needed to step in to end the victimization; bullying causes psychological damage; and strategies like conflict resolution and mediation are inappropriate responses to bullying.

Clarification of the Role of "Power Imbalance" in Bullying

However, if we look closely at the above arguments, it is also true that:

Criticism of the Use of "Power Imbalance" to Define Bullying

The belief that bullying involves a power dynamic has, itself, come under criticism by some researchers, experts, and educators. 

Stan Davis points out, for example, that "it is quite difficult to define or determine power differentials, since social and physical power takes many different forms and is often expressed in subtle ways. In addition, it is difficult and often unproductive for schools to allow low-status youth to do things that would be considered bullying if high-status youth did them, or to allow students to carry out identical actions toward some of their peers but not toward others." (1)

Andrew Yeager points out that young people are surrounded by power differentials, and are actively engaged in a process of navigating these power differentials. Therefore, the existence of a power differential in a situation is not a useful way to distinguish bullying from any other form of student behavior. (2)

Power Imbalance is Not an Element of the NJ Definition of "Harassment, Intimidation, or Bullying"

The statutory definition of “HIB” in the New Jersey ABR does not include “power imbalance” as a criterion, and this has been a source of confusion for many school personnel in New Jersey.  Because of professional development and state-based guidance in which bullying is defined as hurtful, one-sided behavior involving a power differential, there is a widespread understanding in New Jersey that “power imbalance” is a key definitional criterion of bullying, and there is a lack recognition of the fact that the statutory definition of HIB does not mention “power imbalance.”  It is important for school personnel to be accurately informed that an HIB determination does not require the discovery of a power imbalance.

Although it might seem that the way to reduce confusion would be to bring the statutory definition of HIB into line with the classical definition of bullying, this would involve adding criteria like "power imbalance" and "one-sidedness" to the statutory definition. For a variety of reasons, this type of legislative change would undercut the ability of the ABR to protect students. A discussion of these issues is outside the scope of this website, but interested individuals may contact Spectrum Diversity to request a copy of the working paper "Falling Apples," in which these issues are discussed in detail.

The Proper Use of the Concept of "Power Imbalance" in Efforts to Protect Students from Bullying

If we recognize that the concept of “power imbalance” is an aspect of the dynamics of bullying that can lead us toward effective strategies for addressing bullying, then it is clear that we should not look at a situation and ask “does it involve a power dynamic?” in order to determine whether it is bullying.  Instead, when we see a situation that involves victimization, we should use our understanding that victimization probably involves a power dynamic, to guide our selection of appropriate response strategies.

In other words, "power imbalance" is not a litmus test for bullying. The failure of an adult to perceive a power imbalance in a school incident that involves hurtful behavior directed toward another student does not mean that the incident is not bullying. Hurtful behavior requires an intervention, and students should be protected from such behavior, regardless of whether an observer is able to detect a power imbalance or not.

(1) http://stopbullyingnow.com/information-about-bullying-overview/

(2) Andrew Yeager is author of Building Blocks of HIB, information at: http://cweducation.com/BuildingBlocksofHIB_Author.html