Scapegoating (from the verb “to scapegoat“) is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as ascapegoat. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. “he did it, not me!”), individuals against groups (e.g., “I couldn’t see anything because of all the tall people”), groups against individuals (e.g., “Jane was the reason our team didn’t win”), and groups against groups.
At the individual level
A medical definition of scapegoating is:
- “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, nations, or sexual orientations, 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.
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.” 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”.
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. 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.
Scapegoating as a group however, requires that ingroup members settle on a specific target to blame for their problems. 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 ofaccountability in upper management.
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 Kenneth Burke first coined and described the expression “scapegoat mechanism” in his books Permanence and Change (1935), and A Grammar of Motives (1945). These works influenced some philosophical anthropologists, such as Ernest Becker and 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 need for various forms of atoning 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 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 narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure in Christianity. The difference between the scapegoating of Jesus and others, Girard believes, is that in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he is shown to be an innocent victim; 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.