Prejudice Theory: Scapegoat Theory Research Paper Starter

Prejudice Theory: Scapegoat Theory

Scapegoating is the process through which frustration and aggression are directed at a group that is not the causal agent of the frustration. Scapegoat theory emerged during the 1940s as a way for social psychologists to explain why prejudice and racism occur. Though many scholars today choose to study racism from a social cognitive or institutional perspective, some continue to use scapegoat theory to study responses to affirmative action and immigration policies.

Keywords Affirmative Action; Immigration; Prejudice; Racism; Scapegoating; Social Psychology; Stereotypes



For over a century, social psychology has concerned itself with the intersection of the individual with society. One of the field's preeminent theorists, Gordon Allport, explained in 1954 that "social psychologists regard their discipline as an attempt to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings" (quoted in Lubek, 2000, p. 320). Racism and its social effects have been significant areas of study for social psychologists. Scholars in the field have put forth a number of theories about racism, but this article will concentrate on scapegoat theory.

According to Echebarria (1997) scapegoat theory emerged during the 1940s as social psychologists began their first attempts to conceptualize racial prejudice. During this time, prejudice was largely seen as being rooted in psychology, not society; it was "the result of defense mechanisms through which internal conflicts were resolved" (Echebarria, 1997, p. 1). The scapegoat theory was introduced during this time as a means of explaining why frustration and aggression are deflected toward other, less powerful groups in the form of prejudice, even if those groups are not the source of the frustration. For example, an economic downturn may cause a group to become aggressive towards immigrants, whom it blames for taking its jobs, since it is unable to express its anger toward the cause of its frustration. Thus, anger, and even violence, is deflected away from the true source of the frustration — which Echebarria defined as the "interruption or impossibility to obtain certain desired goals" (p. 2)—because it is either impossible or too difficult to address the source of this frustration (Echebarria, 1997, McMannus, 2008).Thus, scapegoat theory introduced societal aspects into the period's purely psychological approach to prejudice.


Gordon Allport further advanced the theory during the 1950s with his work on ingroups and outgroups in The Nature of Prejudice (1954). He drew on William Graham Sumner's work in Folkways (1906) to outline a theory of prejudice that is based upon ingroup and outgroup conflict. According to Allport, the need for defined ingroups and outgroups grew out of our evolutionary development as an obligatorily interdependent species. Because humans rely on one another for the information and resources they need to survive, we must be willing to trust and cooperate with one another. But indiscriminate trust isn't a good survival strategy, since it is necessary to have some degree of certainty that the obligation is mutual. Therefore, ingroups are formed in which members are obligated to reciprocate any aid given to them in a system of "contingent altruism" (Brewer, 1999, p. 433). At the most basic level, members expect the ingroup to treat them with kindness and fairness so long as they cooperate with other group members. As groups become larger, signs and symbols are created to differentiate ingroup members from outgroup members so that outgroup members will not accidentally receive the benefits given to ingroup members. At the same time, the group's institutions and rules gain a degree of moral authority within the group. And as that authority becomes more absolute, the ingroup members' tolerance for the institutions and rules of the outgroup declines, leading to disapproval of or outright hostility toward the outgroup (Brewer, 1999).

Scapegoating can occur when an ingroup perceives itself to be interdependent with an outgroup. When the two groups are forced to work together to achieve a common goal or face a common threat, the lack of mutual trust between the groups becomes particularly noticeable. Since neither group can trust the other to not exploit the relationship, the relationship becomes one of distrust. This distrust can lead to scapegoating as one group blames the other for the difficulties or failures it encounters while working to achieve the groups' mutual goal or ward off a mutual threat (Brewer, 1999).

One of Allport's unique insights was that aggression directed against an outgroup does not serve a cathartic function. Instead, he believed that aggression feeds on itself, resulting in ever worse relationships between the two groups (Pettigrew, 1999).


The French anthropologist and philosopher, Rene Girard, revived scapegoat theory during the 1980s (Wagner, 1986). Drawing on sources ranging from Greek mythology to the Biblical Passion, he claimed that:

….human communities maintain their order—language, status, possession and so forth—through a system of differences. These differences are threatened by violence within the group. Sacrifice is a momentary reversion to the chaos of violence in order to maintain the system of differences (Williams, 1989, p. 452)


The scapegoat allows the social group to achieve unanimity by imputing its sin (=violence) to the sacrificial victim. Violence is thus both checked and maintained through a ritual act that itself is a form of violence (Williams, 1989, p. 451).

Girard used his most controversial writings—Violence and the Sacred (1977) The Scapegoat (1986) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987)—to show how sacrificial scapegoats function in areas as wide ranging as law, literature, politics, and religion. He focused on sacrificial foundational myths, embedding them with critical importance:

These myths operate [by turning] certain targeted 'others' into 'aliens'. Holding these aliens responsible for the ills and divisions of society, the scapegoaters proceed to isolate or eliminate them. This sacrificial strategy furnishes many communities with their sense of collective identity—that is, with the basic sense of who is included (us) and who is excluded (aliens). But the price to be paid is often the demonising of an innocent outsider: the immolation of the 'other' on the altar of the 'alien' (Kearney, 1999, p. 251-252).

Thus scapegoats unite divided groups against a perceived "other," and the violence directed at the "other" allows the community to forget its internal divisions. And while examples of the "immolation of the 'other'" are abundant in Greek or Roman mythology, Girard also argued that the same dynamic is in play today, too, albeit in less obvious ways. Indeed, Girard argued that all modern societies take part in scapegoating at some level. Whether the scapegoating is carried out via a witch hunt or in the name of national security, the tendency to persecute the "…fantasy of the evil adversary" (Kearney, 1999) is a part of an ancient tradition.


Affirmative Action

Just as scholars were beginning to formally study prejudice and racism, America was entering into the civil rights era. In 1955, Brown v. The Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 ended de jure segregation in schools, and nine years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public places, the government, and workplaces.

In the years after the civil rights era, some activists and legal scholars sought to realize further changes by expanding the scope of affirmative action, often through legal means. These programs are designed to increase the representation of groups who have historically been excluded from participation in certain employment sectors, companies, or educational institutions. Affirmative action programs can take many forms, ranging from programs that encourage employers and admissions committees to report on the racial and gender breakdown of those who apply and those who are accepted to strict quota programs requiring that a specific number or percentage of those accepted come from underrepresented backgrounds.

While many affirmative action programs remain legal, strict quota programs were ruled unconstitutional in the landmark affirmative action case was Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 912 (1978). Allan Bakke, a white man, had applied to the University of California, Davis Medical School in 1973 and 1974 through its general admissions program and was rejected both times. He sued, claiming that the university's special admissions program, which each year admitted sixteen applicants with lower test scores and grade point averages than applicants to the general program, operated as a racial and ethnic quota system and had discriminated against him because of his race. While the Court found that it is a positive good for colleges and graduate schools to work to achieve diversity...

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