Scapegoating refers to the blame shifting process where an innocent individual or group is unjustly singled out as responsible for a misfortune or wrongdoing.
The origin of the concept is believed to stem back to the days of animal offerings in religious practices (Campbell, 2012; Vos, 2022). People would sacrifice literal goats as offerings in an attempt to cleanse themselves of their own failings.
Leviticus 16: 21-22, for example, depicts the literal origins of the concept:
He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
In a modern context, scapegoating refers to any instance where a person or group is unjustly targeted for societal problems in order to protect everyone else (Campbell, 2012).
Often, it’s the weak, less powerful, or minority groups who get the blame, because society can create an ingroup vs outgroup narrative that makes the majority feel better about a situation (Glick, 2010).
The two main theories attempting to explain why scapegoating happens come from Durkheim (in Sociology) and Freud (in Psychology).
1. Durkheim’s Collective Consciousness (Sociological Lens)
Emile Durkheim viewed scapegoating within the lens of his collective conscience theory, arguing that scapegoating is used by society to try to return to balance and order (Mestrovic, 2007).
Durkheim suggests that society tends to scapegoat individuals and groups who threaten social cohesion. When something occurs in society that threatens societal norms, values, and beliefs (what he refers to as the ‘collective conscience’), society aims to purge individuals and groups that are on the periphery of society, who the collective see as suspicious (Inderbitzin, Bates & Gainey, 2016).
According to Durkheim, a shared sense of right and wrong helps to solidify communal bonds. However, when societal problems emerge, these collective sentiments may be projected onto specific individuals or groups, transforming them into scapegoats.
This process is a societal mechanism to restore order and cohesion. By attributing blame to a scapegoat, society can reaffirm its collective values and maintain unity (Inderbitzin, Bates & Gainey, 2016).
Interestingly, Durkheim suggests that this scapegoating process could inadvertently end up amplifying discord and exacerbating the very societal issues it intends to resolve (Mestrovic, 2007).
Read More: Durkheim’s Contributions to Sociology
2. Freud’s Theory of Displaced Aggression (Psychoanalytic Lens)
According to Freud’s Theory of Displaced Aggression, scapegoating can be viewed as a psychological projection mechanism wherein suppressed feelings and impulses are redirected onto another individual or group (Duffy, 2019).
Freud suggests that it’s an unconscious process whereby the redirecting individual transfers their frustration or anger away from an object or person that they consider too daunting or challenging to confront (Hall, 2016).
This redirection of negative emotions serves two purposes. First, it protects this person from having to confront their distressing feelings directly, which might be emotionally overwhelming.
Secondly, it provides a seemingly justifiable and safe outlet for their pent-up negative emotions. The target, or the scapegoat, is typically someone weaker or more susceptible to this transference.
As such, scapegoating can be seen as a manifestation of Freud’s idea of displacement, where hostility or aggression is diverted towards an individual or group incapable of offering resistance (Duffy, 2019; Hall, 2016).
Freud’s theory underscores the potential harm scapegoating can inflict upon the targeted individual or group while offering no real resolution to the underlying, emotional turmoil of the scapegoater.
- A sports team consistently loses games and decides to blame their coach.
- A student fails an exam and blames the teacher for not explaining the material well.
- A company’s new product flops, and the marketing team is blamed, even though there were design flaws.
- A film does poorly at the box office, and the lead actor is blamed rather than the script or direction.
- Following a devastating tornado, society decides it was god’s wrath against LGBT people
- A group of teenagers caught with contraband at school decide to point the blame at one friend who can take the fall for everyone
- During a recession, a rising moral panic about immigrants helps people to find someone to blame.
- A town’s library sees a decline in visitors, and the community blames digital books rather than considering the library’s hours, programs, or resources.
- A family misses their flight and blames the airline’s check-in process, even though they arrived at the airport late.
- A business starts seeing a lot of products going missing from the shelf and blames a group of newcomers without evidence.
- A child breaks a vase at home and blames it on the family pet.
- After a failed group project, members single out one individual as the reason for their poor grade.
- A country’s economic downturn is blamed on a neighboring country’s policies.
- A city’s traffic congestion problem is blamed on bike lanes, rather than a multitude of factors.
- A family’s misfortune is attributed to a “curse” rather than actual events or decisions.
- A company’s data breach is blamed on a low-level IT employee rather than systemic security flaws.
- A community’s water shortage is blamed on residents using too much water, rather than poor infrastructure or management.
- A band breaks up and fans blame one member, even though there were internal conflicts with all members.
- A restaurant gets poor reviews and blames it on a new chef, rather than outdated decor or poor service.
- A town’s park is littered with trash, and residents blame tourists rather than considering local culprits.
- A company fails to meet its sustainability goals and blames it on suppliers rather than its own practices.
- A student’s poor behavior in school is blamed on video games rather than addressing potential underlying issues.
- A nation’s health crisis is blamed on a particular type of food or drink, rather than a combination of diet, exercise, and healthcare practices.
- A company’s stock price drops, and shareholders blame it on recent hires rather than market conditions.
- After a failed festival or event, organizers blame the weather rather than poor planning.
Scapegoating, while serving as a coping mechanism for societies and individuals in distress, ultimately fosters division and hostility rather than resolution. It can lead to large-scale detrimental effects, causing immense pain and ostracization for those who become its targets.
This psychological phenomenon highlights our collective vulnerability to falsely assign blame when confronting unfamiliar, frightening, or complex issues.
Most importantly, the phenomenon reinforces the importance of society to develop the capacity for critical thinking, and to challenge prejudiced narratives, thereby promoting a genuine search for truth and justice over false accusations and blame.
Campbell, C. (2012). Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People. ABRAMS, Incorporated.
Duffy, K. (2019). Freud’s Early Psychoanalysis, Witch Trials and the Inquisitorial Method: The Harsh Therapy. Taylor & Francis.
Glick, P. (2010). Scapegoating. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1-2.
Hall, C. S. (2016). A primer of Freudian psychology. Pickle Partners Publishing.
Inderbitzin, M., Bates, K. A., & Gainey, R. R. (2016). Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological Perspective (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications.
Janowitz, N. (2011). Inventing the Scapegoat: Theories of Sacrifice and Ritual. Journal of Ritual Studies, 15-24.
Mestrovic, S. (2007). Scapegoating. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 1-2.
Vos, M. S. (2022). Strangers and Scapegoats: Extending God’s Welcome to Those on the Margins. Baker Publishing Group.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]