Thursday 18 June 2020

Combine the 'conceptual framework for bullying' with a 'typology of bullying conflict cultures' to contextualise #toxicacademia (and its #cyberbullying)

Written for cyberbullying researchers who may be interested in combining perspectives of academic bullying culture and bullying conflict cultures for framing cyberbullying in higher education.   Estimated reading time = 10 minutes.

In preparing the manuscript 'Distinguishing online academic bullying: new forms of harassment' for journal submission, my father, Professor Tim Noakes, and I drafted four versions. Its first title was 'Identifying and countering online ogres on Twitter'. This change in title evidenced how far we shifted from focusing on hyperactive, microblogging trolls' activities to a broad conceptualisation of online media's use for novel forms of intellectual harassment. The final manuscript describes diverse examples that academics directed against an influential scientific leader. Based on such distinctive forms of cyber harassment, we defined online academic bullying (OAB) as an emergent threat to academic free speech, scholarship and the academe itself. OAB is a drawn-out situation in which scholars experience harassment by other academics via online media (Noakes & Noakes, forthcoming).

In drafting earlier versions of the manuscript we prepared a lengthy contextualisation of how academic bullying and mobbing in toxic higher education workplaces sets the stage for OAB. In the first place, we believe that if the intellectual harassment of scholars by fellow employees at their shared academic institution employer is unlikely to take place if culturally unacceptable and strongly sanctioned. By contrast, at employers where academic bullying is tolerated, cyber harassment might seem acceptable and perhaps even desirable in extreme cases.

Robust debates in a bully-free academic workplace
In an overview of empirical research into academic bullying, Professor Loraleigh Keashly describes why the higher education (HE) workplace is unusual in providing an environment in which bullying may be encouraged and rewarded (2019). She flags that researchers must address the unique HE context, since its expectations and norms for faculty conduct can be very different. Whether in the norms for other employees at the same institution, as well as for other work contexts and industry. HE norms are critical for what gets identified and experienced as bullying- for example, academic culture emphasises knowledge production by scholars. They compete for status by pointing out the flaws and holes in each others arguments (Sternberg, 2015). The rules that support such agonistic aggression are quite different from the rules by which other workers in the university, and outside, are expected to abide (Christy, 2010. Fratzl & McKay, 2013). As the context of academic debate already begins in an environment of skepticism, the challenge for researchers in incivility and cyberbullying is to differentiate between positive (pro-social) and negative (anti-social) instances. The former may be a robustly critical process that supports scientific debate, while the latter can constitute abuse online speech in deference to, and in defence of, an established paradigm. 

We believe that the grave social, ethical and material ramifications of such online hostility between scholars and others in HE have been overlooked or underplayed. As a result, victims of OAB are unlikely to receive sympathetic institutional support in combating this abusive activity. Creating a sympathetic, healthy workplace in which bullying activities are not tolerated seems very difficult. It requires a combination of measures that are resource-intensive {see Table 1- compiled from the recommendations of Tracy, Alberts and Rivera (2007) and Twale and de Luca (2008)}:

 Table 1. Measures against (anti-)intellectual bullying in higher education
 1Robust faculty policies against intellectual harassment e.g. anti-social (low value) discourse
 2Staff and student education on handling aggressive disagreements in varied forums & formats
 3Education for staff and students on what intellectual harassment is and how to report it
 4An independent, third-party reporting line for intellectual harassment and academic free speech
 5Regular reporting on academic bullying (in addition to other forms of harassment)
 6Negative, visible outcomes for academic bullies and mobs led by their academic institutional employer(s)

{N.B. Even where such measures are in place, academic bullying and mobbing is likely to continue, as both are rooted in underlying human nature (Harper, 2013)}

In-depth literature reviews on academic bullying in HE (Henning, Zhou, Adams, Moir, Hobson, Hallet & Webster, 2017. Keashly, 2019) suggest that academic bullying is widespread. This may suggest that the application of such measures in many university workplaces is inadequate at best, non-existent at worst. For South African universities, supporting steps one to six for reducing academic bullying, mobbing and cyber harassment may indeed seem a "soft issue" versus the hard challenges they confront. These include: decolonisation (Heleta, 2016); expanded access for under-resourced students and better supporting them (Leibowitz and Bozalek, 2014); neo-liberal demands to find new sources of funding to address decreased state support (Swartz, Ivancheva, Czerniewicz & Morris, 2018) and shifting to digital pedagogy in response to COVID19. 

Nevertheless, The Noakes Foundation (TNF) argues that addressing academic mobbing in HE is a hard issue that also requires prioritisation and resourcing. TNF's directors and staff all believe that combatting intellectual harassment is important for scholars' free enquiry and speech. This in turn supports scientific truth and effective research innovations that can better support public health. TNF supports 'Academic Free Speech and Digital Voices' as a key research theme. The Online Academic Bullying research project  project would not have been possible without TNF’s support, since funding for non-commercial social media data analysis seems practically non-existent in South Africa. 

In the OAB research project's first stage, we conceptualise OAB and academic cybermobs. Next, we plan to use grant applications and/or donations to explore the different approaches that insulin resistance experts follow in communicating state-of-the-art news via Twitter and Facebook’s contrasting affordances and ecologies. We will describe their informal academic debates, illegitimate ones and these experts' varied negotiations of cyber harassment. Our research participants will ideally be from very different contexts (national, disciplinary and institutional), but will all have been described as being formal targets of intellectual mobbing.

Precursors to toxic academic workplaces and cultures
To situate academic bullying, mobbing and OAB, we combined understandings from the ‘conceptual framework for bullying’ (CFB) (Twale & de Luca, 2008) and an organisation’s type of 'bullying conflicting culture’ (BCC) (Desrayaud, Dickson, & Webb, 2019). After describing the precedents to a toxic, bullying academic workplace using CFB, we then framed how the type of BCC contributed to the style of cyber harassment in the OAB space. We suggest that academic cyberbullying researchers should consider combining CFB and DCC perspectives for describing antecedents to academic (cyber)bullying:

Explaining precursors with a conceptual framework for bullying
In a toxic HE workplace, different forms of bullying all emerge from pre-existing circumstances, structures and processes whose academic cultures favour bullying (Twale & de Luca, 2008). Denise Salin’s ‘conceptual framework for bullying’ (2003) was expanded for addressing incivility in institutes of higher learning by Twale and de Luca (2008). CFB contains three elements (see Figure 1); motivating structures and processes (i), precipitating circumstances and enabling structures (ii) and processes (iii). Motivating structures and processes are the incentives and positive reinforcements that encourage incivility, bullying and mobbing behaviour in the workplace. The triggering processes for workplace bullying are precipitating circumstances. Bullying is allowed to continue by enabling structures and processes. 

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework of Bullying by Twale and de Luca (2008), based on Salin (2003)

Figure 1. Conceptual Framework of Bullying by Twale and de Luca (2008), based on Salin (2003)

Academic bullying takes place in institutions in which each of these three elements are present and in which bullying behaviours are permitted or rewarded (Twale & De Luca, 2008).

Defining types of conflict culture
In addition to how CFB elements (i-iii) act as antecedents, researchers must also consider how an organisation's type of workplace conflict culture (Desrayaud et al., 2019) shapes bullying. At academic institutes, the type of bullying that can take place is strongly shaped by the influence of different styles of conflict culture that occur. Organisations with certain conflict cultures are more likely to tolerate and encourage workplace bullying than others (p.90):

The organisational theory of BCC proposes that conflict culture is ‘an organisation’s norms, expectations, and shared understandings about how conflict should be initiated, managed, resolved, and interpreted’ (pp.86). The typology of conflict cultures involves two conflict management dimensions: active-passive and agreeable-disagreeable (Gelfand, Leslie, & Keller, 2008) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Typology of Workplace Conflict Cultures and Likelihood of Bullying Behaviours in Desrayaud et al. (2019). Figure based on Gelfland et al. (2008).

Figure 2. Typology of Workplace Conflict Cultures and Likelihood of Bullying Behaviours in Desrayaud et al. (2019). Figure based on Gelfland et al. (2008).  

According to this schema, there are four types of conflict cultures; ‘collaborative-’, ‘avoidant-’, ‘dominating-’ and ‘passive-aggressive’(Gelfand, Leslie and Keller, 2008). A 'collaborative conflict culture' exhibits active and agreeable conflict norms (Desrayaud et al., 2018, p.88). Organisations with this culture expect members to collaborate or integrate while managing conflict. As organisational structures and staff do not actively support a bullying culture, bullying behaviours are unlikely.

An 'avoidant conflict culture' is passive and members are expected to keep most conflicts to themselves or use highly structured and indirect methods to express disagreement (p.88). Valuing harmony and cohesiveness, avoidant conflict cultures make bullying less likely as overt tactics are not supported by organisational structures or colleagues.

A 'passive-aggressive conflict culture' is passive and disagreeable (p.89). Competition occurs, but norms strictly regulate how to communicate that competition.  This culture does not value harmony nor cohesiveness; its individuals are also expected to express disagreement via highly structured and indirect methods, but bullying here is subtle and well-hidden. For example, predatory bullying (Einarsen, 1999) and subtle mobbing is more likely to occur in this BCC than in the other types.

A 'dominating conflict culture' actively encourages discourse about incompatible goals and ideas, but DCC does not acknowledge the validity of opposing views. In a toxic DCC workplace, dissent is ignored and support for dissenters is withheld. Explicit bullying is seen as an acceptable response to intellectual differences and overt mobbing is also condoned.

Does combining CFB and BCC provide a rich framework for situating academic bullying?
We trust that other cyberbullying researchers will also find combining CFB and BCC perspectives to be helpful for their understanding. We welcome feedback and critique in the comments below or you are welcome to contact me directly.

Christy, S. (2010). Working with faculty (1st ed.). Berkeley, CA: University Resources Press.
Desrayaud, N., Dickson, F. C., & Webb, L. M. (2018). The theory of bullying conflict cultures: Developing a new explanation for workplace bullying. In R. West, & C. S. Beck (Eds.), The routledge handbook of communication and bullying (1st ed., pp. 81-92). New York, NY: Routledge.
Einarsen, S. (1999). The nature and causes of bullying at work. International Journal of Manpower, 20(1/2), 16-27.
Fratzl, J., & McKay, R. (2012). Professional staff in academia: Academic culture and the role of aggression. In J. Lester (Ed.), Workplace bullying in higher education (1st ed., pp. 60-73). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Gelfand, M. J., Leslie, L. M., & Keller, K. M. (2008). On the etiology of conflict cultures. Research in Organizational Behavior, 28(n/a), 137-166.
Harper, J. (2016). Mobbed!: What to do when they really are out to get you (1st ed.). Tacoma, WS: Backdoor Press.
Heleta, S. (2016). Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and eurocentrism in south africa. Transformation in Higher Education, 1(1), 1-8.
Henning, M. A., Zhou, C., Adams, P., Moir, F., Hobson, J., Hallett, C., et al. (2017). Workplace harassment among staff in higher education: A systematic review. Asia Pacific Education Review, 18(4), 521-539. doi:10.1007/s12564-017-9499-0
Keashly, L. (2019). Workplace bullying, mobbing and
harassment in academe: Faculty
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Noakes, T., & Noakes, T. (Forthcoming). Distinguishing online academic bullying: New forms of harassment.
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Salin, D. (2003). Ways of explaining workplace bullying: A review of enabling, motivating and precipitating structures and processes in the work environment. Human Relations, 56(10), 1213-1232.
Sternberg, R. (2015). Coping with verbal abuse. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from
Swartz, R., Ivancheva, M., Czerniewicz, L., & Morris, N. P. (2019). Between a rock and a hard place: Dilemmas regarding the purpose of public universities in south africa. Higher Education, 77(4), 567-583. doi:10.1007/s10734-018-0291-9
Tracy, S. J., Alberts, J. K., & Rivera, K. D. (2007). How to bust the office bully. eight tactics for explaining workplace abuse to decision-makers. Tucson, AR: Arizona State University.
Twale, D. J., & De Luca, B. M. (2008). Faculty incivility: The rise of the academic bully culture and what to do about it (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

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