The study of school bullying has become an international endeavour over the last 20 years (Jimerson et al. 2010). As part of the increasing research activity, it has become apparent that there are differences in the prevalence and nature of school bullying, or bullying-like phenomena, in different countries (Migliaccio and Raskauskas 2015; Smith et al. 2016a). This is clear from data available from large-scale surveys of many countries, which use the same methodology in each country. Five such surveys have collected large amounts of data from many countries, on various topics but including self-report data for being a victim of bullying. These are (1) Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, (2) EU Kids Online (EUKO), (3) Global School Health Survey (GSHS), (4) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and (5) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). All these surveys report substantial country variation in rates of being a victim of bullying and for HBSC, rates of bullying others.
These surveys provide the possibility of making cross-national comparisons and statistically relating these to country-level variables. However, the cross-country agreement between these five surveys is rather limited (Smith et al. 2016; Smith and López-Castro 2017). This suggests that where possible, agreement across several survey sources would be more convincing for correlates of cross-national differences.
Explanations for cross-national differences can be sought in a number of areas (Smith et al. 2018). A model coming from the EU Kids Online project (Livingstone et al. 2011) suggested five country factors of importance: cultural values (e.g. individualism vs. collectivism, power distance), education system (e.g. levels by age, grade retention, class groupings, school and class size, structure of school day, break times, and supervision); technological infrastructure (e.g. penetration of mobile phones, smart phones, and Internet); regulatory framework (e.g. school policies, legal aspects, anti-bullying initiatives); and socioeconomic stratification (e.g., income, inequality, health, crime).
The first of these, cultural values, has been one area of considerable research, some on bullying and some more generally on aggression. Most of this research has used the framework initially provided by Hofstede (1980). In this article, we examine his individualism-collectivism dimension in relation to aspects of victimisation in school.
Hofstede (Hofstede 1980; Hofstede et al. 2010) developed a theory of cultural values as a means of explaining many behavioural differences found between countries. Although originally put forward in 1980 (Hofstede 1980), six subsequent cross-national studies have been carried out between 1990 and 2002. In the latest version, there are six dimensions: power/distance (PDI), individualism/collectivism (IDV), masculinity/femininity (MAS), uncertainty/avoidance (UAI), long-term/short-term orientation (LTO), and indulgence/restraint (IVR). By far, the most research in the area of bullying and victimisation has been on the individualism-collectivism dimension, IDV (sometimes referred to as I/C). Individualism refers to societies with loose ties, where individuals are expected to look after themselves and immediate family, whereas in collectivism, people are integrated from birth onward into strong cohesive in-groups which protect them in exchange for loyalty to the group. Western countries generally score high on IDV, the highest including the USA, Australia, Great Britain, and Canada; many Asian and South American countries score low on IDV (high on collectivism), for example, Guatemala, Ecuador, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
Theoretical Aspects and Prior Research
IDV and the Prevalence of Victimisation
Hofstede et al. (2010) list one characteristic of collectivist societies as being that ‘harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontations avoided’ (p. 113). Several theorists have therefore suggested that individualism could be expected to relate to higher levels of aggression than collectivism. Bergeron and Schneider (2005) argued that ‘Members of individualistic cultures may be more likely to use aggression because this may facilitate the achievement of their individual goals. The use of aggression in cultures in which individuals conceive of themselves as embedded in the group may be less likely, because such behaviour would decrease harmony in the group and would not be of benefit to the collectivity’ (op cit., p. 120). Bergeron and Schneider (2005) examined 36 studies that compared countries on prevalence of aggression, and related this to the four Hofstede dimensions available at the time: IDV, PDI, UAI, and MAS. Altogether, 23 countries were entered into comparisons, but most studies just compared two countries. Although UAI and PDI yielded stronger associations, higher IDV was significantly associated with higher rates of aggression.
A similar view concerning IDV was expressed by Ji et al. (2016), who wrote that ‘Within a collectivistic culture with tight social norms … maintaining social harmony and positive interpersonal relationships is emphasized. As a result, behaviors that threaten the well-being of others and the group, such as aggression, are strictly forbidden, and during socialization children are taught to control their frustration, anger and impulsive and defiant behaviors from the early years …’ (op cit., p. 171). In support of this, they found higher rates of bullying in England (individualist) than in Mainland China (collectivist).
However, a different finding was hinted at by Migliaccio and Raskauskas (2015), who gave a table of international comparisons of 28 countries, based on HBSC survey data from 2002. No formal statistics were calculated, but they commented that ‘collectivist countries included were among the highest rates of bullying’ (op cit., p. 34).
In fact, HBSC data is available at 4 yearly intervals from 1994, providing six time periods up to 2014, and for 3 age groups (11, 13, and 15 years). Although the predominant hypothesis from theoretical considerations is for higher victimisation in high IDV societies, our first aim was to examine this systematically with HBSC data at different time periods and ages. We did not hypothesise different findings at different time periods; although cultural values do change, this process is thought to be relatively slow—‘Value system changes require generations’ (Hofstede et al. 2010, p. 456). Also, given very high consistency of country differences in victimisation rates by age, previously found in HBSC surveys (Smith et al. 2016), we did not hypothesise differences in correlations of IDV with victimisation, across countries, by age. Nevertheless, we considered these worth examining. We could also use more limited data from the other four surveys (EUKO, GSHS, TIMSS, PISA) as cross-validation of findings from HSBC.
IDV and the Proportion of Relational Victimisation
Three different predictions have been made about IDV and types of victimisation and in particular for the likelihood of relational victimisation. This term includes both direct social exclusion (not letting someone play with you) and indirect forms (such as spreading lies or nasty rumours or persuading others not to be friends with you).
Smith et al. (2016b) argued that ‘collectivism would imply less conflict within the ingroup; however if there is conflict, then shaming and social exclusion would be powerful weapons to hurt someone or make them conform. A more collectivistic culture implies a greater possibility of concerted whole-group (e.g. whole-class) norms emerging, which could at times be aggressive – thus the possibility of severe whole-class aggression and shunning of a victim. Thus, higher collectivism scores might predict lower bullying scores, but more emphasis on social exclusion when bullying occurs’ (op cit., p. 409).
This prediction is for relatively less social exclusion types of victimisation in high IDV countries. A similar hypothesis was termed a ‘differential reinforcement hypothesis’ by Forbes et al. (2009), namely that in collectivist societies, the inhibition of direct aggression would lead to relatively more indirect aggression. They contrasted this with what they called a ‘parallel forms hypothesis’, namely that both kinds of aggression are treated the same—so there is no relation to IDV. They compared rates of direct (physical and verbal) and indirect (spreading rumours, social exclusion) aggression in the USA (a high IDV society), Poland (moderate IDV society), and China (least IDV society). As predicted for overall prevalence, rates of aggression were highest in the USA, intermediate in Poland, and lowest in China. However, this was true for both direct and indirect aggressions, giving support to the parallel forms hypothesis and not the differential reinforcement hypothesis. Similarly, a study within China by Li et al. (2010), considering endorsement of collectivism by Chinese adolescents, linked this to less use of both overt (direct) and relational (mainly indirect) aggressions.
Lansford et al. (2012) used data from the Parenting Across Cultures project to compared rates of physical and relational aggression in nine countries. Although the IDV dimension was not addressed, a statistical analysis that we carried out on their data for the 7 countries with Hofstede IDV scores available gave a correlation across countries of 0.42 for prevalence of physical aggression and − 0.12 for relational aggression, both non-significant, but lending modest support to the differential reinforcement hypothesis.
A more ambitious cross-national study by Bergmuller (2013) compared 62 countries, using TIMSS 2007 data (grades 4 and 8) for head teacher reports of physical and verbal aggression in schools and student reports of physical and verbal aggression and social exclusion. Bergmuller found that head teacher reports for both physical and verbal aggressions were higher in more IDV societies. However, this did not hold true for student reports of physical, verbal, or relational (social exclusion) aggression; none of these were significantly related to IDV scores, although trends were for slightly higher physical and verbal victimisation in collectivist countries.
A third hypothesis was proposed by Pfundmair et al. (2015), namely that persons in individualistic societies might be more affected by social exclusion, precisely because they experience it at an individual level; they argued that in collectivistic societies, ‘the individual self, separate from others, is not a core aspect of self-integrity, and is therefore less guarded by highly sensitive reactions to individual social exclusion’ (p. 593). In support of their argument, studies that they carried out with undergraduates and young adults showed that those from Turkey, China, and India (more collectivist countries) were less affected by social exclusion than those from Germany (more individualist country). However, we know that social exclusion is particularly salient for adolescents (Sebastian et al. 2010), so an investigation on that age group would be most relevant for considering the evidence regarding school bullying.
In sum, there are three contrasting predictions regarding the relative weighting of relational victimisation (as a fraction of total victimisation) in relation to country IDV scores. The ‘differential reinforcement hypothesis’ predicts a negative correlation with IDV scores, the ‘parallel forms hypothesis’ suggests a near-zero correlation, and the hypothesis from Pfundmair et al. (2015) predicts a positive correlation with country IDV. Although HBSC do not provide data by types of victimisation, relevant data is available from GSHS, TIMSS, and PISA, to test these different predictions.
IDV and Ratio of Bullies to Victims
Another prediction discussed by Smith et al. (2016b) was that ‘a greater ratio of bullies to victims, found in South Korea and Japan as compared to western countries, could be explained in terms of collectivism’ (p. 411). Here bully:victim ratio refers to the prevalence of bullying others divided by the prevalence of being bullied. This prediction emerged from research in South Korea (Koo et al. 2008), where the predominant form of bullying, called wang-ta, showed a bully:victim ratio of 1.76. Similarly in Japan (Morita et al. 1999), ijime had a bully:victim ratio of 1.33. This compared with ratios of less than one in many western countries. However, contrary to this hypothesis, ratios were also less than one in China and Hong Kong, despite these being more collectivist than in Japan (though less so than in South Korea).
HBSC publish data on rates of bullying others, as well as rates of being bullied. It is therefore possible to test systematically the prediction that bully:victim ratio will correlate negatively with IDV (i.e. the ratio will be higher in collectivist societies).
More evidence is needed for testing these three sets of hypotheses regarding IDV scores and victimisation, in different countries. Many studies have just compared one or a few countries. The studies by Bergmuller (2013) and Migliaccio and Raskauskas (2015) covered many countries, but only used one survey source (TIMSS and HBSC, respectively) and only at one time point. Given that there are five survey sources available, it is appropriate to use all the available surveys, especially as cross-survey agreement on country differences in bullying is quite modest (Smith et al. 2016). Where possible, consistent findings from different surveys would provide stronger validation of any findings.
Our aims were therefore to test the following:
The prediction that countries high in IDV would have more victimisation, consistent across time periods and ages; here, we used HBSC data. More limited data was available from EUKO, GSHS, TIMSS, and PISA, to check for cross-survey consistency.
Whether countries high in IDV would have relatively less relational victimisation as a proportion of total victimisation, or relatively more, or whether the relationship would be small and non-significant (the three existing hypotheses reviewed above). This could be tested with items from GSHS, TIMSS, and PISA.
Whether countries high in IDV would have a lower ratio of bullies to victims, as suggested by Smith et al. (2016b). Here again, we used HBSC data and calculated the ratio of bully-to-victim prevalence scores by country. These scores were available for six time periods and three ages, but we did not have any prior predictions for any variation by time period or age, for this ratio.