Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory


  • Scapegoating is an analysis of violence and aggression in which people who have undergone or who are undergoing negative experiences — such as failure or abuse by others — blame an innocent individual or group for the experience.
  • Although the term scapegoat is biblical, Emile Durkheim was the first to talk about it in a sociological context. Durkheim believed that the practice of scapegoating is fundamental to the structures of societies and that every event that generates negative emotions must have a scapegoat.
  • Scapegoating can take place between individuals, between an individual and a group, between a group and an individual, and between groups. Sociology is most concerned with the last of these conditions.
  • Scapegoating has been explained in terms of Freud’s theory of displaced aggression. Other researchers have identified factors that make certain groups more likely to be scapegoated than others.
  • Scapegoating has occurred throughout history to numerous groups, often triggered by a distressing event and as a means to justify discrimination or mass murder.

What is Scapegoating?

Scapegoating is the act of blaming an out-group when the frustration of the in-group experience is blocked from obtaining a goal (Allport, 1954).

Scapegoating is a way to analyze negative experiences in terms of blaming an innocent individual or group for the event. The one doing the scapegoating can then use the mistreatment of the scapegoat as an outlet for their own frustrations and hostilities.

Subsequently, the group can mistreat the scapegoat as an outlet for their frustrations and hostilities.

The word scapegoat is a compound of the archaic verb scape, meaning escape, and goat, a misreading of the Hebrew ʽazāzēl. Historians believe that the term scapegoat was first coined in the 16th century to describe the ritual animals that those in Jewish communities placed their sins onto in preparation for Yom Kippur by the Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his translation of the Hebrew Bible.

The Book of Leviticus, part of the Hebrew Bible, describes the sacrifice of goats during the holiday by throwing goats off of rocky headlands — the Azazel — who have symbolically had the sins of the community placed upon them.

Celebrants believed that this slaughter would bring atonement to their communities.

Durkheim’s Scapegoat Theory

The first person to talk about scapegoating in a sociological context was Emile Durkheim, whose work was supplemented by his followers Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, Robert Hertz, and Paul Fauconnet (Mestrovic, 2015).

Durkheim put forth a theory of scapegoating that connects perspectives in sociology, anthropology, psychology, law, and religion.

Durkheim believed that when a piacular event — any misfortune that causes feelings of disquiet and fear — occurs, both the individual and society are threatened with disintegration, and they resort to a specific set of rituals called piacular rites to regain the stability and sense of integration that they had lost. These rites involve the processes of blame, sacrifice, and scapegoating.

Durkheim believed that the most common piacular event in social life is death and that someone or something must be blamed or scapegoated for every death.

For example, years of smoking and poor diet lead to a heart attack or the inattention of a drunk driver.

Fauconnet (1920) elaborated on Durkheim’s insight by saying that, historically, animals and inanimate objects as well as people and groups, have been blamed, condemned, and punished as a way to atone for death. For example, animals and insects have been killed and driven out of European countries as scapegoats for the plague and other misfortunes.

Fauconnet expanded upon this concept by saying that all legal systems throughout the world, throughout all of history, are principled on the idea that someone or something must be sacrificed and must suffer as a way to create justice in response to a perceived misfortune.

This happens not because these things or groups of people are objectively responsible but because this responsibility must fall on someone or something (Mestrovic, 2007).

Types of Scapegoating

Sociologists generally recognize four ways in which scapegoating takes place and through which scapegoats are created:

  1. As a one-on-one phenomenon where one person blames another for something they did, this often happens among children who blame a sibling or friend for something they did in order to avoid the shame of, say, disappointing their parents and the punishment that may ensue (Hammer, 2007).
  2. In a one-on-group manner, where one person blames a group for a problem they did not cause. These problems can involve war, deaths, financial losses, or other personal struggles. This form of scapegoating can be put on racial, ethnic, religious, or class groups. For example, someone who attributes their job loss to an influx of immigrants from a certain country is engaging in one-on-group scapegoating (Hammer, 2007).
  3. Scapegoating can also take on a group-on-one form, meaning that a group of people singles out and blames one person for a problem. For example, multiple members of a sports team may blame a player who makes a mistake for the loss of a match despite other aspects of play affecting the outcome. Similarly, a group of people may blame a political figure for not delivering on their promised policies, although many factors may have come into play (Hammer, 2007).
  4. Finally, scapegoating can have a group-on-group form. This is of particular interest to sociologists and can happen when one group blames another for problems that the group collectively experiences. Often, these issues are economic or political in nature and manifest along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. For example, the members of one party may blame another for a financial crisis such as the Great Recession (Hammer, 2007).


Scapegoating is somewhat consistent with Sigmund Freud’s notions of displacement or projection as defense mechanisms (Hammer, 2007).

According to Freud, people displaced hostility that they hold toward unacceptable targets — such as their parents or their boss — onto less powerful ones.

Similarly, Freud’s projection refers to one’s tendency to attribute one’s own unacceptable feelings or anxieties to others, thus denying them within oneself.

Both of these mechanisms, according to Freud, protect people from their illicit desires or fears by helping them reject the idea that they hold unacceptable feelings toward authority. The target of their displacement may become a scapegoat (Hammer, 2007).

More recently, sociologists have used the idea of displaced aggression to describe the tendency to scapegoat. For example, a woman who has just had a fight with her boyfriend may kick her dog for minor misbehavior when she comes home.

The dog, in this instance, becomes the scapegoat and pays the price for the fight she had with her boyfriend. The aggression that resulted from the fight is not directed toward its true cause — the boyfriend — but a more acceptable target — the dog — who cannot retaliate or argue back.

Sociologists have also used the theory of relative deprivation to explain people’s tendency to scapegoat. This theory suggests that people experience negative emotions when they feel as though they are treated poorly for illegitimate reasons.

For example, someone may feel deprived after learning that a colleague got a raise after befriending their manager. As a result, the person may resent their colleague for their lower salary (Hammer, 2007).

Intergroup Conflict

Scapegoating of one group by another has been used throughout history as a way to explain why certain social, economic, or political problems exist and harm the group doing the scapegoating.

Often, the people engaging in scapegoating are said to be experiencing prolonged economic insecurity and come to adopt shared beliefs that can lead to prejudice and violence.

Researchers have specified some conditions in which scapegoating against a particular group is the most likely to occur. Often, the scapegoated group tends to be of lower power standing than the group going the scapegoating because the scapegoats would otherwise be able to stamp out the opposition of those that blame them.

Groups that get scapegoated also tend to be recognized as distinct from the ingroup of the blaming group. This allows members of the group to be easily identifiable and associated with the undesired situation. Finally, scapegoats tend to pose a real threat to the ingroup, either intentionally or unintentionally.

For example, lynchings against black Americans rose dramatically in correspondence to reduced economic prospects for white Americans, such as during the Great Depression.

White Americans perceived their black counterparts as a greater threat to increasingly scarce jobs and opportunities and, as a result, were lethally punished.

In times of less distress, scapegoat groups are seen as posing less of a threat and therefore are less likely to be seen as scapegoats (Hammer, 2007).


Sociologists have interpreted many historical examples of scapegoating through the lens of Durkheim. These range from the Spanish Inquisition, the Puritan-Indian wars of 1636, the burning of women as alleged witches, and the rise of fascism after the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most blatant and tragic example of scapegoating in modern history is the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler notoriously scapegoated Jews for the suffering of the Germans after World War I.

By depicting Jewish people as more commercially successful than the average German citizen, Hitler rallied Germans to extreme levels of nationalism at the expense of Jews and other groups.

Hitler conjured resentment and hatred toward the groups and triggered a genocide of millions of people for the perceived improvement of Germany.

Scapegoating has been used as a justification, and scholars have written, for the mass murder of other groups. In his book Wayward Puritans, Kai T. Erikson (1966) demonstrated that the Puritans in New England began persecuting Native Americans as a response to the plight and social disorganization of the original settlers.

Multi-century persecution would eventually lead to a near-eradication of Native American populations in the United States.


Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Human Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Erikson, K. T. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance.

Fauconnet, P. (1920). La responsabilité.

Kessler, T., & Mummendey, A. (2001). Is there any scapegoat around? Determinants of intergroup conflicts at different categorization levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 1090.

Hammer, E. (2007). Scapegoat Theory. In Baumeister, R. F. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of social psychology (Vol. 1). Sage.

Mestrovic, S. (2007). Scapegoating. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 1-2.

Mestrovic, S. (2015). G. 21. Yüzyılda Durkheim, çev. S. Güldal, S. Güldal, Ġstanbul: Matbu Kitap.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.