“Do Not Bully Others,” a painting by Chelidze Kesaria, age 6.

What’s rural about rural? It’s an important question.

In their article “Bullies and Victims in Rural African American Youth: Behavioral Characteristics and Social Network Placement” (2007), Estell, Farmer and Cairns tell us that bullying hasn’t been examined much in rural places. Studying two impoverished rural counties in a Southern state as part of an evaluation of a violence prevention program, the researchers find that rural bullies differ little from bullies in urban or suburban places described in other studies. That is, bullies are more likely to be boys, aggressive and manipulative, and leaders of the school social groups to which they belong.

What’s curious about this article is that the researchers—from the otherwise estimable National Research Center on Rural Education Support— offer no theory about why bullying might, or might not, be different in rural places. In fact, after the research sites are described (p. 147), the word “rural” is used just once more, in a recommendation that future studies sample participants from diverse locales (p. 156). It’s not clear how the study deepens our understanding of the rural world, since there is little description of what makes the sites rural, how being in a rural place could influence bullying behaviors, or what rural schooling dynamics or circumstances might have to do with aggression. The sense readers are left with is that rural is sort of an empty category—simply “not urban or suburban”— with no particular characteristics that might influence educational or social dynamics differentially across locales. But then why even ask the question about whether bullying plays differently in rural places?

There are several major reasons why this is a problem, according to 15-year editor Ted Coladarci of the Journal of Research in Rural Education upon his retirement from the post. First, without a thorough description of the rural context in which a study is done, readers can’t make fully informed interpretations of the findings. And if this happens across a number of studies investigating similar things, readers then can’t make credible syntheses of the research base. For example, if several other studies find that rural bullying does differ from non-rural bullying in the sites they examine, but fail to tell us much about the rural sites, we have no way to parsing out whether these differences were possibly due to regional, socioeconomic, demographic or political variations. Part of the point of doing research is to build up credible bases of information on which we can make defensible and ethical decisions. Without enough detail, studies about rural education don’t contribute to such knowledge bases effectively.

The author, circa 1975.

Another reason it’s a problem when putatively rural research doesn’t take on rural qua rural is that dynamics taking place incidentally in rural places can be confused with definitively and uniquely rural dynamics. You can claim pretty effectively—even in this age of agribusiness—that homeschooling on a farm is a distinctly rural education issue. Studying effective ways to recruit and retain good administrators and teachers in remote schools is another. But it’s more difficult to buy the idea that research about technology use in rural schools or approaches to the delivery of professional development in rural districts is about a clear rural phenomenon. At its most useful, rural education research should unambiguously focus on truly rural issues.

A related issue is that researchers sometimes don’t take into account that there are variables that are so related to rurality that they inadvertently mask or inflate rural and non-rural differences. Income, for instance, tends to be negatively correlated with rural residence. In other words, rural people tend to earn lower incomes than non-rural people on average. If researchers don’t use statistical magic to untangle the effects of income from the effects of location, then readers can’t tell whether the findings are due more to rural dynamics or to income dynamics.

It seems to me a missed opportunity that the researchers of rural bullying didn’t talk about why they thought bullying might be different, or not, in rural places. I can easily imagine hypotheses in either direction. They might have theorized that rural kids would tend to bully less because of tight knit community relationships, or more because of socioeconomic tensions in struggling rural towns. Or they might have suggested that rural bullying wouldn’t differ meaningfully from non-rural bullying because teenagers across the country belong to cliques and seek social dominance, no matter their locale.

The upside, though, is that this process of studying rural education and sharing findings is, at heart, a big discussion about what is the public good and how to ensure that rural kids get a fair educational deal. Constructive peer review helps researchers refine their thinking and ultimately make more useful contributions to those folks in the field doing the hard work of teaching, learning, and leading.

Dr. Caitlin Howley is co-director of Edvantia’s Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education in Charleston, West Virginia.

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