Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory

Origins of the Term and Overview of its Use in 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. In fact, this is so common throughout history and still today that scapegoat theory was developed as a way to see and analyze conflict between 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. The Hebrew term "azazel" was used to refer to this goat, which translated to "sender away of sins." 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. Scapegoating can be a one-on-one phenomenon, in which one person blames another for something they or someone else did. This form of scapegoating is common among children, who, seeking to avoid the shame of disappointing their parents and the punishment that might follow a misdeed, blame a sibling or a friend for something they did.

Scapegoating also occurs in a one-on-group manner, when one person blames a group for a problem they did not cause. This form of scapegoating often reflects racial, ethnic, religious, or anti-immigrant biases. For example, when a white person who is passed over for a promotion at work while a Black colleague instead gets that promotion believes that Black people get special privileges and treatment because of their race and that this is the reason that he or she is not advancing in their career.

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 a girl or woman who alleges sexual assault is scapegoated by members of her community for "causing trouble" or "ruining" the life of her male attacker.

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 group collectively experiences, which might be economic or political in nature. 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. Sociologists observe that groups that scapegoat others typically occupy a low socio-economic status in society and have little access to wealth and power.

They also are often experiencing prolonged economic insecurity or poverty, and come to adopt a shared outlook and beliefs which have been documented to lead to prejudice and violence toward minority groups.

Sociologists would argue that they are in this position due to unequal distribution of resources within the society, like in a society where capitalism is the economic model and the exploitation of workers by a wealthy minority is the norm. However, failing to see or understand these socio-economic dynamics, low-status groups often turn to scapegoating other groups and blaming them for these problems.

Groups chosen for scapegoating are also often in low-status positions due to the socio-economic structure of society, and also lack power and the ability to fight back against the scapegoating.

It is common for scapegoating to grow out of common, widespread prejudices against and practices of stereotyping minority groups. Scapegoating of minority groups often leads to violence against the targeted groups, and in the most extreme cases, to genocide. All of which is to say, group-on-group scapegoating is a dangerous practice.

Examples of Scapegoating of Groups within the United States

Within the economically stratified society of the United States, working class and poor whites have often scapegoated racial, ethnic, and immigrant minority groups. Historically, poor white southerners regularly scapegoated Black people in the period after slavery, blaming them for low prices for cotton and the economic distress that poor whites experienced, and targeting them with what they perceived to be retributive violence. In this case, a minority group was scapegoated by a majority group for structural economic problems that actually harmed both, and that neither caused.

After the period in which Affirmative Action laws took effect, Black people and other members of racial minorities were regularly scapegoated by the white majority for "stealing" jobs and positions at colleges and universities from whites who they believed were more qualified. In this case, minority groups were scapegoated by a majority group who was angry that the government was attempting to curb the extent of their white privilege and begin to correct centuries of racist oppression.

Most recently, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump scapegoated immigrants and their native-born descendants for issues of crime, terrorism, job scarcity, and low wages. His rhetoric resonated with the white working class and poor whites, and encouraged them to also scapegoat immigrants for these reasons. That scapegoating turned to physical violence and hate speech in the immediate aftermath of the election.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.