Testing Bullying Behavior against Reintegrative Shaming Theory


Prevalence of Bullying in Academic Settings

Reintegrative Shaming Theory (RST) was developed by Australian criminologist John Braithwaite to explain the shame processes used to address human errors, especially in criminal punishment, in light of the differing outcomes when shaming processes are implemented, with an emphasis on reintegration or stigmatization (1989). It is through this lens of RST that Pontzer, in recent years, examined the connection between parenting styles, personality, and the bully/victim relationship (2010). He notes the widespread presence of the phenomenon of bullying from middle school through university, highlighting research that shows 13.4% of university students admit to bullying behavior once or twice throughout university (Chapell et al., 2004) and between 5-8% of students between middle and high school reporting victimization or bullying within the last 6 months (U.S. National Household Surveys, 1993, 1999, 2001).


Origins of Bullying/Victimization

The pervasive nature of bullying has prompted researchers to uncover the lasting psychological and behavioral consequences of the experience, both for bullies and their victims. Those who are bullied may eventually suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and increased stress. Conversely, Pontzer (2010) notes a myriad of research highlighting the link of the origin of bullying behavior to parenting styles that are harsh, neglectful, absent, and/or rejecting. Interestingly, Pontzer (2010) notes the connection between parenting and the tendency to bully. Victimization has not been studied to the same degree; however, a study by McNamara and McNamara (1997) suggests parents of victimized children may have experienced bullying themselves and consequently and unknowingly perpetuated the cycle through over-protective parenting.


Dealing with Shame

Shame is an important emotion to examine in the discourse on bullying. It is defined as an emotion experienced upon the realization that an individual’s ethical identity has been violated or threatened by that individual’s own actions (Braithwaite and Braithwaite, 2001). RST focuses on three specific tendencies for dealing with shame: 1) the tendency to acknowledge shame; 2) the tendency to displace shame; 3) the tendency to internalize shame. Each tendency represents a differing psychological coping mechanism adopted by an individual to manage the painful consequences of the experience of shame. Shame acknowledgement is the ideal management strategy; it requires an acceptance of a behavior as outside of one’s character and an endeavor to repair the damage. Shame displacement involves shifting blame from oneself to others, and shame internalization is a position of ruminating on one’s own wrongdoings and a fixation on the rejection of others.


Reintegrating and Stigmatization

Pontzer (2009) relates RST directly to parenting by highlighting two terms: Reintegrative parenting and parental stigmatization. Reintegrative parenting requires awareness of a child’s behavior and wrongdoings as well as taking opportunities to explain to a child why certain behaviors are wrong and that all may be forgiven if proper amends are made. Pontzer (2009) takes care to note that children should be consistently reminded throughout this process of their worth and acceptance by the parent. In contrast, parental stigmatization refers to parenting that is abusive. Pontzer (2009) highlights the dangers of parental stigmatization, noting that parenting that is rejecting can cause a child to imitate hostile behaviors and severely limit their capacity to experience empathy toward others.


Assessing Parenting and the Bully/Victim Relationship

Pontzer (2010), in an attempt to better understand the connection between parenting and the bully/victim relationship, conducted a study among university students in Pennsylvania.  Participants were administered written questionnaires, including the revised Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire (Olweus, 2001), the Management of Shame State-Shame Acknowledgement and Shame Displacement (MOSS-SASD) (Ahmed, 2001), the Self Esteem Inventory (RSE) (Rosenberg, 1979), Scale of Emotional Empathy (Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972), and Children and Families Scale (McDevitt et al., 1991).


Empathy Training as Possible Treatment

The results of Pontzer’s study (2010) indicate the pervasive presence of bullying at the university level. Fifty-seven percent of individuals who reported bullying over the past couple of months also reported higher degrees of bullying throughout childhood. Further, there was a positive relationship demonstrated between being a bully and parental stigmatization and subsequent patterns of shame displacement. These findings indicate that anger and aggression might represent attempts to avoid the experience of shame. Based on this knowledge, empathy training is indicated as possibly having a great impact on bullies in treatment settings. Interestingly, participants identified as recent victims of bullying in a university setting also reported frequent victimization throughout childhood. These participants had a strong association with the variable of shame internalization and parental stigmatization, and they harbored feelings of low self-esteem, alienation, and self-blame.





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Pontzer, D. (November 2009). A Test of Reintegrative Shaming Theory as an Explanation of Bullying Among University Students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p379567_index.html


Pontzer, D. (2010). A theoretical test of bullying behavior: Parenting, personality, and the bully/victim relationship. Journal of Family Violence, 25, 259-273.


Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the self. New York: Basic Books Inc.




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