From Structural Violence to Structural Silence: Anthropology and Workplace Mobbing

By Janice Harper
Public Scholar

Anthropologists have long been in the forefront of studying – and commenting on – how groups organize themselves and confer meanings and identities on group members. We market ourselves as analysts of organizational cultures, who can help leadership understand the informal power networks and differing communication styles that contribute to organizational conflict. In matters of group behavior, we proudly take the lead in the scholarship, teaching and advocacy of social justice from micro-levels to macro. We approach violence among groups in terms of continuums, where dehumanizing and excluding members, and depriving members of strategic economic resources, due process and procedural fairness, are regarded as forms of structural violence that must – and can – be controlled if we are to live in a more humane world.

And we have churned out endless books and journal articles analyzing the collective aggression of witchcraft accusations, social shunning and exclusion, deviation, collective memory and rumor. How many among us have stumbled into fieldwork only to discover certain “research subjects” are regarded as witches, others as social deviants, leading us to deep reflection on who is vulnerable to such stigma, and how and why exclusion of these members is practiced in our contemporary world?

Given these areas of expertise, it is fair to say that no other discipline may be better suited to addressing group aggression in the cultural institutions in which we live and work each day, which is to say, how we organize ourselves to engage in various forms of bullying and mobbing.

Bullying is a form of interpersonal aggression that tends to be presented as an aggressive act committed by a single person. But as anthropologists well know, aggression is contagious, and reflects – just as it produces – specific power relations. A focus on bullying tends to vilify “the bully” as a pathological deviant to be expelled from the group. Other approaches more consistent with anthropological theories, however, move beyond the focus on the individual aggressor. These approaches examine the manner in which group aggression is sparked and accelerates in the context of specific organizational cultures, where power tends to be concentrated, authoritarian, secretive, and precarious.

This latter approach focuses more on “mobbing,” the collective aggression aimed at an individual or small group of individuals to disempower, damage and expel the individual from the group. A “bully” is represented as a social deviant to be collectively purged, while “the mob” is better understood as composed of otherwise normal people who become increasingly aggressive, emotional, and fueled by rumor and fears to purge an individual they have stopped seeing as “like them” and hence, a threat which must be eliminated from the group—the very stuff of anthropology.

The media are currently saturated with discussions of bullying in the workplace and schools, legislation related to bullying in the workplace is at an all time high, and schools and workplaces throughout the nation are beginning to adopt internal policies pertaining to bullying – almost always skewed toward the dehumanized and deviant “bully” and rarely addressing the aggression of organized groups. Yet our discipline has been virtually silent on the topic – while scholars and practitioners from psychology, business administration, management, and education have leapt on it. Why our silence, when anthropologists are not only so well suited to the study of interpersonal aggression, but also have an important, and significant, contribution to make in terms of how groups organize and function, as well as the organizational cultures that might foster, or control, group aggression?

Mobs can form quickly such as after a celebration like the Baile de los Negritos in Panajachel, Guatemala during Corpus Christi.

There is no evidence that anthropologists are any more, nor less, likely to engage in mobbing behavior, in comparison to any other group. Yet in comparison to the contributions of other academic disciplines, there appears to be a virtual “conspiracy of silence” on the topic coming from anthropology, suggesting a prevailing discomfort with the topic. Could this discomfort be due to our proclivity to study “others” outside the U.S. and in indigenous societies? Not likely, considering the rich and extent domestic research our membership reflects, where we have not hesitated to tackle other educational and workplace reforms.

Could it be that the nature of the organizational culture of anthropology itself has positioned us to be more hesitant than members of other disciplines to speak out on certain topics that might have repercussions for our own careers? Clearly, people will hesitate to put their own careers at risk in any discipline. But is it possible that our discipline has constructed an organizational culture of its own in which opportunities for status and survival are especially limited and our perceptions of risk thereby heightened in comparison to other disciplines? I don’t know the answer, but perhaps for all our talk of the multitude of professional opportunities for anthropologists outside the academy, we have not succeeded in providing the certifications and clinical opportunities these other disciplines provide graduates. With fewer career alternatives, anthropology graduates may find it more difficult to find steady employment both within and outside the academy.

Applied anthropologists have contributed excellent insights and outcomes to a wide range of issues outside the academy, but we still struggle to make our discipline meaningful to the greater public. The truth is, despite all our hard work, the academy remains the hallmark of prestige in our profession, and peer-reviewed journals are arguably considered a higher measure of one’s professional success than all other forms of publication no matter how few people might read or be influenced by our journals.

With status so limited, and power so disproportionately allocated within our discipline, it is small wonder that anthropologists might be among the most protective of our institutions of power, and of our image as paragons of social justice, and hence, more reluctant to engage in dialogue on something as close to home as bullying or mobbing. Perhaps we might better understand anthropology’s silence by asking some troubling, and deeply personal, questions of ourselves.

As we teach and write on principles of social justice, do we practice – or might we readily abandon – these principles in our own working lives? Do we extend the same commitment to human dignity and “cultural relativity” among those “others” who differ within our own departments and institutions as we do to those beyond them? The very tension among our sub-disciplinary divides, and even between applied and theoretical approaches, suggests that bringing these concepts back home has been a challenge.

If anthropologists who write about structural violence, group aggression, deviance and social justice have been slow to take up the topic of bullying and mobbing in our writing, have our professional behaviors been more responsive to the calls for less bullying in the workplace? I doubt that anthropologists are any less likely than other disciplines to purge our own colleagues when they challenge institutional power or express differing viewpoints.

And are we as quick to rally in support of other anthropologists who have been unjustly treated – and economically ruined – by abusive workplace policies, as we are to support indigenous people who have been unjustly treated by development policies? In other words, to what extent do we extend our macro-analysis to the real micro, our own organizational cultures and economies? To the extent we fall silent on social injustice in our own cultural realms, our moral foundation to speak of social injustice elsewhere is all the more shaky.

I don’t know the many answers to these questions, but I do know that asking them is discomforting and answering them complex. Individually, anthropologists have indeed spoken up in defense of their colleagues who have been persecuted unjustly in our profession, and I am personally indebted to a multitude of colleagues for such support. But collectively, anthropologists, like all people, are prone to the same social hysterias, exclusions, and rumor-mongering which fuels witch burnings, religious persecutions, stoning, and even genocide. While the impacts of these acts of collective aggression may differ profoundly, the social processes by which these abuses develop are the same. Leadership identifies someone to be eliminated, they are dehumanized with labels and cast as threats, and the community engages in the very gossip and shunning of the target that make it possible for leadership to destroy the targeted person. My own experience as a target of this collective aggression at the University of Tennessee is far from isolated; nearly every reader of this article can point to a case where someone was marked as different, crossed someone in power, was treated unfairly, had their reputations smeared and social identities revised, and found themselves excluded by the very people who are otherwise committed to social justice and compassion elsewhere.

There are two possible roads we can as individuals, and as a group, take toward more humane professional worlds. The first is to become engaged in the scholarship, advocacy, and policy-making dialogues about institutional “bullying” and “mobbing” that are taking place throughout U.S. and Canada. We can educate organizations and the media about how collective aggression is ignited and spreads, how institutions can be organized to foster or control these abuses, and how peace-building can commence in our institutions of work and education.

The second road is to take a look at our own workplaces and professional worlds to consider the multitude of ways each of us engages in gossip, exclusion, selective memory, professional disparagement, presumptions of guilt before innocence, and purging and damaging those with whom we work and study. We can begin by not repeating gossip when we hear it, and not being so quick to believe it the more alarming or entertaining it may be. We can extend invitations to speak to those colleagues we know are being targeted by their institutions, providing professional opportunities and recognition to those who are or have been under attack. We can send anonymous communications of support to colleagues in our institutions whom we fear to publicly support, but know are being treated unjustly. We can decline assisting administrators in eliminating talented, productive colleagues even if we do not like them or can benefit materially if we assist in such aggression. We can become less determined to inflict punishment, and display our power, on those subordinates who have annoyed us. We can strive to be more collaborative than competitive. And we can extend a form of “workplace asylum” to those who have been politically purged from their institutions by extending invitations to apply for positions, and giving serious consideration to those applications that are made by targeted workers, when job opportunities arise. We can stop hovering on “the safe side” and start challenging ourselves to become more compassionate toward those we work with, and to those who have been professionally targeted for attack.

The discipline of anthropology has a long history of amazing resilience, brilliant insight, and fascinating discovery for which all our members ought to be proud. Yet our discipline has an equally unsavory history of helping to promote racial inequalities, human rights abuses, espionage against our own research subjects, and cut-throat betrayals during the McCarthy era. Let us not continue justifying more shameful acts by sacrificing our own members for the sake of workplace politics.

Before writing another word on social justice or human rights, let each of us reflect on how we violate these principles in our working lives, dehumanize those we work with through labels and gossip, and ostracize those who speak out, or call out, for peace and justice in our discipline and in our workplaces. In the name of human rights, far too many inhumane rites are played out every day in our departments, institutions, and the broader disciplinary culture in which we network and negotiate for status and power. Let us take the lead in the dialogue on bullying and mobbing by becoming more compassionate toward those “others” alongside us. For as we stand today, ours is a discipline as quick to cast stones and demonize our colleagues as any other, but far more silent on why and how it happens when it does.

About the Author: Janice Harper is an independent scholar who has taught and published on medical and environmental anthropology, organizational cultures, and warfare and human rights. She was conducting research on depleted uranium when colleagues and administrators of the University of Tennessee falsely accused her of capital crimes, leading to a Homeland Security investigation which thoroughly exonerated her of any wrong-doing. The University of Tennessee recently reached a settlement with Dr. Harper for their conduct arising from gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. She is currently writing a book, Murder of Crows: From Bullying to Bloodlust in the Workplace. She can be reached through her website at

One Response to From Structural Violence to Structural Silence: Anthropology and Workplace Mobbing

  1. Hamilton Mencher says:

    AS atarter in understanding and AVOIDING the accumulation of stresses which,unrelieved and unresolved,lead to conflict,usually characterized by aggressive actions. I have always been guided by the Principles which Alexander Leighton outlined in hisClassic The Governing of Men(Princeton University Press,1945.
    In cross cultural situations during 30 years of work in the Amazon Basin they have never failed.
    Ham Mencher,Lima Peru.

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