Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory

The Origins of the Term and Overview of Its Use According to Sociology

Fingers point at a man who cowers and covers his face, signaling the way groups often scapegoat weak individual or groups, unjustly blaming them for problems they didn't cause, and discriminating against them

Alberto Ruggieri / Getty Images

Scapegoating refers to a process by which a person or group is unfairly blamed for something that they didn't do and, as a result, the real source of the problem is either never seen or purposefully ignored. Sociologists have documented that scapegoating often occurs between groups when a society is plagued by long-term economic problems or when resources are scarce. Scapegoat theory is used in sociology and psychology as one way to intercept conflict and prejudice between individuals and groups.

Origins of the Term

The term scapegoat has Biblical origins, coming from the Book of Leviticus. In the book, a goat was sent into the desert carrying the sins of the community. So, a scapegoat was originally understood as a person or animal that symbolically absorbed the sins of others and carried them away from those who committed them.

Scapegoats and Scapegoating in Sociology

Sociologists recognize four different ways in which scapegoating takes place and scapegoats are created.

  1. Scapegoating can be a one-on-one phenomenon, in which one person blames another for something he/she or someone else did. This form of scapegoating is common among children, who blame a sibling or a friend for something they did, to avoid the shame of disappointing their parents and the punishment that might follow a misdeed.
  2. Scapegoating also occurs in a one-on-group manner, when one person blames a group for a problem they did not cause: wars, deaths, financial losses of one kind or another, and other personal struggles. This form of scapegoating may sometimes be unfairly blamed on racial, ethnic, religious, class, or anti-immigrant biases.
  3. Sometimes scapegoating takes a group-on-one form, when a group of people singles out and blames one person for a problem. For example, when the members of a sports team blame a player who made a mistake for the loss of a match, though other aspects of play also affected the outcome. Or, when someone who alleges an assault is then scapegoated by members of the community for "causing trouble" or "ruining" the life of the attacker.
  4. Finally, and of most interest to sociologists, is the form of scapegoating that is "group-on-group." This occurs when one group blames another for problems that the groups collectively experience, which might be economic or political in nature—like blaming a particular party for the Great Depression (1929-1939) or the Great Recession (2007-2009). This form of scapegoating often manifests across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.

The Scapegoat Theory of Intergroup Conflict

Scapegoating of one group by another has been used throughout history, and still today, as a way to incorrectly explain why certain social, economic, or political problems exist and harm the group doing the scapegoating. Some sociologists say that their research shows that groups that scapegoat occupy a low socio-economic status in society and have little access to wealth and power. They say these people are often experiencing prolonged economic insecurity or poverty, and come to adopt shared outlooks and beliefs that have been documented to lead to prejudice and violence.

Sociologists who embrace socialism as a political and economic theory argue that those in a low socioeconomic status are naturally inclined to scapegoat due to the unequal distribution of resources within the society. These sociologists place blame on capitalism as an economic model and exploitation of workers by a wealthy minority. However, these are not the viewpoints of all sociologists. As with any science involving theories, study, research, and conclusions—it's not an exact science, and therefore there will be a variety of viewpoints.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Crossman, Ashley. (2021, September 8). Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).