What Is Scapegoating?

Often, collective preoccupations Opens in new window lead to scapegoating, which occurs when a group collectively identifies another group as a threat to the perceived social order and incorrectly blames the other group for problems they have not caused. The group so identified then becomes the target of negative actions that can range from ridicule to imprisonment, extreme violence, and even death.

Scapegoating or the practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame is a common occurrence during post-crisis recovery. Based on the work of Bucher (1957), of Veltfore and Lee (1943), and of Drabeck and Quarantelli (1967), Wenger (1978) concludes that beliefs about blame take a period of time to evolve. Accusations of blame can be expected to emerge, not in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but at some later time.

Sometimes scapegoating involves one person blamed by another person or group for a perceived problem. When scapegoating becomes a collective phenomenon—an entire group blamed by another group—it is a collective preoccupation Opens in new window.

Blaming or scapegoating has been found to occur in those circumstances in which human action is involved and in which there is the possibility of recurrence. Bucher opines that blame results from seeking an explanation to something which cannot be explained satisfactorily in conventional terms.

In other words, blaming or scapegoating serves a psychological need. It is an attempt to control the future by creating a structure whereby inexplicable events become explicable. Apparently, blaming also has an instrumental effect. A person is more likely to offer help if the injured individual implies that the person is to blame (Schwartz & David, 1976).

People in certain positions are more likely to be blamed than others. The lowly ranked individual is usually not an acceptable scapegoat Opens in new window, and the tendency is to reject that person in favor of something one higher in authority (Bucher, 1957). However, the highest ranked individual may also be an unacceptable scapegoat, since condemning him or her tends to condemn the values of the organization.

Focusing blame on the second– or third–in–charge would seem to satisfy the psychological needs associated with scapegoating, while leaving the values of the organization unchallenged. Excluding the “person at the top” from blame would appear to be more functional for group members than for outsiders.

Since blaming or scapegoating gives one some control over the action of others, and at least illusory control over future events, it is reasonable to expect that a crisis in group or organization could result in scapegoating. Specific efforts need to be taken to deal with this post-crisis phenomenon.