Three Forms of Ridicule

Shelley links to a study about ridicule in schools. The complete study requires a subscription (if you’re a student or faculty member at any university, you probably have one), but Shelley has a long quote about it, and I’m summarizing it here. The idea is that there are three forms of ridicule: ostracism, hazing, and admonishment. The study has a summary table of the three:

Ostracism Hazing Admonishment
Primary message You don’t belong, because … You can belong, if … Act like you belong!
Relational roles Bully vs. victim. Teaser flexes individual and group muscle at the expense of lower status others. Mentor vs. apprentice. Teaser assumes leadership role and teaches target how to gain membership. Police vs. delinquent. Teaser polices group members and detains and embarrasses those who violate norms.
Status differential Large, enduring gap between teasers and targets. Many factors may contribute to this gap. Moderate, but decreasing knowledge gap within the group. Target is a novice who must learn the ropes. Small, momentary commitment gap within the group. The target is caught out of uniform.
Emotional response Emotions depend on acceptance goals and the locus of blame for not meeting them. Targets are embarrassed by the negative attention. Ambivalence. Targets appreciate the humor but are embarrassed by the norm violation.
Behavioral reaction Both conformity and resistance were observed depending on targets’ acceptance goals. Conformity behaviors were often observed. The few who defended unpopular choices did not repeat them. Targets conformed when possible but defended their choices or withstood criticism when necessary.

Attire seems to be one of the primary forms of ridicule. People whose clothes don’t conform to the teasing group’s standards will be teased.

This research contributes to knowledge of symbolic consumption (Belk 1988; Solomon 1983) by exploring a mechanism through which adolescents construct, negotiate, and disseminate interpretations of objects and the people who possess them. I find that adolescents apply cultural categories and principles to make sense and make fun of consumption practices that violate salient norms. For instance, they joke about the constraints imposed on peers whose conservative attire suggests extreme parental influence over their choices, and they belittle these sheltered peers as babies or momma’s boys. Cultural categories (e.g., momma’s boy) are a result of efforts to segment the world into discrete parcels, whereas cultural principles (e.g., conservative and dependent) are the organizing ideas by which the segmentation is performed (McCracken 1986). Teasers selectively consider other inputs like personal characteristics, past behavior, social attachments, and other possessions when choosing which function of ridicule to use and which cultural categories and principles to apply.


Another implication of the observed self-symbolizing tendencies involves the use of school uniform policies. A policy of mandatory school uniforms may reduce the psychological and social pressures for children to wear expensive brands and the financial burdens on parents who buy them. If uniforms are only optional, they might eventually become stigma symbols, especially if the option to buy them is exercised only by strict parents and low-income families. Of course, other factors should be considered when designing and implementing school uniform policies (Crockett and Wallendorf 1998).

The study’s empirical backing is fairly shaky. It only looks at 43 people (of whom 27 are black, 35 are male, and 43 are American), and asks them to talk about teasing experiences from many years ago. It only looks at subjects older than 18, on the grounds that younger people will be less likely to share experiences with adult interviewers. But when 18-year-olds recount teasing from when they were 6 or even 13, they’re likely to forget or misrepresent. I certainly don’t remember all ridicule experiences I had in 8th grade, let alone in 1st grade.

The demographic skew is just as problematic. It’s likely that ridicule works differently for girls from for boys – for example, stereotypically I’d expect girls to have substantially more appearance-based ridicule and boys to have substantially more sports-based ridicule.

What is more, the paper’s suggestion that school uniforms will ameliorate the problem would almost certainly be stricken out if the researcher, David Wooten, looked at countries that have already implemented school uniforms. The stereotype of the English boarding school as a hornet’s nest of bullying and hazing may not be true, but it’s well-established enough that it deserves looking at.

What ridicule does is reinforce in-group boundedness, or the established hierarchy. If a group can segregate itself from the other groups with race, it will use race; if it can use clothes, it will use clothes; if it can use accent, it will use accent; if it can use personality, it will use personality. School uniforms can eliminate the effect of attire, but they can’t make people groom themselves equally well, smell equally pleasantly, or dress identically outside school, let alone have identical interests, or behave identically.

2 Responses to Three Forms of Ridicule

  1. […] Speaking of the Liberal Debutante, I see that her fantasy boyfriend has posted a dismantling of a recent study on school bullying. He’s especially critical of the conclusion that the problem can be ameliorated by requiring school uniforms. Having taught at a school that required uniforms, I can say for certain that the uniforms do nothing to stop bullying. […]

  2. I really like your blog.. very nice colors & theme.

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