The social stigma process of exclusion

With theories of interactionism, the focus on social relations is aimed at the processes which continuously reconstruct and guide social interactions. Norms and differences are made and remade, and people are dynamic beings who go in and out of relationships, associate in fluid and changing ways. Social psychologist Robert Thornberg (2013) has in a paper discussed the social stigma processes which keeps reproducing victimhood in school bullying. Essential to Thornberg (1), “children co-construct and participate in their own peer cultures by creatively appropriating and reconstructing information and norms from the adult world to address their own concerns (Corsaro, 2005; Wyness, 2006).” That is, identity is a social process, continuously renegotiated and readjusted, not a fixed essence. As Thornberg has pointed out elsewhere (2010) victims as often socially rejected and excluded, or considered “contagious” thought the socially construction of them as odd, different, deviant or people who do not “fit in,” and this constructed deviance from the norm is then used to justify bullying. Thornberg relates this to Goffman’s ideas of the production of “stigma” (1963), and uses this core concept for unpacking the consequences of labelling. It is the stigma in turn which makes bystanders turn against the victim, as “a negative reputation of the victim is constructed and spread further within the community. Even those who do not actively participate in bullying do not want to socialise with the victim because of social pressure (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008).”(2)

As bulling is a social process, it is not dependent merely on bullies and victims, but on more collective dynamics within the in-groups, and thus bullying cannot be reduced to “individual characteristics of the bully and the victim, but indicated a group process that created, manifested and maintained normative orders that imposed what was ‘normal’ and not open to question among the peers (cf. Davies, 2011; Horton, 2011).”(4) The differentness of the victim is socially co-constructed and then used to explain and justify bullying as a “natural” consequence of the victim’s choices.

“For example, Anna in Grade 4 was socially represented by her classmates as a fat girl with odd clothes, and bullying was seen by many peers as a ‘natural’ consequence of her fat body and odd clothes or, as Frida in her class put it, ‘I know it sounds a bit cruel, but she actually has herself to blame. She wouldn’t be bullied if she just lost some weight and started to wear normal clothes’.”(4)

Indeed, in Thornberg’s article, the clothes of the victim is often used as an excuse for the bullying;

“Amina: ‘No, because she is making things this way by herself, kind of believing she can rule. Yeah, well she often wears weird clothes.’ Jennifer: ‘Not so fashionable.’ “(5)

As Thornberg posits, in the cases explored “children collectively dehumanised and blamed the victim in an effort to explain and justify their bullying towards the victim.”(6) In the process of creating the social norm of the group, the in-group members “socially compared themselves with the targeting child in a way that confirmed their ‘normality’ as well as their socially included position in the peer group, at the expense of the victim.” (6) For example, one of the in-group members claimed how much better she and her friends were than their victim;

“‘Frida, Johanna and me —we’re popular in the class. We’re kind of good-looking, and we wear brand clothes. Anna is kind of the opposite, and everyone think she’s strange’, a girl in Grade 4.” (6)

Thornberg highlights how the social process makes the victims internalize their victimhood and start identifying with their stigma,

“By name-calling and teasing, and by rumour spreading and creating a bad reputation, the bullies socially constructed the victims as people who were solely represented as and confined to negative labels. Therefore, the peer discourse of bullying created social expectations that trapped the victims in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They became nothing more than their bullying-induced labels for the classmates.” (6)

Not only do the peers withdraw from the victim, due to their stigma and the scare of being “contaminated” by their exclusion and loser-status, but the internalization also limits the victims’ opportunities to socialize with peers, develop social relations and have friends as they have been discredited as deviants. As a peer mentions; “We don’t hang around with her because we have to think about our own reputation (a girl in Grade 4),” and another, “Almost no one in the class would like to be with her… they don’t want others to think that they are like her… She’s a jerk with ugly clothes and that’s why people avoid her (a girl in Grade 5).” (7)

The victims thus gets stuck in a vicious cycle where they on one hand feel normal and like anyone else, but are socially stigmatized as “different” or losers. As Thornberg argues about a victim called Sandra,

“She repeatedly told herself that she was ‘normal’, but at the same time she was preoccupied with self-changing to be ‘normal’. The victims’ identities were not set in stone, but were rather a dynamic process, and in the never-ending work of interpretation, many victims seemed to move back and forth between the two types of identity: (a) the ‘deviant identity’ which refers to a self-image of being different or odd and not fitting in, linked with self-blaming and feelings of worthlessness, and (b) the ‘normal identity’ which refers to a self-image of being like everyone else linked with feelings of being valuable, and just as good as others.” (8)

The victim thus becomes the bullied and comes to identify as the different, rejected loser they have been stigmatized into being. The victim comes to doubt or question the normal (like-anyone-self) self-image to instead assume her bullies’ image of her.

Bur not only that, the borders to the “normal” are strictly surveilled and moved to make sure the victim cannot become one of the in-group. “Even in cases where there was a belief in the possibility of changing oneself, successful self-change was effectively prevented by the social life of the school class.” (9) In the example Thornberg lifts, “Anna changed her clothing to fit in.” But to no avail. “The problem was that the victims already played an involuntary role in an ongoing pattern of collective action.” (9) and the peers were already moving the boundaries of the norm away from the victim. “If victims tried to change something about themselves, it was never good enough (e.g. ‘It doesn’t matter if he wear his new Converse shoes, he’s still a nerd’, a boy in Grade 5). The performance of bullying did not accept having the victims play out of character, but persisted in the collective definition of their differentness.” (9)

In conclusion, the issue Thornberg brings to the table is that the perpetuators of bullying are not the only actors engaged in the act of bullying but it is a social dynamic enacted by bigger peer-groups. Thornberg cites Horton (2011: 274) who argues, “rather than categorising large numbers of school students as deviant, aggressive or evil-minded, it may be more useful to consider the social processes in which they are involved when bullying occurs”. This brings fashion into the stigma process, of who is considered “popular” or “in” versus who will never have the opportunity to become one of the group (and indeed, never “popular”). Not only does clothes and fashion play a role in this dynamic (as the whole group plays along in the definition of what is considered acceptable or not) – and as noted above, clothes act as a perfect canvas on which to project the difference and norm deviance.


Corsaro WA. 2005. The Sociology of Childhood, 2nd edn. Pine Forge Press: Thousand Oaks.

Davies B. 2011. “Bullies as guardians of the moral order: re-thinking the origins of bullying in schools.” Children & Society 25: 278–286.

Goffman E. 1963. Stigma. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Hamarus P, Kaikkonen P. 2008. “School bullying as a creator of pupil pressure.” Educational Research 50: 333–345.

Horton P. 2011. “School bullying and social and moral orders.” Children & Society 25: 268–277.

Thornberg R. 2010. “Schoolchildren’s social representations on bullying causes.” Psychology in the Schools 47: 311–327.

Thornberg, Robert (2013/2015) “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling” Children & Society 29.4: 310-320.

Wyness M. 2006. Childhood and Society: An Introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. Palgrave MacMillan: New York.

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