A Place to Stand: Intersubjectivity and the Desire to Dominate



Research indicates that upwards of 80% of our students experience the devastation of bullying during their school years. To date, research on bullying has mainly employed empirical methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative approaches. This research has largely concluded that bullying is situated in a lack of skill, understanding, or self-control and involves intentional action directed toward status dominance. Based upon these assumptions current anti-bullying strategies focus on training students toward more appropriate avenues of status acquisition and social interaction. Against the backdrop of an actual bullying encounter this paper employs a psychoanalytic philosophical lens to offer a fresh perspective on this enduring educational issue. Employing the philosophical work of Adam Phillips, Jessica Benjamin, and Emmanuel Ghent I ask the question: What is the desire to bully a desire for? Here I consider what is sought and what is at stake in the typical bullying encounter. Through careful analysis I argue that the domination represented in bullying is not simply situated in a lack of social skills or in disregulated aggression––skill deficiencies that require training. Instead, or perhaps in addition to these possibilities, I contend that bullying is foundationally a move toward establishing identity, a self. On this view bullying becomes an activity of self construction through attempted omnipotence. I argue that the status dominance inherent in bullying should be seen not as an end (a tool to secure resources or privilege), but as a means to something more foundational. I conclude that status dominance becomes a means toward the end of providing a secure place for the self to stand. Hence, instead of advocating that we train students to get along better this paper outlines the futility, as well as the insatiability of bullying, opening up new territory focused upon a re-construction of the bully through the relational bonding and differentiation available in the concrete Other.


School bullying Self-construction Domination Preferred self Status Intersubjectivity 


Bullying continues to be one of many complex phenomena which seems to flourish in P-12 schools. Despite a wide variety of school programs aimed to mitigate it, bullying continues to be a reality in schools around the globe. Research tells us that upwards of thirty percent of a given student population are involved in bullying on a regular basis (Rigby 1997), contending that upwards of 80% of our students experience bullying in some way during their years in P-12 education (Holt and Keyes 2004). This research, largely empirical in nature (i.e., quantitative and qualitative), has argued that bullying may be motivated by a number of interrelated issues, including a lack of understanding, poor social skills, inappropriate status acquisition choices, harmful dispositions, and school culture (Kaukiainen et al. 1999; Horne et al. 2004; Olweus 1993; Pellegrini and Long 2004; Rigby 2002; Espelage and Swearer 2004). Typically, research has concluded that bullying behavior involves a nuanced mix of all or many of these motivating factors, dependent upon the cultural and biological makeup of any given bully or victim.

In this paper my goal is not to finally “answer” the bullying question once and for all. It is also not aimed at discrediting the above listed potential motivations for school bullying (I believe that these motivations do often play out in bullying situations). Instead, I hope to further a conversation surrounding the topics of skill and status as bully motivators. Here, I will ask a simple question (yet one that is incredibly complex) in regards to school bullying: What is the desire to dominate another a desire for? In asking this question I will consider the vagaries of the bully/victim relationship. Here, I want to ask this question, not from an empirical standpoint, but instead employing a conceptual lens. In other words, I don’t want to simply ask how we can “train” a child to seek status in more acceptable ways (rather than through the dominance involved in bullying), but to ask of the nature of status itself. To be more specific, in this paper I will problematize the notion that bullying is situated in a lack of skill and, in this, will consider what it is about status that often makes it so attractive.

In my analysis, employing the conceptual lenses of Adam Phillips, Emmanuel Ghent and Jessica Benjamin, I will argue that bullying, rather than simply situated in poor or lacking social skills, is more fundamentally situated in desire. And, I will also argue that the dominance involved in bullying is better understood as a means to an end: the status dominance of bullying is primarily a practice of self-construction. To begin, I will share a short vignette which will serve as a backdrop for our discussion.

Jake, Skill and Status

Jake was a popular sixth-grader at Southside K-8, a local public school. He had attended Southside since kindergarten, had plenty of friends and admirers, made good grades and had adequate social skills. Matthew also was a sixth-grader at Southside. Matthew, too, had attended Southside since kindergarten and, up until his sixth-grade year, had cultivated good friendships and adequate grades. Matthew was sensitive and typically non-aggressive. In the fall of his sixth-grade year Jake and a group of classmates began to target Matthew in a well known recess game.

This targeting was informal at first; Jake, Sammy and Jeff seeking to always eliminate Matthew first from the game (the game involved students being randomly eliminated––based on making a basket or not––until one player is left; i.e., the winner). The targeting escalated as this group of boys encouraged others to join in the exclusion until the entire bump crowd (from twenty to thirty children) was seeking exclusively to knock Matthew out, purposefully missing shots to keep their friends in. Day after day the bullies gained a sense of status with many of these thirty children who would roar with laughter as Matthew, again the first to be eliminated and deeply humiliated, would walk away in tears.

The bullying of Matthew soon moved beyond the bump game to other parts of his day. Matthew, though he did not understand why, had become a pariah not only with the trio, but with a significant population of the school as well. The school administration was quick to respond. They corralled the perpetrators, reprimanded them, required them to undergo training (aimed at building empathy and better aggression management skills) and began to intensively monitor Jake, Sammy and Jeff. The bullying simply moved to more covert means; a look here, another form of exclusion there. Matthew was no longer invited to birthday parties. The bullying, though more subtle, continued. Matthew finally decided to transfer to a new school. Though adjusting well to his new school, he still carries the emotional scars of that sixth-grade nightmare. The next year, in the absence of Matthew, the trio simply picked a new target: Trent. Toward the end of that sixth grade year one of the perpetrators was asked why he targeted Matthew. Matter-of-factly he replied, “because I like to make him cry”.

This scenario, based on an actual occurrence, is not atypical when it comes to bullying and anti-bullying response. Empirical research tells us that, at least to some degree, it is believed that bullying behavior is motivated by poor social skills (i.e., a bully who cannot regulate aggression, or who does not know how to relate “properly”, or a victim that is reactively aggressive, too passive, or is in some other way socially “deficient”). For example Hoover and Oliver argue that, “social skills training was found to be an effective strategy for addressing and combating the factors motivating bullying. In a skills approach, problems are attributed to a lack of knowledge about actions rather than to pathology. Students learn to emit new, more adaptive responses with the help of teachers” (1996, 81 emphasis mine). In addition, Swearer et al. have found that, “social skills training programs have also been successfully used with aggressive and antisocial youths in individual, group, and classroom settings (Kazdin et al. 1987; Ollendick and Hersen 1979; Ollendick and Winett 1984), suggesting the appropriateness of this strategy for bullies as well” (2004, 75–76 emphasis mine). In other words, if we can train the bully and/or victim to relate better, bullying activities will decrease. While I believe that social skills can, and often do, play a role in bullying activities, I also fundamentally find exception with this view. In essence, a view that bullying is the result of a skill deficiency means that we believe bullying is accidental. For example, Matthew was bullied because of his passivity, his lack of social adeptness, or his public emotional indiscretions (i.e., because he was prone to tears). On the other hand, Jake bullied because of his inability to appropriately discharge or manage aggression. Along these line, in our scenario, both were trained, yet to no avail. The assumption here is that if Jake had better skills he would not bully. Here, bullying is not intentional (i.e., I specifically target a victim over time), it is accidental (i.e., I’m angry and need to lash out at something/someone). Yet, research also tells us that bullying is, indeed, an intentional activity (Pellegrini and Long 2004, 108). In fact, one might argue, that for a sixth-grader to socially manipulate a crowd of twenty to thirty peers toward targeting one student requires exceptional social skills (Kaukiainen et al. 1999 have made this argument). Further, when Jake was asked why he bullied Matthew, his reply is telling: I like to make him cry. Desire, not social ineptness, at least in some measure seems to be at work here.

Concurring with the intentionality associated with bullying the empirical literature also suggests that school bullying may be a strategy (intentional) aimed at achieving status dominance by a bully. For example, Espelage and Swearer contend that.

early adolescence is also a time in which bullying increases (Pellegrini 2002; Pellegrini and Long 2002; Smith et al. 1999). A potential explanation for this increase is dominance theory. Dominance is viewed as a relationship factor in which individuals are arranged in a hierarchy in terms of their access to resources. Pellegrini (2002) argues that the transition to middle school requires students to renegotiate their dominance relationships, and bullying is thought to be a deliberate strategy used to attain dominance in newly formed peer groups (2003, 376 emphasis mine).

On this view, Jake is seeking (whether consciously or sub-consciously) to establish something called dominance status. But, what is the allure of status? What was the satisfaction that this “status dominance” provided for Jake, making him risk punishment rather than cease his bullying activities toward Matthew, and then toward Trent? Do either of these explanations (i.e., skill dieficiency or a move to establish dominance status) in and of themselves make sense of Jake’s “I like”? With this in mind, I now turn to the philosophical work of Adam Phillips, considering the desire to ridicule and, more pointedly, the transactions of laughter.

The Transactions of Laughter

One could argue that desire is ultimately a part of any significant social activity. Desire can be defined simply as a wish or a longing for something. I desire, or want, to eat lunch. It is in this simple sense that I employ the word desire in this paper. When asked why he bullied Matthew, Jake replied, “because I like to make him cry”. I am inquiring, here, into the “I like” involved in bullying. What was so attractive to Jake about the tears of Matthew? What was Jake seeking to receive, desiring, in his activities aimed at invoking Matthew’s tears? What is the desire to ridicule or dominate another a desire for? Of course, the motivations of desire are difficult, if not impossible, to ferret out. In fact, such desires are not likely to be completely clear even to the one desiring. For example, just because Jake gained satisfaction in the tears of Matthew does not mean that he could articulate where that satisfaction lay.

Laughing, Fear and a Preferred Self

Adam Phillips in his book Equals (2002) poses two interesting questions which become pertinent to my inquiry: “What would have to happen for someone to grow out of the fear of being laughed at? And so, by the same token, what is the fear of being laughed at a fear of?” (2002, 36). One can imagine the roar of the bump crowd at the elimination of Matthew and the natural laughter that follows such a “triumph”. But, what might be the exchange of such laughter?

Depicting Primo Levi’s first impressions of Auschwitz, Phillips recalls Levi’s assumption that such a place of laughter must be a joke. Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Levi is confronted with a sign over a water tap, which warned that drinking from the tap was forbidden because the water was dirty. Having had nothing to drink for four days the prisoners thought it must be some kind of joke. How could anyone be so cruel as to present water to men dying of thirst and then forbid them to drink it? Upon testing, the water was indeed undrinkable. “Levi keeps coming to the conclusion”, Phillips explains,

that the only way of explaining this deranged and brutal world he has found himself in is that it is someone’s joke; that they are all there being laughed at. And the reason that this is at once grotesque and intelligible as an assumption and an explanation is that when one is being laughed at one is giving someone pleasure. Someone is, as we say, getting pleasure at our expense (2002, 34–35).

Levi reacted incredulously to the joke of the drinking water because someone was getting pleasure at his expense. And that pleasure had been wrested from him involuntarily. Phillips, then, argues that in such “wresting” something of importance is stolen. “When a child”

asks in the playground, what’s so funny, he resents that he is giving someone a pleasure that he has not chosen to give them. Or indeed that something about him provides someone else with a pleasure that diminishes him. When we laugh at someone else we violate, or simply disregard, their preferred image of themselves (2002, 36).

By “preferred image” Phillips means that image of ourselves that we believe we are, or hope to be, that image that we seek to convince ourselves and others is true. Of course our preferred images of ourselves often do not line up with reality. “The absurd truth that comedy uncovers”, Phillips continues,

…is not that really we are undignified and far from important…in the larger scheme of things. It is simply that we are always other than what we want to be; that we don’t look the same as we look to ourselves. Primo Levi wanted to be what he thought of as a man, but his experience in Auschwitz was that there were other people who didn’t share his own description of himself; or indeed of what a person is. For mockery to work, something about a person has to be exposed, usually something they would prefer to conceal from themselves and others because it is at odds with the person they would rather be (2002, 37).

The aim of mockery is found in the exposure of another’s weakness while we look on, laughing. But what could motivate such cruelty? Phillips contends that “Children, like adults, have a radar for scarcity, for what [one] might call the unequal distribution of (emotional) wealth. Ridicule, [Phillips suggests], is a fantasy of restoration of status; and mockery is always performed from a position of wished-for privilege” (2002, 38–39). “What has been stolen”, Phillips continues,

is your freedom to supervise, to control the representations of yourself. The other person or people no longer care to protect, or wholly disregard, the images of yourself that you believe you need to sustain you. Humiliation strips the self of its safeguards (2002, 41).

There is often a pleasure involved in revealing ourselves to friends, to a close confidant: someone knows me, understands me and accepts me. Such revelation, though, is within our control and is carefully guarded by us. In being laughed at, the locus of control moves from myself to the other in a way that not only exposes me, but also gives the other the pleasure of “viewing me”––the status of standing over me. And as Phillips contends, it is precisely from the fact that the victim hates our laughter that the pleasure is derived. If the victim were not afraid of the laughter of the perpetrator or the crowd, if she were to laugh back, if our laughter did not matter to her, we can imagine that the laughter of the crowd would die down. It would become pointless. The response at being revealed becomes the means of pleasure.

Conversely, Phillips also raises the possibility of what those laughing are simultaneously trying not to feel. Phillips contends that in laughing at another,

it is the other, not-me, that is mortified. It is, like all cruelty, a calculated not-me experience. I have apparently created a boundary, a distance, between myself and my victim. Indeed, it may be the separateness––the belief that I can instate such a distance—that is the important thing. It is not me who feels this, it is him. So one thing that is so funny at this moment is just how different we are; there is a gulf between us in terms of feeling. My pleasure is as much in your suffering as in my lack of it. What’s so funny is that we are both the same kind of creature and yet I can make you worlds apart from me; almost another species, an utterly abject untriumphant one. The shame is now elsewhere, projected or evacuated, as certain psychoanalysts would say. I have rid myself of something unbearable, but I am, as it were, still in touch with it through the medium of pleasure, my sadistic pleasure in your desolation (Phillips 2002, 42).

Here, Phillips suggests that the very things we fear in ourselves, the things that threaten our own preferred self-images, we project onto or attribute to the other. And, though we do not deny the realities of those things we fear in ourselves, we distance ourselves from them. This, then, creates a space for us to ridicule those things in the other, a space that keeps us from being threatened or put at risk. Thus, the distance created in laughing at another can, at least in part, also be seen as an attempt to create a preferred sense of self. But, “what”, Phillips asks, “is the imagined devastation that will occur if the mocker doesn’t mock?”

If he isn’t laughing at his victim, if he stops arranging his humiliation, what does he fear might happen? What might they do together? The so-called psychological answer might be he will see too much of himself, too much of something about himself, in his chosen victim. The political answer would be, he would turn democratic. What mockery reveals, in other words, is the emotional terror of democracy. That what is always being ridiculed is our wish to be together, our secret affinity for each other (2002, 43–44).

What is laughing at another the fear of? Here, at least in part, laughter rests in the fear that another might have something to say to us, something that might confront our image of ourselves, something that might put us at risk. As it creates boundaries between us and the other, mocking becomes a means of shutting down the dialogue that may threaten our own preferred self-image. Conversely, what is the fear of being laughed at a fear of? It may rest in a fear of discovery, a fear of having the control of our own preferred self-image wrested from our protective vigilance. It becomes a fear that the distance that allows such an image to stay intact might be traversed, not out of our own desire to reveal, but by the violence of another, one intent on enjoying the pleasure of our humiliation.

Hence, on Phillip’s view one may dominate another in order to preserve a sense of self, not allowing another to threaten a self-image that one hopes that others will respect. Through mockery we seek create a space for a preferred sense of self, a self that is held in tact by distancing the other. The prevalence of separation, of laughter, reveals a desire to create a space for a self of valued status. Laughter, distance and othering become mechanisms of establishing a preferred image of the self, one that is esteemed and privileged and one that is carefully kept and guarded.

Laughter and a Game of Bump

As Levi reacted incredulously to the joke of the drinking water, so Matthew was dumbfounded at the pleasure that was involuntarily exacted from him on that Southside playground. Matthew walked away from the bump game and, as the crowd of his peers roared with laughter, was struck with the incomprehensibility being laughed at. The fact that he was giving pleasure to another was understandable, but this pleasure was stolen from him, beyond his control, thus humiliating. Phillips helps us consider that the ridicule of bullying, the laughter on that Southside playground, was situated in the establishment of a preferred image on the part of the bully through the destruction (or revelation) of the preferred image of another, the victim. As Matthew was revealed, the preferred image of Jake (powerful, privileged and in control) was displayed for all to see. In essence, “a self” was projected in the destruction of another.

Matthew became the instrument of another’s desire and in this exposure Matthew’s weakness was exposed while the crowd looked on, laughing. But what could motivate such cruelty? Remember, Phillips contends that “Ridicule…is a fantasy of restoration of status; and mockery is always performed from a position of wished-for privilege” (2002, 38–39). Classically defined, bullying is situated in a power imbalance (Olweus 1993). Pellegrini and Long argue that bullying “is a specific form of aggression and one that is used deliberately to secure resources. Bullying seems to be used as a way in which boys [and I would argue girls as well] gain and maintain dominance status with peers” (2004, 109–110). Phillips posits that the pleasure of laughing at another is connected with desire, i.e., “wished for privilege”. Pellegrini and Long argue that the aggression inherent in bullying is used deliberately, it is intentionality fostered by desire. More than simple reaction, bullying from these viewpoints becomes an intentional means to some end based in some desire; specifically the desire to maintain dominance status with peers. As Phillips suggests, this desire is connected with scarcity, with some emotional commodity that laughing at another secures. Phillips argues that in this comedy we are stealing from another.

Bullying most often takes place in a social situation (Sutton and Smith 1999, 97–98). For example, the bullying of Matthew began with a bump game, a game in which nearly thirty children were involved as participants or “watchers”. It is the fact that the humiliation of Matthew was seen by Matthew and others, that it mattered to Matthew and to those watching, which allowed the bullies to acquire status with all involved. Simply put, to gain status by definition is to gain status with others. The status of the self was intimately linked with the subsequent whispers that spread like wildfire through the larger Southside student community. And status was attributed to Jake because his humiliation of Matthew mattered, especially so to Matthew. Indeed, all who watched and participated gained in the status of rising above Matthew and wresting from him his own preferred image of himself. The laughter of the bump crowd became effective––lowering the status of Matthew and concurrently raising the status of those who laughed (i.e., “at least I’m not as pathetic as Matthew!”)––because that laughter held currency for all involved.

Conversely, Phillips helps us to consider what those laughing are simultaneously trying not to feel. Remember Matthew had become a pariah with a significant segment of the Southside student community; he had become an outcast through the laughter inherent in the bullying experience. Hence, if Phillips is right, then the laughter of bullying not only brings pleasure, but that pleasure, at least to some degree, is fostered by the distance that bullying creates. The vulnerability, the tears of Matthew sensed by Jake and the others, allowed a gulf to be created between them and Matthew. This gulf, established in laughter, brought pleasure to the bullies by exposing such qualities in Matthew for all to see and for all to wipe off on Matthew. Their own weakness could be abrogated on the scapegoat of Matthew. Here, I argue that Jake, Sammy and Jeff were not simply struggling with an inability to control aggression or with poor social skills. In fact, I would argue their social skills were quite adept, motivating and guiding an entire crowd of peers toward the concerted activity of positioning Matthew as an outcast. The crowd was not Matthew, they were better than him; selves were attempting to be constructed in his demise.

Interestingly, Rene Girard also raises this notion in his work surrounding mimetic desire (finding ourselves through mimicking or associating with another) and dominance (Girard 1978). In other words, as we choose a “scapegoat”, another upon which we upon which to pass our judgment (typically of ourselves), we likewise create the boundaries of our own lives through this “us/them” encounter. Jonah Wharff, writing on Girard’s conceptualization of scapegoating and mimetic identity construction argues that,

In a relationship of conflict we are locked in a struggle for dominance, or, as Girard characterizes it, we resort to violence. …This person [who we “accuse”] is usually someone innocent who has a peculiarity like racial difference, minority position, disability, unusual beauty, or high status. Any kind of difference (good or bad) is dangerous when a mob is looking for a scapegoat. This process is called the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism (GMSM). It is generative because it generates us-them differences; it is mimetic because mimetic desire drives it; it is scapegoating because its purpose is achieved through a surrogate victim; it is a mechanism because it operates like a machine without conscious effort (Warff 2007, p. 187).

According to Girard, as we target another, an outsider, we find peace for ourselves and the “insider” community via the scapegoat. For Girard, though, this is a socially constructed process, not one that is latent in the psyche a priori. Though Girard would disagree with Foucault’s notion that power is omnipresent and omniscient (2007, p. 286), he would concur that the cultural systems we both create and are created by (e.g., schooling) foster the settings for mimetic desire to find relevance. For Girard, this moves us from innate psychology to anthropology. For both Phillips and Girard violence, scapegoating, laughter and separation become means of securing identity: a place to stand that is valued by others and, thus, credible to ourselves. But, if laughter (or scapegoating in Girardian terms) were to offer subjectivity through dominance status, why does it seem to be insatiable? Why was it necessary for Jake to continue to bully Matthew––even after a pecking order was established––and why, the next year, was that desire to dominate simply directed toward another new student? I now move on to consider the work of Jessica Benjamin and Emmanuel Ghent.

Moves of Omnipotence and the Intersubjective Self

In her work, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (1988), Jessica Benjamin, “seeks to understand how domination is anchored in the hearts of the dominated” (1988, 5). Benjamin posits that humans maintain a fundamental need to recognize and to be recognized by another. Maintaining the tension between these two polarities (assertion and recognition) within ourselves, neither completely controlling nor being completely controlled by another, offers a space for subjectivity. It is when these two necessary elements (assertion and recognition) are separated among two people, one acting as subject, the other acting as object, that domination and subjugation enter the picture. On Benjamin’s view, “domination and submission result from a breakdown of the necessary tension between self-assertion and mutual recognition that allows self and other to meet as sovereign equals” (1988, 12). Benjamin calls for an intersubjective view of human development (Benjamin 1988, 19–20, notes). Maintaining the “assumption that we are fundamentally social beings” (1988, 17), Benjamin argues that the “individual grows in and through the relationship to other subjects” (1988, 19–20). This view “assumes that we are able and need to recognize that other subject as different and yet alike, as an other who is capable of sharing similar mental experiences” (1988, 20).

On Benjamin’s view, intersubjective theory must be held in tension with intrapsychic theory. One might ask: Does aggression stem from the individual psyche or from the culture which shapes the interiority of a bully? According to Benjamin, both the individual psyche and the concrete relations one enters into with others shape aggressive as well as nonaggressive behavior. Benjamin argues that, “the crucial area we uncover with intrapsychic theory is the unconscious; the crucial element we explore with intersubjective theory is the representation of self and other as distinct but interrelated beings” (1988, 20). According to Benjamin we need a theory of inner psychic formation and the real other that offers concrete confirmation of the self. How, then, does Benjamin explain the persistence of gendered domination even within cultures with formal commitments toward gender equality?

Gendered Domination

Seeking to understand male dominance of females, Benjamin outlines the process of differentiation used by boys and girls in relation to the mother. Benjamin believes that the mother-child bond is crucial to development, including the interactions of gendered bonding and differentiation necessary in such mother-child negotiations. In the mother-child negotiation Benjamin argues that boys must “dissolve this identification [with mother] and define themselves as the different sex” (1988, 75).

Benjamin continues,

Initially all infants feel themselves to be like their mothers. But boys discover that they cannot grow up to become her; they can only have her. This discovery leads to a break in identification for boys which girls are spared. Male children achieve their masculinity by denying their original identification or oneness with their mothers (1988, 75).

Boys, then, form identity based on individuation or separation from the mother. Maleness means “not femaleness” and this process,

often prevents the boy from recognizing his mother. She is not seen as an independent person (another subject), but as something other—as nature, as an instrument of object, as less than human. …An objectifying attitude comes to replace the earlier interactions of infancy in which mutual recognition and proud assertion could still coexist” (Benjamin 1988, 76).

Conversely, little girls move toward identification with the mother. “The complement to the male refusal to recognize the other”, Benjamin argues, “is woman’s own acceptance of her lack of subjectivity, her willingness to offer recognition without expecting it in return” (1988, 78). Hence, the girl is not required to make such a move away from her mother.

This makes her [the girl’s] identity less problematic, but it is a disadvantage in that she possesses no obvious way of disidentifying from her mother, no hallmark of separateness. The feminine tendency therefore is not to emphasize but to underplay independence (Benjamin 1988, 78).

These psychic developments offer fertile ground for a shift in subjectivity: the boy moving toward a masculine separation, becoming an other, a subject; the girl moving toward a feminine dependency, losing identity, becoming an object. The father becomes a way to individuate, to separate, to create an outside world, while the mother becomes an engulfing object. The father becomes an emblem of separation, the mother an image of smothering dependency. For both the girl and the boy the mother becomes the essence of dependency, and dependency, in opposition to the separateness of the father, is a position where one might lose one’s own subjectivity. The polarity of assertion and recognition, rather than residing within one subject, becomes split along gender polarities. Hence, females (mother) become those who are asserted upon, while males (father) become those who assert.

This splitting, then, moves one from mutuality (a balance between separateness and connection) to the subject-object relations at the heart of domination. Benjamin contends here that, “the two central elements of recognition––being like and being distinct––are split apart”, and that this splitting (one dominating as subject, the other dominated as object) leaves both without any real subjectivity. The male as dominator leaves no room for anyone to “push back”, thus confirming (or recognizing) his own subjectivity. The other here becomes an object, not a subject offering recognition. Alternatively, the female, as she is dominated, loses her own subjectivity, and thus is no longer available to offer recognition (since she becomes only a reflection of her dominator), nor to receive recognition (since she has become only a concrete object in this dynamic).

Does not the other, on this view, simply become a mirror, allowing us to “see ourselves” and thus allowing a self to be imagined and constructed? This notion misses the intent of Benjamin’s theory. “The mother cannot (and should not) be a mirror;” Benjamin contends, “she must not merely reflect back what the child asserts; she must embody something of the not-me; she must be an independent other who responds in her different way” (1988, 24). For Benjamin, then, domination erupts in relations where subject and object are separated, where assertion and recognition are split between two people. Hence, when the mother is seen as object (females as those who are asserted upon) and father is seen a subject (males as those who assert upon) domination results. Now, this may seem to be a fairly common-sensical notion (i.e., when two people interact, one as object the other as subject, the relationship takes on the form of domination). But it is this splitting of mutuality that becomes crucial to our understanding of attempted self-construction through domination. It is the identities that are sought in such splitting that is of particular interest to me in our discussion of bullying. I now turn to a brief discussion regarding the specific ways that the self “uses” the other in order to confirm itself.

Using the Other

Benjamin argues that identity comes not from seeing ourselves in another, but in the fact that through relational interaction the other is changed, yet not destroyed by us. In a sense, we use the other to create a sense of self. I briefly turn to the work of Emmanuel Ghent here. In his article Masochism, Submission, and Surrender (1990) Ghent elucidates the concept of object usage (for a critique of “object usage” see McNay 1992, 84). Ghent asserts that, “the object if it is to be used, must necessarily be real in the sense of being part of shared reality, not a bundle of projections” (1990, 123). Returning to Benjamin, we find here her conception of the concrete other who, in the actual exchange of relations, is used to confirm the self. Here the one seeks to “destroy” the other, to assert oneself upon the other. “In a child’s development”, argues Benjamin, “the initial destruction can be seen simply as part of assertion: the desire to affect (negate) others, to be recognized. When destruction fails, the aggression goes inside and fuels the sense of omnipotence” (1988, 69). If the other is destroyed––through domination––then that other cannot assert back, or confirm a sense of self. If the other survives (i.e., asserts back), a sense of self now finds concrete confirmation.

But, what might it mean to destroy the other? Returning to Ghent’s work:

The varieties of non-survival include retaliation, withdrawal, defensiveness in any of its forms,…and finally, a kind of crumbling, in the sense of its losing one’s capacity to function adequately as mother, or in the analytic setting, as analyst (Ghent 1990, 123).

Ghent argues that the masochist may be formed through a caretaker that impinges repeatedly upon (dominating) the self. Conversely, in the creation of the sadist Ghent imagines a caretaker that does not allow the transition to object usage. The sadist is formed by the failure of the caretaker, through

retaliation, defensiveness, negativity or [a] crumbling of her or his effectiveness. In either case, the triple misfortune is that the subjective object never becomes real but remains a bundle of projections, and externality is not discovered; as a corollary the subject is now made to feel that he or she is destructive; and finally, fear and hatred of the other develops, and with them, characterological destructiveness comes into being. In short we have the setting for the development of sadism, the need to aggressively control the other as a perversion of object usage, much as we have seen in masochism as a perversion of surrender (Ghent 1990, 124).

Ghent argues that sadism––the will to control and dominate another––becomes “a derivative of the wish to discover the reality of the other, and thereby truly experience the self” (1990, 125). Domination is situated in a desire to be known, a wish for surrender (as Ghent terms it). In the act of domination, the other is not allowed to assert (or simply does not assert) reciprocally and is thus destroyed.

This reciprocity of object usage is foundational to Benjamin’s work. The key to self-understanding becomes recognizing the other. “Establishing myself”, Benjamin argues, “means winning the recognition of the other, and this, in turn, means I must finally acknowledge the other as existing for himself and not just for me” (1988, 36). In acting upon the other it is important that he or she is affected by my assertiveness––“so that I know that I exist––but not completely destroyed, so that I know he also exists” (1988, 38). And, “the state of omnipotence”, concludes Benjamin, “with its absence of tension [the polarity of two subjects asserting and being asserted upon], gives birth to domination” (1988, 73).

A sense of self, then, is embroiled in the use and destruction of another, but it is only as the other presses back (i.e., is not destroyed) that that sense of self is truly confirmed. In the splitting outlined by Benjamin such mutuality is foregone, thus denying self-confirmation. Hence, as a self is attempted to be confirmed in the omnipotence inherent in such splitting, the domination at work becomes insatiable, since the self always eludes confirmation in such non-mutual relations.

Surrender and the Self

Above I raised the concept of surrender without any discussion. Surrender is a Ghentian term that Benjamin employs to depict the opposite of subjugation. “The underlying theme of sadism”, contends Benjamin, “is the attempt to break through to the other. The desire to be discovered underlies its counterpart, namely, masochism. Emmanuel Ghent has called this desire the wish for surrender, for which submission is the ‘ever-ready look-alike’” (1988, 72). Taking Benjamin’s cue, I will continue to use Ghent’s work to enrich the notion of surrender. Surrender, on Ghent’s view, is the antithesis of submission. As Ghent envisions it, surrender has little to do with “raising a white flag” or with defeat. Instead it involves a “quality of liberation and expansion of the self as a corollary to the letting down of defensive barriers” (1990, 108). Ghent, like Benjamin, argues that subjectivity is established in the interplay between two subjects. Writing of our need to be known Ghent asks, “Is it possible that deep down we long to give this up [defensively hiding behind a projected self-image], to “come clean”, as part of an even more general longing to be known, recognized? Might this longing also be joined by a corresponding wish to know and recognize the other?” (1990, 11).

Ghent’s thesis is that something like surrender is necessary for true subjectivity and that submission is often a lookalike for surrender that cheats the seeker.

Submission, losing oneself in the power of the other, becoming enslaved in one or other way to the master, is the ever available lookalike to surrender. It holds out the promise, seduces, excites, enslaves, and in the end, cheats the seeker-turned-victim out of his cherished goal, offering in its place only the security of bondage and an ever amplified sense of futility. By substituting the appearance and trappings of surrender for the authentic experience, an agonizing, though at times temporarily exciting, masquerade of surrender occurs: a self-negating submissive experience in which the person is enthralled by the other (1990, 115, 116).

Ghent contends that, “masochistic activities may…represent abortive (and sometimes primitively sexualized) efforts to restore and maintain the structural cohesion, temporal stability, and positive affective coloring of a precarious or crumbling self representation…The masochistic tendency then would serve to shore up the lack of cohesion of the self” (1990, 116, 117). But, I would argue that as the masochist seeks self-cohesion through submission, so the sadist seeks cohesion through domination. As surrender (allowing another to address us) becomes the means for a victim to acquire subjectivity, this same allowance (openness toward the address of an other) becomes the means of subjectivity for the dominator.

Referring to the “patterned impingement” evident in masochistic activity, Ghent argues that,

“Impingement” is not far from “penetration.” The deeper yearning, which remains invisible behind compulsive masochistic activity (in itself needed to forestall chaos or disintegration), is the longing to be reached and known, in an accepting and safe environment (1990, 118).

On this view submission offers a means to be penetrated (i.e., to be known, to be recognized) for the masochist, thus allowing for the construction of a stable self-identity by the masochist. But for the sadist, domination becomes a means to penetrate (i.e., to know, to recognize), thus also allowing for the construction of a self.

Yet remember, Benjamin argues that when the polarities of assertion and recognition are split among two people, subjectivity is lost. Still, we see here subjectivity being attempted through controlling another (by the dominator) as well as through being controlled (by the dominated). Hence, the self of the dominator can only be established if, as he penetrates another, he then allows the other to respond back. Here lies the intersubjectivity that provides the context for self-construction.

Returning to Ghent, rather than allowing “the self” to be known, in submission the self simply becomes a slave, a controllable object, an object of another’s desire. And in domination the self becomes a master, a controlling subject, untouchable by the desire of another.1 In contrast, surrender means allowing another to recognize us and to say something to us, something that does not destroy us, something we are open to. And, if surrender is integral to the process of self-construction, then surrender becomes crucial not only for the victim, but for the bully as well. But, Ghent argues that the surrender necessary for such intersubjective exchange is beyond our control. “I imply”, Ghent writes, “that there is, however deeply buried or frozen, a longing for something in the environment to make possible the surrender, in the sense of yielding, of false self” (1990, 109 emphasis mine). On Ghent’s view, surrender is a need that we do not recognize within ourselves, a need that must be awakened by another through the give and take of reciprocity.

Ghent contends that surrender is a kind of interaction where each is “involved in object usage, in the sense of un-covering, dis-covering the reality of the other”. He continues,

In my view love and hate are not opposites. The real polarity is between love and fear. Only when there is no fear, love flourishes. When fear or anxiety is present, it often becomes manifest in a reactive and compensatory form as hatred (or indifference), with the result that love and hate (or love and indifference) appear to be the polarities. The successful use of the object, or being used by the object in the form of surrender, is one’s bid at overcoming the fear of the other. Hence, the successful use and surrender, in which both survive the use and have therefore transcended fear of the other, are necessary precursors in the development of love (1990, 126).

Ghent labels the reciprocity of intersubjectivity “love”. But, the interesting thing, for me, is the issue of fear. Ghent intimates that it is fear that keeps one from finding subjectivity, it is fear that fosters domination and it is fear that keeps us from surrender.2 Here, I have come full circle back to the question Phillips asks: “What would it take for one to no longer fear being laughed at”? Or, “What would mitigate the fear of being found out, of letting another say something to us that might challenge our own preferred image?” According to Ghent it would take an atmosphere, something in the environment, where one could surrender, a safe space in which to live and interact non-defensively, a space in which one could open one’s life to another and allow another, neither destroying nor destroyed, to address us. In an atmosphere that allows surrender, subjectivity becomes possible.

But am I not simply raising the old adage that in order to be open one must feel safe? To some degree, yes. But, more fundamentally I am arguing that bullying is situated in a twisting of the will to surrender toward the domination of omnipotence, a twisting that seeks to establish a place for the self to stand. The search for subjectivity and the fear which may direct that search toward paths of domination becomes one element of the bullying experience. I argue here that self-construction is a foundational aim of bullying activities. Yet the self that is sought within relations of domination becomes elusive. Hence, bullying becomes insatiable in its attempt to establish the self, not intersubjectively, but instead through omnipotence.

Phillips, Benjamin and Ghent help us envision the bump game as a tool––an ill-fated attempt employing domination and distancing––used by students to gain subjectivity. The quest for domination involved in the bullying relationship can be seen as a failed quest for such subjectivity, for status, seeking to secure a place for the self to stand. In this domination the bullies, seeking to find someone to recognize them, find only an object that, laughing at, they slowly destroy. And in destroying Matthew, they are left searching for someone else to recognize their own subjectivity––thus, making the domination of bullying insatiable.

Bullying, Desire and Status

We might imagine, then, bullying as a matter of thirst. Harkening back to Primo Levi, a man dying of thirst, what if we imagine a water tap through which sea water ran. Though Levi could have drunk to his heart’s content, by drinking his body would only become more dehydrated. But, what if we taught him to drink differently, to approach the fountain in a different manner, to swallow more slowly? Or what if we convinced Levi that he actually didn’t need the water? None of these solutions would meet the desire of a thirsty man. His thirst would remain insatiable, growing until clear tap water was made available. In this brief article, I have not meant to address all aspects of bullying, nor finally solve its continued persistence. Instead, I have meant to ask what the desire to “drink” the public destruction of another might be a desire for, and why such a desire seldom seems to be quenched. I have argued that trying to instill a new skill (i.e., approaching the fountain differently) or denying that need which the desire is aimed toward (i.e., you aren’t really thirsty) not only does not take into account the “I like” of bullying, but most often cannot be effective. In this discussion I have meant to highlight two specific concerns as points of further consideration and work.

First, I contend that at its root, bullying is not a “skill-based” problem. As briefly mentioned above, Rene Girard regards the violence of scapegoating another an intentional (though not necessarily one that is conscious) activity rooted in desire. Likewise, Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005) discusses the realities of exclusion arguing, “the only possibility of having a true outside is not simply one more, neutral element but an excluded one, something that the totality expels from itself in order to constitute itself” (2005, p. 70). Jake’s activities, then the activities of the larger group, toward Matthew were not accidental. They were orchestrated toward separating one out, “othering” another in order to solidify or “constitute” themselves. The “othering” of another often becomes a means of offloading our shortcomings or hiding our fears, not because we necessarily don’t like the victim (which can still be a possibility), but because it allows us to establish and project a preferred self to a watching world. If bullying is a means of establishing a preferred self (focused more on the bully than the victim), then no amount of social skill training will mitigate the behavior. Instead, we will simply train the bully to be a better bully.

Here, I contend that the bump game was not an accident and the crowd who participated in the humiliation of Matthew was not inadvertently drawn in. Desire of some sort was operating in the instantiations of the bump game. Why did Jake target Matthew? Because he liked to make him cry. Hence, while skill development may be appropriate in some cases, this discussion has revealed that dispositional transformation must also be at the heart of any anti-bullying strategy. I argue that the bullying of Matthew, rather than situated in a lack of skill, was motivated by a desire to establish a preferred self-image through the humiliation of another.

Second, I contend that status dominance (highlighted in the bullying literature) is not an end in itself. Instead, dominance is a means of producing a public identity. Interestingly, Hans Georg Gadamer argues that all understanding is, in fact, self-understanding (1975). And, that when we stop listening to another, we actually become unable to see ourselves (particularly our biases that both enable and cloud future understanding). Benjamin and Ghent, in some sense, are arguing toward a similar end. Reciprocity, the give and take with another, is at the root of identity construction (i.e., we become “selves” socially). Both Benjamin and Ghent also argue that dominance often becomes a means of attempted identity construction. In other words, through dominating another (and doing so publically in a bullying situation), means that I am better; I am higher. This dominance gives me status in the eyes of onlookers. We witness this “giving” or “taking” of status in the high-fives and backslapping and knowing smiles of those who participated in the demise of Matthew on that Southside playground. Here bullying is not just about creating a pecking order, but is based upon the notion that that pecking order tells the world and ourselves who we are. But, as Benjamin argues, when we seek to establish identity through dominance (one way communication––for Gadamer, through not listening), we indeed eclipse the possibility of the reciprocity which is necessary for identity construction. Thus, the dominance of bullying becomes insatiable (e.g., Jake seeks out Trent the next year).

These two findings, then, move us from skill training toward questions of the ways which students create identity within schools. The project of helping students create identity (which Ghent says requires “something in the air”) is a much different project than teaching kids to regulate aggression or to only dominate in certain arenas (on the baseball field, academically in the classroom, or through superior performances); i.e., moving back to the water-tap analogy, we move from training students to approach the water tap differently (training the bully socially) or making the water fountain more attractive (making the victim less targetable), to changing the water itself. These discussions, thus, lead to more questions, two of which I will mention in closing.

First, in Benjamin’s work she is specifically interested in what transpires in male/female dominance. While attempted self-construction, I believe, maps onto bullying, Benjamin’s explanation of what led to the male domination of females does not. Most bullying is single-gendered; i.e., boys bullying boys, girls bullying girls. So, I am led to ask why dominance becomes linked with status within schools in a non- or neutrally-gendered way. Girard, remember, is primarily an anthropologist, arguing that the cultures we move and exist within shape the pathways of desire. Could not status become linked with something else; e.g., with wearing pink shoes, being shy, having long fingers, blue eyes, etc.? So, why might status become linked with dominance within schools? Interestingly, Michel Foucault, also an anthropologist at heart, argues that systems of disciplinary training (including schooling), use hierarchy and comparison to motivate. That is, my “A” only counts, if there are “Bs” in the class. And, of course in school, “As” are preferred. Thus, one could argue that we often motivate in schools (as well as other systems of disciplinary training) through creating grids of hierarchy, helping students to find their place through comparison (i.e., my status as an A student matters because my A is higher than your B). Identity is found by how we stack up; the higher, the better. In this light, one might argue that a bully has simply taken such discourse seriously. Now, of course, here I only raise this as a direction for further inquiry. But, if identity is connected to dominance status in schools (both in same- and in the rarer cases of opposite-gender bullying), what are the school discourses which may have directed such desire? Considering an anthropology of school culture, specifically as it interacts with student identity development becomes a viable direction for future research.

Second, if identity construction is a social process and requires reciprocity, then what might it mean to create schools which facilitate that process? Benjamin and Ghent argue that it is only in relations of intersubjectivity (i.e., the give and take of reciprocity) that selves can be established. Additionally, Ghent argues that surrender, not submission, becomes the means of allowing for another to not only be penetrated, but to penetrate back. But, remember, Ghent imagines this ability to surrender not stemming from a conscious decision or a command (nor necessarily from proper training––using that word in the sense of a teacher telling a student how to pick up social cues or deal more productively with aggression): it is something in the environment which allows for the non-defensive use of the other where selves are given a place to stand.

On this view, anti-bullying efforts, rather than focusing upon the training of individuals, instead must aim toward creating certain spaces where democratic relations can be fostered. But what do such spaces look like and how might one go about creating environments where students not only can assert, but can also feel confident to be asserted upon? If bullying is not situated in individual lack (requiring skill training), but in certain environments that might allow for surrender as a viable position which students might take up, how do we cultivate such cultures within schools?


If, as I have argued, bullying activity is foundationally an attempt at self-construction, a social activity seeking to establish a preferred self-image with an other, a meaningful place to stand, then any amount of skill-based training will likely fall flat. If Jake used dominance to create identity in the eyes of his peers, then teaching him to be more in control of his aggression misses the point; the point is, he already is in control of that aggression, employing it specifically and skillfully toward the demise of another (a scapegoat) in who’s destruction all can bask. As Matthew was destroyed, all of those involved gained a sense of status. But, according to Phillips, Ghent, and Benjamin, “selves” can only be created as the “other” pushes back. Thus, bullying, despite our rules, training, and surveillance becomes insatiable.

Jake was laughing. The bump crowd was roaring. And Matthew was crying. On that Southside playground, as observed by students and teachers alike, we witness a lesson in attempted self-construction, one that disallows the reciprocity necessary for a sense of self to emerge. What might it mean to create an atmosphere where one is no longer afraid of being laughed at, where subjectivity through the give and take of non-dominating relations may be found? What might such an environment look like? How might we create worlds within schools that mitigate the fear of being found out, that allow for openness, and, in turn diminish the desire to secure subjectivity through the dominance of bullying? How might we imagine offering subjectivity to all students in ways that are not driven by dominance, hierarchy or comparison? Here are foundational trajectories toward creating school landscapes where the desire to bully is transformed by reciprocity, where the terror of democracy is mitigated by the ability to listen and where all students are given a place to stand.


  1. 1.

    One response to bullying involves “training” the victim to become more socially adept. This strategy is based upon the notion that the victim is the main focus of bullying. But, in essence, on the view I am espousing here, the victim is an “empty signifier” (i.e., he or she is incidental to the project of bullying). The real focus of bullying is identity constructed through the watching eyes of peers. It is in the destruction of another (not necessarily a particular other), in the sight of a watching crowd (most bullying happens in social contexts), that self-construction is attempted. On this view, “fixing” the victim often simply moves the bully to a new victim (hence, Trent).

  2. 2.

    I am not arguing that all domination is the result of fear. While fear certainly may be an active element in the bullying dynamic, we might also imagine a number of other motivations driving the bully’s domination (e.g., the securing of material resources, disregulated aggression, etc.). By considering domination as centered in fear I am not intending to close down other possibilities, but instead to raise an additional lens through which to view the bullying encounter.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationNorthwest UniversityKirklandUSA

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