In this paper, I take issue with a question that was posed to me when preparing to conduct ethnographic research into school bullying in Vietnamese schools – how can you ethically be a participant observer when conducting research into school bullying? In doing so, I problematize commonly held understandings of school bullying and particularly the category ‘bystanders’, which has tended to constitute one of the corners of the bullying triangle put forward in many studies of school bullying. As I argue, bystanding is important not only for ensuring that the perspectives of those involved in bullying (‘victims’, ‘bullies’, and ‘bystanders’) are taken seriously, but also for gaining a more inclusive picture of the factors involved in bullying.
Drawing on long-term ethnographic research conducted in two lower secondary schools in Vietnam’s third largest city, Haiphong, I consider both consequentialist and deontological approaches to this question of ethics. The consequentialist approach involves questioning whether the potential benefits of the research outweighed the potential negative consequences for those involved. The consequentialist approach thus deals with issues of non-maleficence and beneficence. The deontological approach, on the other hand, focuses on the inherent rights of the research participants and raises questions about power relations and justice. While the question I was posed about the ethics of conducting participant observations of school bullying largely concerns the consequentialist issues of non-maleficence and beneficence, deontological issues of power and justice appear to be less central.
The majority of school bullying research has been conducted through the use of quantitative questionnaire surveys, and there has been little discussion of the ethics of such research. This paper argues that observation-based studies of school bullying are ethically necessary for better understanding the perspectives of those involved, and for considering the possibility that those who bully are not necessarily doing so because they are ‘proactively aggressive’. This has implications, not only deontologically but also consequentially, as anti-bullying programmes tend to be based on understandings of school bullying that have largely been pre-defined by researchers and have not taken adequate consideration of the perspectives of all those involved.