The most detailed definitions of scapegoating are in the literature on intergroup prejudice, family therapy, and group therapy. Simply, scapegoating can refer to a situation in which anger and frustration felt toward one person is displaced onto another, often someone less powerful than the person causing the frustration. In the first half of the 20th century, social psychologists tried to translate this idea (also known as projection) into one that would explain intergroup prejudice, but this analytical approach proved too simplistic to explain the complexities of prejudice.
However, scapegoating is a well-developed concept in family therapy and group therapy literature. Based on clinical case studies, psychoanalytic and systemic thinking usually underpins such work. Projective identification (a psychoanalytic concept) occurs when a person onto whom feelings are displaced comes to be regarded as actually possessing these characteristics or difficult feelings. For example, others may begin to see that individual as an angry or frustrating person. Triangulation (a systemic concept) occurs when a relationship between two people or groups is in danger of splitting apart because of unexpressed conflict. One or both of the parties may employ a third person or group to stabilize the relationship. They do this by displacing uncomfortable feelings onto this target until the original conflict is addressed directly. So, when tensions between two warring factions threaten group unity, a scapegoat may emerge and come to be seen as “the problem.” In this way, the family or group is held together until the real problem—or power battle—is resolved.
Clearly, scapegoating can have a negative effect on its targets, ranging from feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and insecurity to the experience of verbal abuse, discrimination, and physical harm. The difficulty is in knowing how best to prevent it and how to manage it when it happens. For example, group therapists see it as an integral part of group development. Furthermore, therapy literature usually construes it as a process of which the attackers are not fully aware. Further research into this ubiquitous and painful process would be useful.
For example, could the displacement of anger felt toward one person or group onto another less powerful person or group explain the numerous examples of prejudice witnessed throughout world history, such as Christians in ancient Rome, Jews in 20th-century Europe, and more recently, illegal aliens in the United States? Past and present examples abound of political ideologues using propaganda to blame societal ills on some group. Over the years in major immigrant-receiving nations—such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States—a variety of racial and ethnic groups have been targets. One explanation might be that the true source of the frustration is too ill defined or too powerful, and consequently the frustrated individual or group redirects anger against a socially sanctioned target that is unable to strike back. Similarly, scapegoating might offer an explanation of sports events in which fans or commentators can be seen to single out an individual player as the cause for a loss.
- Billheimer, John. 2007. Baseball and the Blame Game: Scapegoating in the Major Leagues. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
- Douglas, Tom. 1995. Scapegoats: Transferring Blame. New York: Routledge.
- Gemmill, G. 1989. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups.” Small Group Behaviour 20(4):406-18.
- Joly, Daniele. 1998. Scapegoats and Social Actors: The Exclusion and Integration of Minorities in Western and Eastern Europe. New York: St. Martin’s.
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