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Rene Girard’s Social Theories Essay

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Updated: Mar 31st, 2022


Girard believes that the human race is essentially imitative in nature. Girard argues that human beings emulate one another’s desires and are in a continuous state of aggression against each other because of the objects of individual desires. In ancient human civilizations, this conflict developed a constant threat of violence. This forced our ancestors to look for strategies that could unify their communities. The proposed solution was the identification of a scapegoat.

This was an evil individual or victim whom the society could be rallied against. According to Cayley (2011), Girard believes that biblical narratives tried to conquer this pre-historic predicament. Starting from the unjust slaying of Abel and the persecution of Jesus, the Bible illustrates the blamelessness of the victim. The contemporary society does not quietly respite on this revelation. Cayley holds that the works of Girard have influenced and continue to raise a lot of interest from social scientists (Cayley, 2011).

Rene Girard is a French citizen. He obtained his first degree in philosophy with a bias in medieval studies. He later pursued a PhD in the United States in 1947, from the Indiana University.

His dissertation for his PhD was titled “American Opinion of France, 1940-1943”. He later taught language and literature at various universities and colleges. His lecturing career came to an end at Stanford where he taught French and literature. Some of his first acknowledged acclaims were from literal works in theory. However, most of his significant influence came from his literature on the origins of violence.

Girard’s theory of acquisitive mimesis

The theory of violence propounded by Girard is contentious in the religious and secular circles. From his extensive research on mythology and fictional literature, he formulated the hypothesis referred to as acquisitive mimesis and rivalry. He argues that this is the origin of all forms of violence.

Girard argues that most human characteristics are founded on mimesis. This is an all-inclusive manifestation of imitation. However, it predominantly focuses on attainment and annexation as an object in relation to mimesis. This is contrary to a majority of the existing literature on imitative character. Girard demonstrates a situation in which two people desire a similar object. In their attempt to get the object, their conduct results in a conflict.

This is because both individuals desire the same object. Girard argues that violence stems from this particular process. On the other hand, it can be argued that violence is the sequence in which two or more individuals attempt to deny one another an opportunity to annex an object that they both have an interest, by physical aggression or other alternatives (Girard, 1979).

This shows that Girard has an issue with the established conflict models. These models direct their attention to scarcity or aggression as the primary origins of the conflict. Such models hold that most of our challenges are a direct consequence of the convergence of property and authority. It is also caused by exploitation and colonialism. However, this perspective goes to a large extent to describe various forms of conflict that a community encounters.

Girard argues that they are inadequate to explain the complexity of the scenarios in which conflict occurs. To Girard, these inadequacies can be circumvented when aggression is structured on acquisitive mimesis. Girard perceives aggression to be a section of the challenges of aggression and not as the origin of the conflict. Since aggression seems to be relatively ubiquitous while aggression is confined to particular forms of conflict.

This might not be the right model. Even though scarcity is a probable cause of conflict, similarly it is not the origin of the issue. Girard cannot subscribe to the view that inadequacy in nature can describe the aggressive challenges brought to the domineering males in animal conflicts. In his opinion, imitation is mutual to both animals and humans. This best describes the source and the continuation of violence (Townsley, 2003).

Girard’s ideology has a lot in common with social learning theories (SLT). Since its inception in the early 1960s, social learning theories have investigated aggressive aspects in relation to Bandura.

They hold that it depends on the human relationships, identification, and mentorship (Kaplan, Sadock, Grebb, 1994). Other social learning theories have provided other suggestions about how human beings and nature have adapted in relation to hostile situations. The classical behaviorism which is exemplified in its raw form puts a lot of focus on training and conditioning.

Cognitivists like Levi-Strauss or Maslow focus on innate abstract intellectual processes and data analysis models. Psychoanalysts such as Freud focus on the innate competition between probable destructive human urge and social values, as well as psychological injuries originating form parental effects. Social theory is categorized into a cognitive behaviorist group. This encompasses the strengths of both dimensions into a hypothesis that identifies the actor in a society.

Social learning theorists propound that individuals learn by imitating their peers. This may be intentional or accidental. This process is referred to as modeling or imitation. The individual’s selection of a model is determined by a multiplicity of factors like age and sex among others. If the selected model depicts healthy values, the individual acquires self-efficacy. The individual may also acquire the ability to adapt to regular daily occurrences and hostile situations.

It is argued that an individual can eliminate adverse behavior characteristics by learning alternative strategies from their mentor. In a similar course of thought, Girard revolutionizes this proposition. Girard argues that all human conduct is learned, which is founded on imitation. The difference between the Girardian learning theory and the social learning theory is the learning outcomes are reliant on rewards and reinforcement.

These factors increase and sustain imitation. Regardless of the caveats, the resemblance of the SLT and Girardian mimesis is phenomenal. Girard makes use of empirical anthropological data and evaluation of imaginary tales to strengthen his theory. However, he rarely makes reference to the bulk of data obtained from social psychology that strengthen his arguments in the mimetic theory. However, this data is significant and relevant to this paper (Townsley, 2003).

Consider this allegory;

Thus far in the allegory, there are two actors, Dr. Arnold and Sylvester, who desire an object. Dr. Arnold has been mentoring Sylvester in becoming the best professor he can be. In the process, Dr. Arnold has been attempting to write a grant for a Lilly Endowment for his teaching project. Sylvester, seeing this process, realizes his need for this same grant. On his journey to a difficult market of tenure, Sylvester becomes aware that he needs what Dr. Arnold is seeking–a prestigious grant. He has learned what he is to desire from his model, who is also called “the mediator”, since Sylvester’s desire for the grant is mediated through Dr. Arnold’s modeling and can only be attained by Sylvester learning the process of acquisition from Dr. Arnold” (Townsley, 2003, par. 14).

At this juncture, there is the existence of acquisitive mimesis. This is because at the moment both have the same desire. Sylvester imitates his model’s desire to obtain a grant. This phase is also referred to as external mediation. In this case, Sylvester has shown interest in the external object which is a grant (Girard, 1965).

As their interests increase, so do their actions in relation to attaining the object of their interest. Their desires increase due to their desires being mimetic. Dr. Arnold perceives the desire that Sylvester has for the grant. He acknowledges that the object is worth the interest.

Arnold is aware of Sylvester’s skills; he respects his thoughts, and the situation is similar to Sylvester. As both intensify their positions to obtain the grant, their attention is shifted to one another. As a result, their attention is withdrawn from the grant and directed towards each other. At this juncture, the situation changes to an internally mediated occurrence. The reason for this is that Sylvester is now concealing the actual focus of his interests so as to defeat Dr. Arnold (Townsley, 2003).

The shift demonstrates the capacity to build a metaphysical interest just for desire. It is not in the interest of the object (Wallace & Theophus, 1994). In this scenario, they become the barrier and the role model of the other individual. At this juncture, their desire for the object ceases, but they are in it for the glory of winning the contest against the other individual. The scenario has now developed into a conflictual mimesis.

This is because their priorities are not focused on obtaining the grant, but on the competition. In essence, they become the alter ego of the other in their quest to mimic the increase in intensity of the other individual. The triangular perspective in this scenario is that the model and disciple are at the bottom of the triangle, and the object of interest is at the apex. This line of thought has been well investigated in the article Deceit, Desire and the Novel by Girard (1965).

In this case, Girard explains the nature of competition that ensues, and the resultant outcome expected from this mimetic model. The impulse directed at the object in the long run is similar to the impulse directed at the mediator. The impulse is controlled by the mediator because he either has custody of, or desires the object. Mesmerized by the model, the disciple eventually perceives the mechanical barrier obstructing his path.

This is evidence of the evil will that is innate in him. In light of the competition, the student develops a strong hatred for the teacher. As intensity increases, the two perceive each other on an equal footing and consequently as bitter rivals. Love and hate for each other are the conflicting interests at heart. Once conflictual mimesis is attained, then violence may be witnessed. However, since they are both similar and mutually intimidated, they remember the object of their primary interest.

As a result, their destructive energy is redirected from each other and on to a substitute (Wallace & Theophus, 1994). This scenario sets the ball in motion for Girard’s second theory of a scapegoat. This is deemed as being essential as a consequence of the increase in the frequency of violence in relation to the two doubles. Their aggression should be vigorously vented or neutralized, rather than an open transformation process.

Girard’s theory of scapegoating

Once an individual is agitated, the craving for violence prompts certain physical transformations that groom the individual for battle. This urge to commit violence persists; it is not just a mere reflex that will stop when the trigger is removed. Girard argues that it is far more difficult to diffuse an urge towards violence than it is to trigger it (Girard, 1977).

In relation to the thoughts of Girard with regard to the significant nature of the passions that drive humans to violence, an extraordinary and cathartic occurrence should take place. In most instances, violence against one another occurs. This is a common experience in each individual’s daily experience.

An individual may suddenly be agitated by another person causing them to physically or verbally aggress against the other. In opposition to a situation in which conflict is resolved through compromise and mediation, Girard sought to highlight the forms and magnitudes of conflict that lead to conflict. Girard may be criticized that all nature of conflict could be potentially neutralized through mediation and not violence.

Girard and other scholars who subscribe to the Girardian school of thought suggest this kind of resolution of conflict is superlative, and it would depend on a broad scale of social re-learning strategies employed to neutralize conflicts. This triggers pacific mimesis (Townsley, 2003).

In reference to the earlier case of Dr. Arnold and his disciple Sylvester, rather than continuing with their subconscious urges to harm one another, they redirect their aggression externally. The recollection of their primary interest to obtain that grant redirects them to lash out at another element which is the scapegoat. Both of them are able to see beyond their desires to obtain the grant.

As a result, they have a clear picture of what is the actual cause of their aggressive obsessions, the scapegoat. Girard argues that acquisitive mimesis separates individuals by directing them to congregate on a single object, with the intention of possessing it. On the other hand, conflictual mimesis consequently redirects opposing parties to congregate on the same enemy that both wish to eliminate (Girard, 1987).

As mentioned above, the manner in which collaboration convergence takes place is not explained by Girard. Neither does he expound on its inevitability. Arguably, it is unavoidable just to the extent that if it does not take place, consequently the violence in society will persistently increase unless the society self-destructs; convergence ultimately occurs (Matos, n.d.).

Girard believes that this scapegoat is an imaginary victim. The factor which triggered their fury is suddenly replaced by a substitute, selected because of its proximity and vulnerability. The two actors have redirected their energy on a common goal to eradicate the aggression that separates them. He holds that there are various conditions of selecting scapegoats. The scapegoat by description is an indiscriminate victim. This is to the extent that the victim has no direct link with the issues triggering the aggression.

However, the scapegoat is not subjective to the degree that they possess the same cultural characteristics that make them be classified into groups. Usually they are foreigners, but on the fringes of the society, not actually alien to the society. This means that the scapegoat is a member of the society, but has characteristics that detach them from the society. According to Girard, the list of scapegoats includes the elderly, individuals with abnormalities, and ethnic minorities among others (Wallace & Theophus, 1994).

At this juncture, Girard could be criticized for formulating the scheme of classification on a broad diversity of individuals who can be included in the group. It can be insinuated that any individual could be included in this group based on hindsight. It is probably not difficult to identify at least one of these traits in a particular individual.

However, the challenge arises when an attempt is made to use the scheme to envisage which group or individual might be scapegoated before the actual scapegoating itself. As a result of the common language employed to define cultural characteristics of the victim, these specificities might in the long run proof to be not of assistance, and hence eroding the credibility of the Girardian theory.

Critics argue that these members of the society are so conspicuous that they can be identified in chaotic circumstances. They are highly vulnerable and prosecutable. However, they are not chosen as scapegoats just because they are conspicuous and vulnerable. They are selected because they possess the traits associated with victims (Girard, 1986).

There is no contradiction between the choices of the Jews, as it is reaffirmed in the Gospels, and the texts like those of the “curses”. If anywhere in the world a religious or cultural form managed to evade the accusations made against the Pharisees – not excluding those that confess Jesus himself [Christians are also guilty] – then the Gospels would not be the truth about human culture”(Landes, 2008, par. 8).

As a result of the vulnerability and exceptionality of the scapegoats, their aggressors view them as individuals who ought to be victimized. This is because humans persistently appear to shift blame to individuals they perceive to be different.

Just as the students of Christ inquired from him about the various individuals who came for assistance, the question is whether they are suffering because of their own sins or those of their ancestors. There is a lot of literature in history in which various societies and communities are on record for placing blame on the disabled, elderly and the sick among others as the cause of evil (Alison, 2001).

The destruction of the scapegoat is progressive with the mimetic sequence. As each of the double identifies the victim as the origin of their difficulties, the opposite individual in the double also realizes it. Subsequently, they will follow the other double mimetically to close the sequence of alleviating the anxiety in the occurrence.

According to the psycho-social and historical schools of thought, it is basically significant for the entire society to triumph on the destruction of a scapegoat. However, the process has no logic or chronology as the aggressors may want to believe. They may hold that the victim is the source of their difficulties. The course of action they pursue is unquestionable, and their identification of the victim is arbitrary.

However, as the first aggressors initiate the sequence, mimesis proliferates rapidly across the society and consistency is achieved. With the attention of the community and common agreement directed towards a certain course of action. The elimination of the scapegoat is done in accordance with the community’s planning. The repetition and similarities of the models are so elaborate to Girard that they made the basic principle for Girard’s theories (Landes, 2008).

For instance, Girard explores the sequence of events that led to the Jews to be accused of being the cause of a bubonic plague within the ancient biblical cities. This resulted in the massacre of the Jewish populations in these cities, founded on these beliefs. Girard also explores the generality of several witch prosecutions.

He makes use of prehistoric literature to argue that these atrocities took place so that the voices of the aggressors could be heard. Girard’s theory derives strength from his evaluation of literature and history. This is because the commonalities highlighted by Girard illustrate they are privy to intra-community aggression.

Even though some of his analysis may be criticized, it is clear that Girard demonstrates that large societies or rational individuals can change into killer societies. This thought has irritated various scholars. Girard argues that he has located the rationale for these occurrences, which he referred to as mimesis. Girard employs the evaluation of several historical tales to illustrate that this sequence seems to be inevitable.

His methodology of emphasizing his belief in relation to the conduct of humans in groups is founded in his historic evaluation. He does not make use of modern sociological theories to enhance his theory, and neither does he avail a metaphysical basis of justifying his claims. Even though Girard did not make use of social science theories, they survey of group complexities appears to correspond to Girard’s theory.

Other social surveys have been carried out to determine what humans regard as rational and moral. Most surveys revealed that most people behaved differently while in a mob than what is considered their normal behavior. Numerous theories have been formulated to understand the causes of irrational behavior of humans in mobs (Andrade, 2012).


Girard believes that after the victim of aggression is killed, miraculously the aggression and the urge to injure within the society also appear to stop magically. The fundamental element in Girard’s theory is the presentation of the information gathered from his investigation.

His data is visible throughout the corridors of history in various works of literature and mythology. When aggression increases in a society and a ceremonious sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat is made, aggression in the society immediately stops. The procedures that follow bind Girard’s theory to the foundation of religion.

Girard’s training and competence in literature and history studies provides him with vast knowledge about the areas of study. Girard transfers the data that he has acquired from history and literature and applies it to the social sciences. This makes his observations and results to be questionable because of his knowledge in such unrelated fields. However, Girard’s literature offers a vast wealth of information and knowledge that can be discussed in other fields of study.

He has been able to produce and write several literal works and publications ranging from journals, anthologies, and various books among other publications. Regardless of whether we acknowledge the validity of his evidence, Girard has transformed the manner in which academicians perceive violence and religion. His contribution will definitely spawn more research on the issues raised, which may eventually validate his data.


Alison, J. (2001). Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. New York: Crossroad Pub Co.

Andrade, G. (2012). (1923). Web.

Cayley, D. (2011). The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion, Part 1 – 5. Web.

Girard, R. (1965). Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, R. (1977). Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, R. (1979). Mimesis and violence: Perspectives in cultural criticism. Berkshire Review, 14, 9-19.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, R. (1987). Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Landes, R. (2008). . Web.

Kaplan, H. I., Sadock, B., Grebb, J. (1994). Synopsis of Psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

Matos, B. . Web.

Townsley, J. (2003). . Web.

Wallace, M., I., & Theophus H. S. (1994). Curing Violence. Sonoma: Polebridge Press.

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