A Sample Selection from Kenneth Westhues et al., The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education: Two Case Studies, Lewiston: NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. The selection is drawn from Westhues's response to the chapter by Anson Shupe, "When the Bastards Grind You Under," wherein Shupe raises questions about the term mobbing relative to other useful terms like "social movement" or "ganging up."


Now finally to Shupe’s reservations about my use of the word mobbing to describe incursions on a professor’s job and reputation of the kind observed in the Richardson case and similar ones. Shupe argues that such administrative elimination of professors is too rational and deliberate to qualify exactly as mob behavior. He would sooner call it a social movement or a kind of “ganging up.”

No label is perfect. A rose is a rose. In the late nineteenth century, the British philosopher Ferdinand Schiller proposed to William James that the kind of philosophy the two of them, along with John Dewey, C. S. Pierce, Henri Bergson, and others, were doing should be called humanism rather than pragmatism. James agreed, but it was too late. The latter name had already caught on. These philosophers have been called pragmatists ever since.

I have no objection to applying the term ganging up to the cases of social elimination analyzed in this and my other books. I use the phrase myself. The term social movement also fits. But Shupe is correct: the main label I have used in my research is workplace mobbing. One reason is that this term has already caught on in Europe, as a result of Heinz Leymann’s and others’ research. The substantive reason is that the word mobbing, as used long before Leymann’s application of it to events in the workplace, encompasses four key attributes of what I have seen on a micro-level in the cases I have studied:

1. Mobbing implies surrender of individuality to the collective. In the formation of a mob (crowd is a synonym), the plurality of voices, each expressing an opinion a little different from the rest, this normal state of human affairs, gives way to a single voice. The mob is all for one and one for all, whether the archetype be the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the lynchings once common in the US South, or the roving masses of youth that sometimes form after British soccer games or other sports events. Mobs strike terror because they signal the loss of the usual roominess of life. People no longer go their separate ways, one doing this, another that. They have set aside differences and are locked in tight embrace. This is also the key defining attribute of mobs in nature. Ethologists call it mobbing when ten crows quit their respective activities and congregate in a single screaming chorus for harassment of an owl. When dogs form a pack, they forget the differences that normally keep them scattered, variously occupied, and fighting with one another, and give themselves over to a common cause.

2. Mobbing is situation-specific, an unusual event. We do not apply the word mob to the commonality, the absence of individuality apparent in peasant communities, totalitarian states, or total institutions like armies and monasteries. In nature, an everyday anthill or flock of sheep is not called a mob. The latter term is reserved for exceptional occasions when individuals normally separate and diverse dissolve enthusiastically, as if mesmerized, into a single pulsating mass.

3. A mob is about eliminating a person or thing; it aims to destroy. The Boston Tea Party was held to waste tea. The Parisians who stormed the Bastille aimed to tear down the monarchy (in the shorter term, they beheaded the Bastille’s governor and paraded his head on a spike). The focus of a lynch mob is on torturing to death the person being lynched. Mobbing among birds is for the purpose of killing or driving away the targeted bird. In almost all uses of the term, mobbing has a destructive purpose. An exception is when fans are said to mob a rock star or sports hero; even in this usage, mobbing is not understood as an altogether friendly act, since it involves objectifying the hero, rushing and possibly harming him or her.

4. Mobbing involves passion. It is not something you do just for pay. Participants have their hearts in it. They are sure of themselves. There is fury, loud or silent, in a mob.
These four defining attributes justify Leymann’s, my, and others’ extension and application of the term to that pathological process in workplaces whereby, in a specific circumstance, normal diversity of thought and action gives way to an impassioned, single-minded, collective push to humiliate and eliminate a targeted worker.

The concept of workplace mobbing also differs, of course, from mobbing in its older, classic sense. Here are five differences:
1. The classic mob has hundreds of participants, a workplace mob only a handful, or rarely (as in Richardson’s case) some dozens.
2. Classic mobbings involve literal bloodlust and violence, while workplace mobbing is usually bloodless and polite.
3. Classic mobbings last a day, a few days or weeks, but workplace mobs often act slowly, over months or years.
4. Lawlessness is undisguised in a classic mobbing, while mobbing in workplaces brims with pretense, subterfuge, and sophistry.
5. As Shupe points out, the classic mob is usually less planful, less step-by-step in its thinking, than is a workplace mob.

It is also worth noting that the word mobbing, like lynching, swarming, and bullying, but unlike collective behavior or social movement, has an edge, a pejorative connotation, a suggestion of something wrong. That is fine with me, as a pragmatist sociologist. A lynching is not just collective behavior; it is a very rotten kind of it. And workplace mobbing is not just a social movement.