Photo by Yoko via flickr.com

Photo by Yoko via flickr.com

A recent study on school bullying offers more than just a look into the Mean Girls-style warfare taking place between high school cliques. It highlights the difficulty of social mobility and the risks that come with disrupting the status quo.

With data from over 8,000 North Carolina high school students, Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee created “a social map” of 19 North Carolina schools, documenting cases of bullying. They found that girls are victimized more often than boys, and most instances of school violence are due to a student’s perceived weakness, appearance, or sexual orientation.

Sociologists understand schools to be a space where social norms are learned and reinforced, and bullying is often a way to assert status and punish non-conformity. However, Faris and Felmlee’s research also shows that students use violence to organize and maintain social hierarchies. The study found that when students from the lower “rungs” began to move up the social ladder, their chances of being bullied increased by 25 percent.

“As kids get closer [to the top],” Faris says, “they become more involved in social combat.”

But the “luxury” of hierarchies, Faris claims, is that once students reach the top, they no longer engage in violence. With nowhere left to climb, the top 4 percent have no incentive to bully other students and their elite status protects them from being bullied.

Films tend to reduce bullying to a cliquey “nerds v. jocks” fact of adolescence, but Faris and Felmlee show that school violence doesn’t just affect unpopular students, it affects anyone who might disrupt the balance of power.