There are two ways to define a social problem. The subjectivist outlook looks at social problems as topics of concern. A social problem is thus based on people’s subjective sense that something is or isn’t a problem in response to a current social condition (Best 2013). The objectivist outlook looks at social problems as harmful conditions. From this perspective, a social problem is a social condition or pattern of behavior that has negative consequences for individuals, our social world, or our physical world. Regardless of whichever way you define a problem, all problems have one thing in common: claimsmaking. Claimsmaking is a process where someone brings the topic to the attention of others by making a claim that there is a condition that should be recognized as troubling and should be addressed. That “someone” is claimsmaker, an individual who makes a claim that there is a social problem, with certain characteristics, causes, and solutions (Best 2013). While claimsmakers can take on any form such as mothers, activists, victims, and more, but perhaps the most persuasive type of claimsmaker is the expert. Experts are particularly persuasive claimsmakers because of the medicalization of social problems and the public belief that experts have some sort of superior knowledge as exemplified by the role played by pediatric radiologists in the redefinition of child abuse as a social problem.
Experts can come from a wide variety of fields and have considerable influence in the claimsmaking process because of the increasing reliance on medicalization and scientific experts as well as the belief that experts are more educated about a given problem than a “regular” person. An expert may take many forms: physicians, scientists, lawyers, officials, etc (Best 2013). Regardless of the type of expert, people respect their opinions because they are “thought to have special knowledge that qualifies them to interpret social problems” (Best 2013). This undefined special knowledge thus renders the average person useless in solving a problem under this frame of thought. Going beyond the general support of experts as claimsmakers, medical experts specifically are gaining importance. A medical expert who is used to weigh in on a variety of topics such as crime, mental and physical health, and the role of the brain and biology in relationship to people’s questionable actions. They are asked to comment on cases that, in the past, would never have been looked at as having any relation to medicine or health, such as alcoholism. This is due in large part to medicalization, the process of defining troubling conditions as medical problems (Best 2013). When something becomes medicalized, it frames a social problem or troubling condition as something that only medical personnel are equipped to solve, contributing to the idea that they have some special insight into an issue and that they have the right to “own” that problem. This, combined with the required education of many experts such as medical or law school, renders experts and undeniable heavyweight in the battle within social problems to establish a leader and an overarching position towards a topic. One of the strongest real-world examples of how influential an expert opinion can be in guiding the course of a social problem is that of pediatric radiologists and child abuse in the mid-1960s.
Pediatric radiologists defined the social problem of child abuse by medicalizing the act of child beating. As the author of The ‘Discovery’ of Child Abuse, Stephen Pfohl, notes, child beating has existed for centuries but it wasn’t until 1962 that all fifty states passed laws against the abuse of children (Pfohl 1977). How did this happen? To say that this arose simply out of the medicalization of child beating would be a gross overstatement. Even when it was legal, child beating was considered unlawful if it resulted in permanent injury (Pfohl 1977). This indicates that, even at it’s worst, society still placed limits on corporal punishment. Beyond that, there were three reform movements beginning in the nineteenth century that led to the current definition of child abuse as a social problem. The “house of refuge” movement sought to relocate troubled American youth in the hopes of “saving” them and society from their future tainted selves. This movement, alongside the social reform brought on by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also advanced the topic of child abuse being a social problem. However, the “house of refuge” movement was more about preventative penology than ending abuse and the NYSPCC movement did not recognize biological parents as abusers. Even the creation of the juvenile court system, the third reform, did not cause the redefinition of child-beating as a problem. However, all of this did create a growing amount of concern for the well-being of American youth. With this context, the redefinition occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when pediatric radiologists stopped looking at unexplained bone fractures and other injuries in children as internal medical problems but instead and instead as socially caused medical issues. The possible logic for this sudden shift is that doctors suddenly realized that abuse from biological parents was a possibility and that the child, not the parent, was the real patient in the hospital. While these were likely to have influenced the choice of radiologists to define child beating as a social problem, but the motivations that drive other types of experts was likely the true reason. Not only is The ‘Discovery’ of Child Abuse a good example of the power of experts and medicalization, it also provides a lesson in what experts have to gain from becoming a claimsmaker.
Pediatric radiologists defined the social problem of child abuse to gain notoriety, power, and the ability to own the social problem. Prior to the “discovery” of this problem, radiology was a small, ignored, and unappreciated sect of the field of organized medicine (Pfohl 1977). By saying that this was a social problem causing distinct medical harm, they radiologists could gain standing in a number of ways. First, they would become crucial to the process of identifying abuse as they are the only one’s who can read and interpret the x-rays. Society would then depend on them. In addition to that, other prestigious, but still somewhat marginalized, occupations in the field, such as pediatrics, would come to rely on them as well when making diagnoses. It would also encourage the smaller sects of the field to support each other because, while they didn’t hold a lot of clout in the field on their own, when they supported each other, all of the medical field was forced to pay attention. By becoming to go-to person or authority on child abuse, pediatric radiologists would then control the direction the social problem of child abuse would take as history went on. Like any experts, pediatric radiologists wanted to be both in charge and important, something they could do once they created and owned a social problem. Thus, in 1962, “Battered-Child Syndrome” was born (Pfohl 1977).
Experts are persuasive claimsmakers partially because we think they are somehow smarter and because they work hard to make themselves persuasive to advance personal gain. This is not unique to the pediatric radiologists mentioned above. An expert who gets “ahead” of a problem and can both define and control it becomes important to their society. Experts want to feel important, so they will work hard to make it so that their specific claim about a viewpoint will become the dominant one. So, while “discovering” a social problem may help some sector of society, that is not the goal of experts. Therefore, by becoming an expert on a problem, they achieve this major gain for themselves.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. This is an expression that both the reader and the author of the book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon, are very familiar with. (Bazelon 8). This expression, which likely inspired the title of Bazelon’s piece, is one told to children when they are inevitably faced with bullying. Bazelon notes this omnipresence of bullying in all children’s lives early on in the piece when discussing the issue’s history by stating, “bullying was an inexorable part of life, a force of nature, and the best thing to do was to shrug it off” (Bazelon 8). This issue, however common it was, just like drug or child abuse, was not deemed a social problem until 1999 when the infamous Columbine High School shooting occurred in Colorado. From the subjectivist standpoint, a social problem is a response to social conditions that is based on people’s subjective sense that something is or is not a problem. The objectivist standpoint claims that social problems are social conditions or patterns of behavior that have negative consequences for individuals, our social world, or our physical world (Best 2013). Regardless of the standpoint one takes, bullying has come to be considered an American social problem and is discussed in many forms of media such as print, news, and even film. One such film is a 2011 documentary entitled Bully which chronicles the lives and families of victims of bullying. Both Bazelon’s and the documentary’s perspectives on what bullying is seems to be the same, however, they differ in their beliefs on who is to blame for the problem and its consequences, namely “bullycide”.
Emily Bazelon gives clear definitions and examples of both bullying and bullies that are supported by what we see in Bully. Bazelon credits Norwegian psychology researcher Dr. Olweus for her definition of bullying. In her eyes, in order to constitute bullying, the actions of the individual(s) perpetrating it must meet the following criteria: be verbal or physical aggression, be repeated over time, and involve a power differential (Bazelon 28). Under this strict definition, a “onetime episode of meanness or violence” could not be considered bullying even if it was bad in the moment or traumatic. Bully seems to adhere to this definition as well. The director selected children or families of children who were marginalized in terms of race or sexual orientation or were picked on by either large groups or larger individuals, thus creating a power differential in terms of status, size, or number, both verbally and/or physically over time. While she doesn’t differentiate between types of victims, although it could be argued that the negative effects make all parties a victim of bullying (Bazelon 11), Bazelon does outline five different types of bullies which are also seen in the film Bully: the traditional bully, clueless bully, popular bully/mean girl, bully-victim, and facebook thug (Bazelon 31-4). The film depicts all of these types of bullies, but also interestingly shows how the victims it follows also take on the role of bully, exemplifying Bazelon’s claim that “…bullying is supposed to be clear-cut. …. [but] much of the time, when you dig into the facts and the context, stories of bullying become more complicated” (Bazelon 14). One such child from the documentary who typifies this intricate web of bullying is Alex Libby. In a one-on-one interview, Libby states, “They push me so hard that…that I wanna become the bully” (Bully 2011). This, should Libby act on his desires, would put him into the victim-bully category Bazelon outlines where the previous victim of bullying becomes the aggressor themselves. Later on in the film, Libby is heard asking another student “Why do you wear your hair like that”, in a way that is seemingly perceived poorly by his peer unbeknownst to Libby, which could qualify him in the “clueless” bully category. So, based on the depictions of bullying and bullies present within Bully, it seems as if the documentary supports Bazelon’s perspective on what bullying is. However, all social problems evolve and, with the advent of technology, so did the social problem of bullying.
Bazelon claims that cyberbullying has changed the face of bullying in a way that makes it more dangerous and present in the lives of children. As stated earlier, bullying came to be seen as a social problem post-Columbine massacre of 1999. The awareness of this problem has only increased since then, partially because of the fact that internet and technology have become mainstays in the average American’s life. Bazelon states that “bullying is pressing in on us partly because the rise of the Internet forced us to see it up close, in printouts or screen shots or video clips, and partly because of the stubborn nature of the problem, across cultures and centuries” (Bazelon 298). It is important to note that Bazelon did not offer up a new set of criteria for the “cyberbullying” enabled by the advancement of modern technology and the “Facebook thug”, means that bullying has not changed, just shifted platforms. However, while the criteria have not changed, the outcomes seem to have worsened. She explains, “with the constant connectivity of cell phones and laptops, bullying started to feel omnipresent, inescapable. Coming home from school was no longer a refuge from torment: you could always check Facebook or Twitter to see what other kids were saying about you, and a bully could find you on IM if he missed you that day in the hall. The barbs and jeers and ganging up never stopped“ (Bazelon 9). Unfortunately, this is just one of the ways Bazelon claims bullying has changed as a result of the growth of social media and the Internet. In addition to the inescapability of bullying, not just across cultures but in day to day life now, cyberbullying has changed the nature of bullying in that bullies are now removed from seeing the negative emotional responses of victims, the audience of bullying increased and that the physical proof of bullying remains on the internet forever (Bazelon 40-2). The documentary does not showcase cyberbullying so much as tales of physical in-person verbal abuse, but considering that the definition of cyberbullying seems to be the same as the definition of traditional bullying and that the film supported Bazelon’s definition of that traditional bullying, it can be safe to assume that the producers support this framework as well. Where the film and the book seem to diverge, however, is over the issue of who should take the blame for these kinds of bullying.
Emily Bazelon in her Sticks and Stones piece and the documentary Bully diverge in ideology on the role of bullying in adolescent suicide and the amount of responsibility that should be placed on school districts for controlling bullying. As stated before, the question here is not “What is bullying?” Both sides seem to agree on that. The question is whose fault is it when these bad things occur, whether it be bullying or the severe extreme of suicide, because the people have this need to explain an unexplainable event. Bully tends to focus heavily on the ineptitude of school districts in handling bullying. Many scenes of non-major documentary participants are shown where faculty and staff fail to protect a child from bullying or end the cycle. Two of its featured children, Alex Libby and Kelby Johnson, also seem to highlight the failure of the school. In Libby’s case, the school board fails to protect him on the school bus after multiple complaints and Johnson is disparaged by teachers in front of her peers. Interestingly, the film doesn’t focus on the parents of the bullies, just the school boards as if to present them as the sole reason for the continuance of this problem within these districts. Bazelon, who does admit that schools have some responsibility, warns against assuming schools have the complete power to end this ongoing social problem. She states, “asking schools to address bullying mean[s] asking them to take on a problem that [is]n’t entirely of their own making…we also have to remember that schools can’t solve the problem of bullying by themselves. It’s neither fair nor wise for us, as parents, to demand this of them” (Bazelon 201, 304). Bully seems to scapegoat schools as the reason for the continuation of bullying and bullies themselves as the reason for suicide in teens who happen to have suffered from bullying, another point Bazelon disagrees upon. While there is a correlation between suicide and children who are bullied, this does not mean that bullying causes suicide. “Bullycide” as it is now called, is a poor term because it oversimplifies the issue. Bazelon quotes Madelyn Gould, a psychologist from Columbia University, who said that the term implies that one person’s death by suicide can be attributed to one event or another which is just not true….With adults, we don’t pick one problem–divorce, financial ruin–and say that’s why someone attempted or completed a suicide. We don’t say divorcecide. So why should we do that with a child’s life–pick one fact and think it explains the whole?” (Bazelon 186-7)
Overall, it seems that there is little disagreement over what the social problem of bullying is. The disagreement arises from who is to blame, who has the power to stop it, and what happens when a person is bullied. These differences are clearly displayed by Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy and Bully, both of which are clear about what bullying looks like and that it is objectively harmful. In that way, the documentary supports Bazelon’s perspective on the definition of the social problem, but it counteracts Bazelon’s holistic approach to looking at the causes and results of this negative situation. It is possible that over time these ideas will converge or one group will shift sides, but that is expected because the nature of a social problem is that it is debatable with different claimsmakers arguing for the right to say that their narrative of the issue is the correct one. Bullying, however unique it has become during the rise of technology, is no different.
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