Profile in Research: Jeff Cohen

Keywords: Gender; Masculinities; Integral Theory; Restorative Justice; Bullying

Jeff Cohen is a professor in the UW Tacoma Social Work and Criminal Justice program. His recent book  Confronting School Bulling: Kids, Culture, and the Making of Social Problem investigates media representations of bullying and the implications for criminalizing this behavior. Drawing upon Integral Theory, his work also more broadly examines masculinity in a variety of contexts.

What aspects of your research are you most passionate about?

Photo of Jeff CohenI’d say that I’m most passionate about uncovering the complexities of the lived experience of people who find themselves in the criminal justice system. Also, I’m interested in understanding how men’s lives and perspectives are shaped by their experiences of gender.

In my research I use Integral Theory, which is a trans-disciplinary model that looks at human phenomenon from multiple perspectives and provides a deeper, more complex view of the situation. We tend to think of things in essentialist terms—you behave in particular way because of sex—but the reality is that we are much more than our biology. Men experience the social construction of gender, for instance.

How has your research into bullying changed your view of news coverage of this issue?

What I see is that adults are often blind to the way that news coverage and analysis reinforce the very problems they want to uncover or address. For example, I saw a show where Dr. Drew was interviewing a young woman who had experienced bullying. He said to her something like, “You’re a beautiful young woman. Why would anyone bully you?” This comment assumes that people who don’t look good would be bullied. Adults often adopt stereotypes as they try to influence things.

Cover Image: Confront School BullyingAlso, I don’t think bullying is something that can be stopped. It’s an unfortunate but natural part of the development of young people. Kids are drawn to conformity, and generally any difference, good or bad, can lead to kids being a target for bullying. The reality is that roles fluctuate, and kids are often friends with those that do the bullying. The problem is that we don’t do enough to acknowledge young people’s own awareness of what’s happening, and when we respond, it makes the situation worse.

I tend to take a restorative rather than a punitive approach. When I speak to young people about bullying, I usually start with the academic definition, but then move to asking whether the definition makes sense. Have they seen examples of bullying? What have they seen? The discussion then moves to the reasons why kids bully or get bullied and what are appropriate ways to respond. What I find is that kids are much more open to this kind of conversation.

How has your work influenced how others see bullying?

I didn’t initially go into my research on bullying to influence policy and practice. Adults are not in a position to make effective change without engaging young people. There’s no way we address this from a top down approach. In many ways, we’re speaking a different language.

There is a relationship between disciplinary policies and the bystander. Adults say we need harsh penalties, but the effect of these policies is that kids are less likely to turn in peers. Kids don’t want to be snitches, which makes it harder to recognize when bullying is happening. By silencing them, we do them a disservice.

The restorative approach, on the other hand, has been proven to work because it engages youth in ways that don’t alienate and shame them. It expands the scope beyond adult ideas of what’s right. These programs are working really well and are having an impact on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Name one work or scholar that has had significant influence on you.

Intellectually, the author that had most effect on me is Ken Wilber, who developed Integral Theory and perhaps described it best in his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul. His work suggests that science and eastern and western approaches to spirituality can and should be integrated. My dissertation was the first to apply Integral Theory in the Criminal Justice field. Many of my works have been applications of his model.

Learn more about Jeff Cohen’s research.

1 thought on “Profile in Research: Jeff Cohen

  1. ezent

    A very interesting and important field of study. I would love to hear what constitutes a restorative approach in greater detail. Does the restoration mean towards the child who has been bullied or towards the bully, or perhaps both?

    Secondly, I wonder, if it is simply a stereotype to think that the bully is often a person who is in a state of emotional pain and that he/she is lashing out due to their inner turmoil?

    I know of a 10 year old mixed-race young man who is currently being bullied at school and I sought to help him make sense of the situation by explaining that he is not singled out due to who he is, but rather that the mean words from the bully are due to the bully’s pain. I then went on to describe the pain as “overflowing” and landing on the next passerby, who in this scenario just so happened to be him. Is this a wrong-headed way to help this child?

    As I think about it more, I realize that my intention was to make him feel less singled out and to keep him safe. Given his young age, and his inability to reason with the bully, I told him in effect to “steer clear” when he sees him. Is there better advice then this that I might provide given that I am not an expert.

    My perspective does not come from any formal education, but rather what I assumed was happening with my one time experience being bullied as a child. I assumed at the time that the bully was a victim of child abuse at the hands of her parent, or that she was somehow from a “bad home”. I realize now that there are likely many, many reasons why someone bullies another and they need help, but my focus at the moment is to help that one being bullied.

    On a separate note, I have looked into cyberbullying as a work place phenomenon. This is all too common and carries with it its own unique set of challenges, especially when it escalates to harassment, violence and litigation. I wonder if your integrated approach to discourse would lap into this field as well. How do we dialog with the workplace bullies? Can insights be drawn that would further enable us to understand the phenomenon?

    Thank you for tackling this important issue Jeff.
    Evy Shankus
    Senior Lecturer
    Milgard School of Business

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