For other uses, see Scapegoat (disambiguation).

Scapegoating (from the verb "to scapegoat") is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat.[1] Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. "Hattie Francis did it, not me!"), individuals against groups (e.g., "I failed because our school favors girls"), groups against individuals (e.g., "Jane was the reason our team didn't win"), and groups against groups (e.g., "Immigrants are taking all of the jobs").

A scapegoat may be an adult, sibling, child, employee, peer, ethnic or religious group, or country. A whipping boy, identified patient or "fall guy" are forms of scapegoat.

At the individual level

A medical definition of scapegoating is:[2]

"Process in which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are utilized in focusing feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., upon another individual or group; the amount of blame being unwarranted."

Scapegoating is a tactic often employed to characterize an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small number of individuals belonging to that group. Scapegoating relates to guilt by association and stereotyping.

Scapegoated groups throughout history have included almost every imaginable group of people: genders, religions, people of different races or nations, people with different political beliefs, or people differing in behaviour from the majority. However, scapegoating may also be applied to organizations, such as governments, corporations, or various political groups.

Projection: Unwanted thoughts and feelings can be unconsciously projected onto another who becomes a scapegoat for one's own problems. This concept can be extended to projection by groups. In this case the chosen individual, or group, becomes the scapegoat for the group's problems. "Political agitation in all countries is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals."[3] Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung considered indeed that "there must be some people who behave in the wrong way; they act as scapegoats and objects of interest for the normal ones".[4]

In psychopathology, projection is an especially commonly used defense mechanism in people with the following personality disorders:

At the group level

The scapegoat theory of inter-group conflict provides an explanation for the correlation between times of relative economic despair and increases in prejudice and violence toward outgroups.[5] For example, studies of anti-black violence in the southern US between 1882 and 1930 show a correlation between poor economic conditions and outbreaks of violence (e.g., lynchings) against blacks. The correlation between the price of cotton (the principal product of the area at that time) and the number of lynchings of black men by whites ranged from -0.63 to -0.72, suggesting that a poor economy induced white people to take out their frustrations by attacking an outgroup.[6]

Scapegoating as a group however, requires that ingroup members settle on a specific target to blame for their problems.[7] Scapegoating is also more likely to appear when a group has experienced difficult, prolonged negative experiences (as opposed to minor annoyances). When negative conditions frustrate a group's attempts at successful acquisition of its most essential needs (e.g., food, shelter), groups may develop a compelling, shared ideology that - when combined with social and political pressures - may lead to the most extreme form of scapegoating: genocide.

Scapegoating can also cause oppressed groups to lash out at other oppressed groups. Even when injustices are committed against a minority group by the majority group, minorities sometimes lash out against a different minority group in lieu of confronting the more powerful majority.

In management: Scapegoating is a known practice in management where a lower staff employee is blamed for the mistakes of senior executives. This is often due to lack of accountability in upper management.[8]

For example, a teacher who constantly gets blamed or accused of wrongdoing could be a scapegoat if said teacher is only guilty of doing her job so well that she makes her coworkers and supervisory administration look bad. This could result in letters being placed in permanent files, condescending remarks from co-workers and constant blame finding from administration.

The "scapegoat mechanism" in philosophical anthropology

Literary critic and philosopher René Girard.

René Girard

Girard developed the concept much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture. In Girard's view, it is humankind, not God, who has the problem with violence. Humans are driven by desire for that which another has or wants (mimetic desire). This causes a triangulation of desire and results in conflict between the desiring parties. This mimetic contagion increases to a point where society is at risk; it is at this point that the scapegoat mechanism[9] is triggered. This is the point where one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat. Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. The keyword here is "content", scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people. Girard contends that this is what happened in the case of Jesus. The difference in this case, Girard believes, is that he was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent; humanity is thus made aware of its violent tendencies and the cycle is broken. Thus Girard's work is significant as a re-construction of the Christus Victor atonement theory.

See also

Psychology portal
Sociology portal


Further reading


  • Colman, A.D. Up from Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups (1995)
  • Douglas, Tom (1995)
  • Dyckman, JM & Cutler JA Scapegoats at Work: Taking the Bull's-Eye Off Your Back (2003)
  • Girard, René: The Scapegoat (1986)
  • Perera, Sylvia Brinton Scapegoat Complex: Toward a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts) (1986)
  • Pillari V Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational Patterns of Physical and Emotional Abuse (1991)
  • Quarmby K Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People (2011)
  • Wilcox C.W. Scapegoat: Targeted for Blame (2009)
  • Zemel, Joel: Scapegoat, the extraordinary legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion (2012)

Academic articles

  • Binstock, RH The aged as scapegoat The Gerontologist 1983 23(2):136-143
  • Boeker, W Power and managerial dismissal: Scapegoating at the top. Administrative Science Quarterly, v37 n3 p400-21 Sep 1992
  • Gemmill, G The dynamics of scapegoating in small groups Small Group Research, Vol. 20, No. 4, 406-418 (1989)
  • Katz, I Glass, DC Cohen, S Ambivalence, guilt, and the scapegoating of minority group victims - Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 18, No. 6, 786-797 (1992)
  • Khanna, N., Poulsen, A.B. (1995), "Managers of financially distressed firms: villains or scapegoats?", Journal of Finance, Vol. 50 pp. 919–40.
  • Maybee, Janet. The Persecution of Pilot Mackey. The Northern Mariner/le marin du nord, XX no. 2 (April, 2010), pp. 149–173.
  • Schopler, E Parents of psychotic children as scapegoats - Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy Volume 4, Number 1 / December, 1971
  • Vogel, EF & Bell, NW The emotionally disturbed child as a family scapegoat Psychoanalytic Review, 1960 - PEP Web

External links

  • Scapegoating
  • Scapegoating in Group Analytic Theory (PDF files)
  • Scapegoat Society
  • The Scapegoat

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