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Workplace Mobbing
in Academe

K. Westhues homepage

Of related scholarly interest:
An earlier posting of this lecture included a sidebar directing readers to the work of Hiram Caton, a politics professor at Griffith University in Brisbane. At that time, Caton was maintaining a website on crowds with much information on the conditions under which individuals coalesce in uncustomarily cohesive temporary aggregations. I valued Caton's work also for its seamless interweaving of biological (natural) and distinctly human (cultural) factors for explaining human behaviour. Alas, Caton died in 2010, and the work I found so valuable appears to have disappeared form the internet.



Mobbing, a Natural Fact

Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo

Adapted and revised from "Mobbing am akademischen Arbeitsplatz," a lecture given in the Society for Sociology at the University of Graz, Austria, on 23 January 2007. The very helpful feedback of those in attendance at the lecture is gratefully acknowledged.

The best starting point for a research program on workplace mobbing is recognition that the phenomenon is rooted in impulses we share with many other species. Ganging up to attack a target is not only learned, cultural behavior. Nor is it only an act of human will. It is indeed a matter of culture and of ethics, but more basically, a matter of nature or biology. Mobbing is best understood as the coming to the surface, the expression in distinctly human ways, of instincts we are born with, tendencies to which we are genetically, physically inclined.

Mobbing among birds and mammals

Here, from a 2004 report in the Wilson Bulletin by field biologist Erik M. Andersen, is an example of mobbing among crows:

“I heard a commotion in the forest…. A flock of about 15 Northwestern crows were making loud and continual vocalizations….

“Initially, I thought the flock was mobbing a predator, and I approached the group to investigate; at a distance of approximately 20 m, however, I saw that the flock was mobbing another Northwestern crow perched on a branch about 3 m off the ground. I witnessed several crows swoop at the victim before one aggressor made hard physical contact and the two birds tumbled to the ground. From my position I watched as different members of the flock took turns swooping down to where the victim had fallen. Each aggressor stayed on the ground for only 2-3 sec before flying back to the perch and being replaced by another aggressor. …

“My view of activities on the ground was obscured by the undergrowth, so after approximately 3 min of observing the mobbing, I approached the scene for a closer look. As I neared the victim, the aggressors retreated to adjacent perches, but continued their raucous calling. The victim was splayed on its back with wings spread and feet in the air. The crow was breathing heavily and following my movements with its eyes…. Other than lost feathers, the only visible injury was a large laceration on the right leg. …

“I returned to my original point of observation and the attacking group promptly resumed the mobbing. After 20 min, the activity began to decline substantially, and after another 10 min I approached the victim again. The crow was dead and the body cavity was empty. Because no tissue was found around the carcass, it seemed evident that the attacking crows consumed the victim on the ground during the attack or carried parts of the victim away from the scene.”

This intraspecific mobbing of a crow is just one example of the process in nature. Among students of bird behavior, mobbing is a standard subject of inquiry. Many marine animals like dolphins and porpoise gang up in response to threats: most often a predator of a different species (a shark, for example), but sometimes a conspecific. In a study of mobbing among monk seals, males were observed to gang rape and kill targeted females, to the point of threatening species survival. Click here for a video of chimpanzees ganging up to kill a young target of their own species.

Mobbing among humans

Mobbing among birds and mammals should not be seen as a metaphor for what happens among us humans. It should instead be recognized as the same thing, the same bursting forth of two instincts at once: the instinct to join with others in an unusually cohesive group, and the instinct to destroy a target. The difference is that we humans are capable of more varied and complex mobbing techniques than crows, seals, and chimpanzees are: besides physical attack (which we also use, of course, as in lynchings), we can also employ concerted verbal put-downs and symbolic, non-violent rituals of humiliation, that may even kill the target physically, by driving him or her to suicide, or to "natural" death from stress-induced cardiovascular disease.

Many of the words used in the literature on mobbing among humans point to the natural, biological origin of the process. Something about the target is said to unleash the collective aggression of workmates — in a manner similar to the unleashing of a pack of beagles to hunt hares. Participants in the aggression commonly display a herd mentality, allowing no dissent. Targets often feel stalked, as if by animal predators, or trampled by stampeding enemies. Especially in studies of mobbing among teenagers, the attackers are said to swarm the target — like bees. They peck the target, aiming to hound him or her out of their company.

The subject matter of research on workplace mobbing is thus the cultural expression of a natural fact. Like scientists in any field, we name and explain an empirically identifiable phenomenon. Our primary goal is to understand it. This means in addition that moralizing is of lower priority. It is plain to me, for example, that most human mobbings are unreasonable, untruthful, unnecessary, harmful, wrong. But not all. On September 11, 2001, passengers on the hijacked airliner, United Flight 93, learned by telephone of the terrorist plan in which they had been caught. A number of those passengers ganged up, acted on their instincts to attack and destroy collectively. “Let’s roll,” were the memorable last words heard from them before the plane crashed in an open field. As a scholar and scientist, I say without hesitation that this was a mobbing. Those passengers mobbed the hijackers. As a man, I applaud what they did.

But the mobbings I study in universities occur in circumstances much less desperate and are not so easily excused.

Our debt to Konrad Lorenz

It is worth noting that the word mobbing came into general use not from research on workplaces or any other human setting, but from Konrad Lorenz's studies of the behavior of birds. Even in the 1930s, Lorenz was analyzing how birds often behave as cronies when involved in conflict. In 1963, in his classic book on aggression, he described how crows sometimes get together and "put a hate on" an owl, cat, or other nocturnal predator when they encounter it in daylight. Not finding a German word that captured precisely the phenomenon he wanted to conceptualize, he chose the English word mobbing. (See Endnote)

In 1994, I learned the word mobbing from research on human workplaces done by Heinz Leymann in the 1980s. Leymann had gotten the word from Lorenz, but this fact did not initially catch my interest. I seized on the word mobbing as Leymann used it simply because it fit the data in front of me, brought into focus the blur of craziness surrounding the elimination of half a dozen professors in my home university. I pondered Leymann's findings and weighed them against the data of mobbings at Waterloo, and then the additional cases that came to my attention at other universities. Over and over, I formulated and revised hypotheses. I published the initial book, Eliminating Professors, in 1998. This led to information on still more cases, as well as connections with colleagues doing similar work like Brian Martin at Wollongong in New South Wales, and Noa Zanolli, then at Iowa, now in Switzerland.

Only after researching human mobbing for ten years did I begin to study Lorenz's foundational research on nonhuman species, and the largely hostile response to it from sociologists and anthropologists in North America. For months there rested side by side on a shelf in my study Lorenz’s masterwork, On Aggression (1966), and Ashley Montagu’s collection of papers condemning it, titled Man and Aggression (1968 and 1973).

My comparison of those books reinforced and crystallized in my mind a fundamental principle for research in social science, applicable to the study not just of workplace mobbing but of all human social phenomena.

Lorenz was a scientist. He wanted to understand aggression in our species. Toward that end, he began by recognizing the twin sources of human behaviour. First the material, biological qualities we share with other animals in the struggle to survive: the instincts for food, sex, protection of the young, also a herd instinct, an impulse to gang up, and an impulse to destroy what threatens us. And second the cultural, history-making, reality-constructing capabilities that set us apart from other animals: our ability to repress, heighten, channel, and manipulate our instincts for purposes we set for ourselves. In Lorenz’s view, a science of human social life involves understanding how the instinctive and the culturally acquired patterns of human behavior intersect.

Whatever the assessment of one or another of Lorenz’s specific hypotheses, who could disagree with his basic dialectical approach, his starting point in the connection between instinctive and learned behaviour?

Ashley Montagu disagreed, and for a highly unscientific reason. His argument was that if we admit an instinctual foundation for human behaviour, this fact will be used to justify violence. War will be considered a biological necessity, and this will thwart efforts to achieve peace among human societies. The priority of Montagu and his colleagues was thus not on science, not on facing up to evidence and creating theories to account for it, but on social improvement, on building a better world. They made their science subservient to their laudable cultural goals.

Montagu’s rejection of instincts is absolute. There is in fact, he says, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “instinctive behaviour of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive forces of human behaviour. The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.” (1973, p. 11)

One wonders, did Montagu never notice that humans’ wondrously diverse cultural habits about cuisine and dining all are rooted in the natural fact that we get hungry, that we want and need to eat? Could he not see that the varied forms of marriage and family in human societies all have something to do with biological sexual desire? Did Montagu never watch mothers in any society care for babies? Did it not occur to him that not just culture but nature has something to do with the fierceness of mothers’ attachment and love? If Montagu had been more aware of his own instincts, he might have observed that something about Lorenz’s book aroused in him aggressive impulses that found expression in statements a serious scientist finds laughable.

Lorenz was no fatalist. He was horrified by the many destructive results of human aggression and he wanted to prevent them. He called them a disease. But Lorenz believed in science. He believed that in the long run, facing and explaining facts helps efforts at social improvement succeed. “To achieve insight into the origins of a disease,” he wrote, “is by no means the same as to discover an effective therapy, but it is certainly one of the necessary conditions for this.” (On Aggression,1966, p. xi)

As between Lorenz’s view and Montagu’s, I believe it is Montagu’s that has dominated sociology and public discourse in general over the past forty years, at least in North America. A great falsehood underlies much social science in my homeland. It has been inflicted on successive generations of students and destroyed much of their common sense. The falsehood is that man (to quote Montagu) is “entirely dependent upon learning from the man-made part of the environment, culture, for his development as a functioning human being.” This is the hugely pernicious doctrine of the “blank slate” that Steven Pinker has lately criticized in his book of that title, but that continues to permeate our universities. This doctrine opens the way to a radical relativism that gives the same value to one thing as to anything else, since, after all, it’s only a matter of cultural preference.

What Difference Does It Make?

In any field of human concern, the kind of knowledge most useful for social improvement is the kind that squares most closely with the facts, the empirical reality. In the case of workplace mobbing, this means knowledge that recognizes both its natural and its cultural aspects.

Natural does not mean inevitable. Mobbing can no more be justified by saying, "We simply acted on our instincts to join forces against a person we found threatening," any more than infidelity or rape can be justified by saying, "I simply acted on my sex drive toward a person who turned me on." Civilization is defined by the imposition of cultural discipline on natural impulses. "Doing what comes naturally" without regard for rules of human design amounts to moral decay, barbarity, the loss of what generations of humans have achieved over thousands of years.

The rootedness of mobbing in natural instincts implies, however, that it cannot easily be legislated out of existence, as if it were a more purely cultural phenomenon. A university senate can decide to shift from numerical to letter grades, or vice versa, and be confident that the change will soon be reflected on students' transcripts. The senate cannot, on the other hand, decide that no professor will henceforth be mobbed, or that all faculty will henceforth be nice to one another, and be confident of the implementation of its decision. Like betrayal of love, mobbing cannot simply be outlawed. Social improvement in matters like these requires a more skilled, careful, and complex strategy.

In my paper on the Waterloo strategy for prevention of mobbing in universities (the concluding chapter of my Remedy and Prevention... book), I list ten practical measures suggested by my own and others' research in this field. Let me not repeat them here. I want only to emphasize that they are all founded on recognition that mobbing is no mere cultural artifact, but a cultural overlay on a natural fact.

Indeed, since Western civilization places high value on personal dignity, independence of mind, respect for dissent, due process of law, and so on, workplace mobbing is often best understood as the eruption of elemental impulses, "gut feelings' as we say, in the face of cultural norms requiring those impulses or feelings to be kept in check. Mobbers spend a lot of time rationalizing their behavior to themselves, in effect fooling themselves, in order to justify what the outside observer can see is an affront to the civilization they belong to.

Endnote. I am grateful to Noa Zanolli for sharing with me her 1998 correspondence with Lorenz's collaborator, Bernhard Hassenstein, on Lorenz's use of the word mobbing. This correspondence led me to discover that in her 1966 translation of the original German edition of Lorenz's masterwork, Das Sogennante Böse (in English, On Aggression), Marjorie Kerr Wilson omitted the few sentences in which Lorenz explained why he chose the word mobbing. In the original German text, Lorenz recalled the term used in old German hunting language for collective attack by birds: hassen auf, which means "to hate after" or "to put a hate on." Lorenz preferred the English word mobbing, which emphasizes the collective aspect of the attack. Hassen auf emphasizes the depth of antipathy with which the attack is made. This is an important connotation that the English word lacks, since mobbing is sometimes used, at least in English, to describe the friendly milling of a crowd around a celebrity.