Schmerzensmann (lit.'man of sorrows'), drypoint by Albrecht Dürer 1512 depicting Jesus Christ

Scapegoating is the practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment. 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., "He was the reason our team didn't win"), and groups against groups.

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

Scapegoating has its origins in the scapegoat ritual of atonement described in chapter 16 of the Biblical Book of Leviticus, in which a goat (or ass) is released into the wilderness bearing all the sins of the community, which have been placed on the goat's head by a priest.[1]

At the individual level

A medical definition of scapegoating is:[2]

Process in which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are used in focusing feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., upon another individual or group; the amount of blame being unwarranted. Scapegoating is a hostile 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.

Its archetype

Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera situates its mythology of shadow and guilt.[3] Individuals experience it at the archetypal level. As an ancient social process to rid a community of its past evil deeds and reconnect it to the sacred realm, the scapegoat appeared in a biblical rite,[4] which involved two goats and the pre-Judaic, chthonic god Azazel.[5] In the modern scapegoat complex, however, "the energy field has been radically broken apart" and the libido "split off from consciousness". Azazel's role is deformed into an accuser of the scapegoated victim.[6]

Blame for breaking a perfectionist moral code, for instance, might be measured out by aggressive scapegoaters. Themselves often wounded, the scapegoaters can be sadistic, superego accusers with brittle personas, who have driven their own shadows underground from where such are projected onto the victim. The scapegoated victim may then live in a hell of felt unworthiness, retreating from consciousness, burdened by shadow and transpersonal guilt,[7] and hiding from the pain of self-understanding. Therapy includes modeling self-protective skills for the victim's battered ego, and guidance in the search for inner integrity, to find the victim's own voice.[8]


Main article: Psychological 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."[9] 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".[10]

Scapegoat theory of intergroup conflict

The scapegoat theory of intergroup conflict provides an explanation for the correlation between times of relative economic despair and increases in prejudice and violence toward outgroups.[11] Studies of anti-black violence (racist violence) in the southern United States 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.[12]

Scapegoating as a group necessitates that ingroup members settle on one specific target to blame for their problems.[13]

In management, scapegoating is a known practice in which a lower staff employee is blamed for the mistakes of senior executives. This is often due to lack of accountability in upper management.[14]

Scapegoat mechanism

Literary critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke first coined and described the expression scapegoat mechanism in his books Permanence and Change (1935),[15] and A Grammar of Motives (1945).[16] 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[17] 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.

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 reconstruction of the Christus Victor atonement theory.

See also



  1. ^ Wyatt-Brown, Bertram (2007) (1982) Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-532517-1. p.441
  2. ^ "scapegoating – Definition". 1998-12-12. Archived from the original on 2017-10-19. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  3. ^ Perera, The Scapegoat Complex (1986).
  4. ^ Book of Leviticus, Chapter 16, per the holy day of Yom Kippur.
  5. ^ Perera (1986), p.17: the Hebrews "later considered Azazel a fallen angel". Perera at p.112 n.28, citing to Louis Ginzberg.
  6. ^ Perera (1986), p.18 (two quotes re modern secular culture, Azazel's role debased).
  7. ^ Cf. C. G. Jung, "A psychological view of conscience" in his Collected Works (Princeton: Bollingen 1953–1979), vol. 10, cited by Perera (1986), re pp. 11–12 n.8, 14 n.21, 33 n.45.
  8. ^ Perera (1986): archetype (pp. 9–10, 16, 18, 48–49, 73, 77, 83, 98); ancient rite (pp. 8, 11–25, two goats 16–17, 88–97); modern complex (18–29, 30, 98, quotes at 18); accusers (9, 18–21, blames victim 20, superego 21, 28–29, 30–33, shadow 30, projected 31, also wounded 32, 55); victims (11–12, 15–16, hiding 24, 26–28, hell 26, ego 28, 33, 34–35, 43–72, burden 98); within families (30–33, 35, 53–54, 73, 76, 99); therapy (18, 22, 24–25, 26–29, voice 29, 33, 41–43, 47, 69–72, 86–97).
  9. ^ M.-L. von Franz, in C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (London 1964) p. 181
  10. ^ C. G Jung, Analytical Psychology (London 1976) p. 108
  11. ^ Poppe, Edwin (2001). "Effects of changes in GNP and perceived group characteristics on national and ethnic stereotypes in central and eastern Europe". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 31 (8): 1689–1708. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb02746.x.
  12. ^ Hovland, C. I.; Sears, R. R. (1940). "Minor studies of aggression: VI. Correlation of lynchings with economic indices". Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 9 (2): 301–310. doi:10.1080/00223980.1940.9917696.
  13. ^ Glick, Peter (2005). "Choice of Scapegoats". In Dovidio, John F.; Glick, Peter; Rudman, Laurie (eds.). On the Nature of Prejudice: Fifty Years after Allport. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 244–261. doi:10.1002/9780470773963.ch15. ISBN 978-0470773963.
  14. ^ The Art of Scapegoating in IT Projects PM Hut, 15 October 2009
  15. ^ "Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose – 1935 by Kenneth Burke. 99056219". Archived from the original on 2012-05-30.
  16. ^ "A Grammar of Motives – 1945, Page iii by Kenneth Burke".
  17. ^ Mimesis – The Scapegoat Model, Jean-Baptiste Dumont

Further reading

  • Colman, A.D. Up from Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups (1995)
  • Douglas, Tom Scapegoats: Transferring Blame (1995)
  • Dyckman, JM & Cutler JA Scapegoats at Work: Taking the Bull's-Eye Off Your Back (2003)
  • Girard, René: Violence and the Sacred (1972)
  • Girard, René: The Scapegoat (1986)
  • Jasinski, James: "Sourcebook on Rhetoric" (2001)
  • Perera, Sylvia Brinton, The Scapegoat Complex: Toward a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt (Toronto: Inner City 1986), Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts
  • 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
Reference books