If you look at the way in which cohorts of children distribute themselves in the playground, you soon discover some fairly consistent patterns. There will usually be two or three, predominantly single sex, groups of upto eight, then there will be one or two groups of four, roughly four groups of two who may be joined by a few solo children to make up threesomes, and two or three soloists who find a reason not to be part of even a pairing, and maintain this consistently for much of their time at school. Thus we have accounted for a ‘class’ of 43 or thereabouts – this might be a year group in a primary school, half a year at a secondary, or a full class in some structures.
All is well, and the groups happily co-exist. Then something happens that affects one of the larger groups. Perhaps it was wet that day, or one of them felt ‘put-down’ by a teacher, or someone was ditched by a girl- or boy- friend the night before. Perhaps they have been playing football and their team loses.
For some reason, one of the soloists gets drawn closer to the group. In some cases, they happened to be close physically, or perhaps they were the first one to make eye contact with the recipient of a teacher’s ‘put-down’. Maybe they kindly retrieved the ball when it went somewhere it shouldn’t. Or even just offer a word of sympathy to someone else.
In a few seconds, the focus of the group goes to the outsider. Whatever the misfortune, they quickly get blamed for it – whether explicitly or not – and the mood of the group turns sour. For some individuals this happens frequently, other times it’s a one-off; sometimes the sourness escalates to physical threats or violence; other times it may take the form of taunts or verbal abuse.
The individual is being blamed – they are expected to take responsibility for something that they usually had nothing to do with. They have become the ‘scapegoat’.
Scapegoating is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame. Although, in many cases the scapegoat is an individual (whether a child, employee, or peer) there are plenty of examples of ethnic or religious groups, divisions of a business, government departments, industry sectors, and even whole countries.
Psychodynamically, scapegoating is defined as a “process by which the mechanisms of projection or displacement are used to focus unwarranted levels of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., on another individual or group.” Aggression, hostility and frustration are behaviours, as is the act itself of scapegoating. What underlies them is emotional energy and it is the pain of experiencing this energy within that leads an individual or group to seek to displace it unconsciously. This is why scapegoating is seen as a defence mechanism (aka coping strategy).
It is possible for the scapegoating to be done by an individual or a group.
The way that this is usually achieved is by drawing on a psychological defence mechanism, known as projection. Essentially, thoughts and feelings that we believe we shouldn’t have are unconsciously projected onto another individual. This can be done by one person or by a group. If those thoughts or feelings reflect some kind of problem – not having enough money, being out of work, being unsuccessful in love, perhaps – then the projection relieves us of some of the pain of our condition.
Very occasionally, projection of this kind can be entirely understandable – for example, if a large part of society has been adversely affected by the actions of a small part, then the majority (especially if they feel helpless) may project their anger onto the perpetrators – suggesting that it is they who are angry instead. However, the real clue that scapegoating has been at work is in its repetitive pattern when some kind of threat can be perceived – whether it is repeated by an individual, by a group, or within a community.
SCAPEGOATING BY AN INDIVIDUAL
Scapegoating is often observed in work settings especially where a ‘subordinate’ employee is blamed for the mistakes of their manager. Positional power allows the person in authority to justify their own behaviour – often confusing their emotional reaction with some intuitive ability to judge others.
Sometimes the dynamics within the organisation or team mean that once instigated by an individual the other members will adopt it too (often out of fear that they too will otherwise be a victim). Such a mechanism is probably behind many cases of bullying within teams.
Scapegoating is associated with a variety of psychological conditions; antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, and paranoid personality disorders as well as psychopathy.
SCAPEGOATING BY GROUPS
Scapegoating also happens within groups. It is always worth looking to see whether there is an instigator – an individual who is concealed within the group yet operates as an individual. In my experience these people often fulfil several of the criteria for a personality disorder – especially the narcissistic one which, at least among SMEs, is sometimes partially effective as a coping structure and doesn’t limit the individual’s success beyond their aspirations.
To understand the phenomenon in groups we need to look for different mechanisms. There are two that I encounter; a group psychodynamic process and an societal one.
GROUP PSYCHODYNAMICS AND SCAPEGOATING
As an outlet for emotional pain, scapegoating works as much for teams as it does for the individual. If a group feels that it is under threat, then it will seek to defend itself.
When a chief executive is appointed, seeks to introduce change, and is then forced to take the blame for organisational problems (often originating from before their appointment, outwith their control, or where the ‘problem’ is a PR issue rather than a ‘real’ one), then scapegoating is often at work beneath the surface.
A senior professional within a department, who is outspoken about the perceived diminution of the professional standards within it, may beleive that they are acting professionally by raising the issue. If pressed, they may say that their criticism is directed at the ‘administration’ or ‘management’ of the service. Yet, the people who feel treatened by their behaviour are their peers and colleagues. Whispering begins. Their supervisor senses that they are devoting too much time to ‘whinging’ and that their work performance is suffering. They sense that they are being put under pressure to perform to ever increasing workloads, or that their work pattern is being reorganised inefficiently. Sooner or later they develop symptoms of stress and seek help outside from their GP. Eventually, a disciplinary process kicks in and sooner or later they leave.
If there’s a likelihood that a group was under threat, then the indication that scapegoating was at play is often what happens next. Will the next most senior person be targetted? Will someone more junior (even a probationer) be targetted? Will the group have difficulty recruiting? Or will they really breath a sigh of relief and get better quickly?
SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY AND SCAPEGOATING
Scapegoating as an evolutionary anthropological phenomenon was first identified by the literary critic and philosopher, Kenneth Burke, in his book ‘Permanence and Change’ published in 1935. This work influenced Rene Girard who developed the concept much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture. In Girard’s view, two processes are at play – most humans, he says, have a strong need to avoid violence. However, they also have a powerful desire to possess what another person has (known as mimetic desire).
The two escalate – often in a spiralling fashion – where two people (or two families) compete with one another. At some point, the stability of the community as a whole is threatened. At this point, the scapegoat mechanism is triggered and one person is singled out as the cause of the trouble, and is expelled or even killed by the group.
This person is the scapegoat. The social order is restored and the community are relieved that they have addressed their problem. Again, the clue lies in the repetitive nature of scapegoating!