Expanding “Bystander Intervention”

By Dr. Dorothy J. Edwards, President


Bystander intervention programs are often dismissed as short-term and limited strategies that may interrupt a violent act in the moment – but create no lasting change in terms of primary prevention, necessary cultural shifts, and violence reduction. However, an expanded definition of “bystander” and a more nuanced understanding of primary prevention allows for a clearer delineation of the necessary and vital role bystander intervention plays in any comprehensive strategy to permanently reduce current rates of interpersonal violence.

Expanding the traditional approach to bystander intervention:

(1) Expand the definition of who a bystander is. The traditional conceptualization of a bystander is an individual observing an imminently high-risk situation facing the choice of whether or not to intervene. A broadened definition includes anyone who is aware violence is present in his/ her community, whether or not they observe it directly. An awareness of systematic violence poses the same decision as someone watching a specific situation unfold in front of them: “Am I going to do something within my sphere of influence to make it less likely the next act of violence happens?” This expanded definition suggests that an individual who has seen the media coverage or heard statistics on current rates of violence in any given community has the same responsibility and choice as an individual directly observing someone in harm’s way.

(2) Expand the definition of what a bystander does. When we limit the bystander role to reactive (i.e., intervening only when violence is already unfolding), we limit the capacity of each individual to contribute to substantive culture change and we render ourselves powerless until the next potential act of violence crosses our path. However, when we understand the power cultural norms have to create environments that are less conducive to interpersonal violence happening at all – we can forge an expanded, proactive role for bystanders. In addition to being equipped to respond when a potential act of violence unfolds in our line of vision – we can take small actions each day to reset community norms in two important ways:

  1. Violence will not be tolerated in this community
  2. Everyone is expected to do his/her part.

Through small, everyday acts (conversations, social media posts, modeling, message t-shirts, letters to the editor, personal influence, talking points in speeches, team trainings, subtle non-verbals, office signage, etc.) it is up to us to communicate to current and new members of our community what is expected. When it is clear violence isn’t tolerated and most will step in – the norms become incompatible with violence, stopping it before it starts.

With these expanded definitions, bystander intervention can become a broad-scale community mobilizer, engaging the previously silent majority toward visible action. A mobilized population drives broader culture change by shifting the norms that sustain violence, eroding risk factors and strengthening pro­tective factors – all of which are elements of an effective and expanded bystander mobilization strategy.

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