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  You are Here:    Home          Contributing Reporters          Scapegoating The Stigmatization Of Social Representations

August 20, 2022

A disease with a name seems on the way to a cure, so uncontrollable phenomena are frequently renamed to create the impression of control. (Girard 1986:4)

Real and imaginary scapegoats have played a large role throughout history. From popular fiction to sacred texts to contemporary news, many narratives tell us of how group cohesion or of how escaping troubling situations have involved a group focusing its aggressive energies upon another individual or group (Allport, 1948, 1956; Berkowitz 1962; Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears 1939; Zawadski 1948). The most horrendous examples, from Rwanda to the Holocaust to the medieval witch-hunts, involved complex group-level coordination that seem to defy most moralities and logics. Conceptually however scapegoating may be defined as the process by which a dominant group preserves or reestablishes its esteem and purges itself of intolerable guilt or frustration over social circumstances by unfairly blaming their misfortunes on a racialized minority group (Allport 1956; Burke 1995; Hughes 2003; Pok 1998). Typically, the amounts of aggression and blame towards a scapegoated group are either partly or wholly unwarranted (Allport 1948; Zawadski 1948). The sociological literature provides robust explanations for the developments of prejudice and its behavioral manifestation – discrimination – but extant theories lack cohesion for explaining how dominant groups choose to blame their misfortune on certain racialized minorities over others and consequently seek the cultural or physical destruction of that minority group.

Either focused too heavily on individual-levels of blame-shifting or desire for control, sociological literature lacks a framework for explaining scapegoating as a collective process embedded within wider social and ideological knowledge systems and practices that inform racialized encounters. Sound social psychological conceptual architecture and theoretical frames can improve upon these faults. Although numerous scholars have suggested that cultural traditions and constituent stereotypes can help inform post hoc explanations for the need for scapegoats to blame for social crises, many more contend that no established theory can satisfactorily explain the combination of factors that constitute historic examples of scapegoating: (1) why a certain minority group is chosen over others to blame for social crises; (2) the striking difference in the intensity of hatred toward that minority compared to others; (3) how such hatred becomes consensual among the majority of a dominant group; and (4) the factors which then lead to attempts at their physical or cultural destruction (Allport 1948; Berkowitz 1962; Glick 2005; Wills 1981; Zawadski 1948). 

Gordon Allport (1948, 1954) himself recognized the limitations of his theories to explain the choice of a certain minority group as scapegoats over others (Glick 2005). Building off the theoretical developments in sociology and social psychology since the 1950s, this article suggests a group-level framework for a theory of scapegoating as the apex of escalating intergroup tensions. One person blaming another is not scapegoating. Although scapegoating has widespread material consequences, this essay argues that the use of the concept scapegoating requires equally widespread consensual moral blame and ought to be understood as operating primarily on a symbolic level of social representation (Allport 1948; Glick 2005; Hall 1997; Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts 2013;  Howarth 2006a, 2006b; Mellema 2000). This essay argues that the concept of scapegoating ought to be reserved for explanations and analyses at the group-level and proposes some crucial components that could be expected to advance our understanding of the social conditions which precipitate scapegoating: (1) the mimetics of desire as the source of intergroup conflict which produces (2) group-based envious prejudice among a dominant group as the force behind shared attributions of moral blame resulting in (3) stigmatization which distorts and spoils the social identity of a weaker group in such a way that undesirable characteristics of this group can be perceived by a majority of a dominant group as signs that their existence is undesirable; and (4) how real or perceived social crises incite moral panic and heighten the perception of group threat, which results in and enables the rationalization of full-fledge group persecution.

In order to forward this argument, it is necessary to distinguish between a number of terms and concepts that are often used interchangeably: prejudice, discrimination, stigmatization, and, the centerpiece of this essay, scapegoating. To begin, let us turn to the origin and evolution of the final term among these.


And the goat shall bear upon him all their inequities.

-Leviticus 16:22

The term ‘scapegoat’ is believed to have originated in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament (Pok 1998) in reference to an ancient Jewish tradition of atonement where a high priest would symbolically transfer the inequities of the population onto a live goat, send it off into the desert, and, subsequently, purge the people of their sins and guilt (Allport 1948; Eagle 1981; Hughes 2003; Kahn 1980; Mellema 2000; Rothschild, Landau, Sullivan, & Keefer 2012). Since then the meaning of the term has broadened to include any person or peoples who have been banished, ostracized, or outright destroyed for ‘polluting’ the human community (Antsey 1982; Girard 1986:24). This discriminatory process is often the result of a group response to some uncontrollable phenomena or social circumstance, such as the medieval witch-hunts that emerged out of the devastation wreaked upon Europe by the Black Plague (Glick 2005) or the persecution of Oedipus in plague-stricken Thebes (Girard 1986). Examples are legion and each practically identical to the others with respect to how the frustration of a group over some social phenomena is focused into persecution towards some individual or group. What are highly dissimilar and divergent are explanations for how different kinds of social crises can induce scapegoating and, most importantly, how groups come to choose their peculiar object deserving of physical or cultural destruction.

Although there are numerous examples of racial or ethnic scapegoating throughout history, the events of World War II were particularly powerful in stimulating scholarly interest in theorizing on the concept. Following the war, Gordon Allport (1946) released a 72-page text, the ABCs of Scapegoating, with the clearly apparent intention of raising public awareness on the processes of discrimination and to promote “greater good will among all peoples” (1). This work and his seminal work to follow, On the Nature of Prejudice (Allport 1954), ignited an explosion of research and theorizing (Dollard et al. 1939; Duckitt 1992; McClendon 1974; Rothschild et al. 2012). Like the field into which scapegoating theorizing was primarily subsumed – psychodynamics – research on scapegoating theories largely fell out of favor (Glick 2005). Contrasting this decline, sociologists and social psychologists were less interested in the internal psychodynamics related to scapegoating and instead interrogated its social structural elements, contending that the process of scapegoating produced and sustained a deviant Other to improve group cohesion and crystallize group norms (Dentler & Erikson 1959; Durkheim 1998).

Sociologists, social psychologists, and social workers took up the mantle in earnest and began extricating scapegoating theory from ‘pure drive’ theories (Bandura 1973; Berkowitz 1989) and from explanations bound to intrapsychic prejudice that neglect considerations for how scapegoating is fundamentally mediated through intersubjective experiences (Berkowitz & Green 1962; Feshbach 1964; Lindzey 1950). Instead, theorists began to advance the notion that the intensity of consensual hatred and certainty of blame by ‘scapegoaters’ must be considered as mediated by the interactions between group goal-attainment processes (Antsey 1982; Bales & Slater 1955; Berkowitz 1989; Burke 1967). Pursuing the same goals, or incompatible goals, can threaten the probability that each or either group can realize its goals (Duckitt 1992; McClendon 1974) which can cause conditions of social decline and invoke a group function directed towards cohesion that Tajfel (1981) calls ‘the attribution of social causality’. Blame allocation means not only avoiding responsibility, but also obscuring the original problem (Pok 1998). Rather than accept that the ingroup is responsible for its own failure and strains, which could seriously erode group cohesion, highly committed members of an ingroup instead attribute these to the malevolent and intentional actions of some salient minority (Duckitt 1992; Glick 2005; Tajfel 1981). Whereas Dollard et al.’s (1938) frustration-aggression model would assert that scapegoating results from the projection of intrapsychic frustration, sociologists and social psychologists instead turned to the stereotype content model (Allport 1956; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu; Tajfel 1981) and an external stimulus model of frustration (Berkowitz 1962; Wills 1981), both of which consider not only the motivations and actions of the ‘scapegoater’ but also those characteristics of the ‘scapegoat’ that could be expected to theoretically stimulate the intensification of between-group aversion (Berkowitz 1989).

While some might consider such an approach ‘victim-blaming’, it must instead be considered good thorough science that observes processes of hierarchical construction (Burke 1995; Hughes 2003) which effectively conceptualizes the dominant group and subaltern groups in terms of their interactions during group-position differentiation (Blumer 1958; Burke 1967, 1969 Shulman 1979). This turns us to examine how scapegoating can be illuminated by making connections between group processes, sociological social psychology, and race & ethnicity literatures.


Experimenting with small groups, Bales & Slater (1955) illustrated the processes by which role-differentiation emerges among members of small groups. Building from this work, Burke (1969) and Gallagher & Burke (1969) showed how scapegoating is a process by which members displace hostility towards a task leader upon a member consensually defined as ‘low-status’. Bobo’s (2017) criticism of Trump’s presidency illustrates how the attitude held by a majority of the population towards its leaders can be displaced towards and thus differentiate low-status groups from the dominant group in much the same manner. Shared anxieties over the abilities of the US government to mitigate “worsening economic inequality in the presence of rapidly changing ethnoracial demography” (S85) could be exploited through what Burke (1995) calls a ‘rhetorical unification device’. Authorities within a group can attempt to unify culture through rhetorical devices, such as discourse around inborn dignity, projection of misfortunes onto another group, and finally a symbolic rebirth of the dominant group.  The consensus achieved can be imagined as operating along the lines of Allport’s (1956) group norm theory of prejudice which adroitly asserts the pressures of conformity:

We are now in a position to understand and appreciate a major theory of prejudice. It holds that all groups (whether ingroups or reference groups) develop a way of living with characteristic codes and beliefs, standards and ‘enemies’ to suit their own adaptive needs. The theory holds also that both gross and subtle pressures keep every individual member in line. The ingroup’s preferences must be his preferences, its enemies his enemies.(38)

Experiments by social psychologists have also shown that individuals blame and punish a viable collective for a negative event or outcome out of concerns for personal value or control (Rothschild et al. 2012). Indeed it is clear how choices like these on the individual-level contribute to such questionable group practices and beliefs as eugenics, social Darwinism, or any other history of prejudice and shared attribution of blame for social problems ascribed to some racialized group captured within an unequal matrix of power (Foucault 1981; Howarth 2006). Individual levels of analysis reveal individual-level processes and are thus only the entry-point for analyses of dynamics on the group-level. Social Identity theorists (Allport 1956; Billig 1976; Tajfel 1981; Tajfel & Turner 1979) begin to bridge this gap with cogent frameworks for understanding how reference groups, those many we’s that constitute one’s sense of self, are the primary driver behind group relations.  Further to the point, Santril (1941) and Silverstein (1992) illustrate how during times of social instability ingroup members tend towards maintaining group cohesion by blaming some outgroup for declining social conditions. Some scholars insist that scapegoating can be better explained by more cogent theories, such as downward comparison (Willis 1981), anomie (Petersson 2003), or rhetorical unification (Burke 1995; Hughes 2993). Yet when we observe historical examples, these are only some of the individual components that comprise instances of scapegoating.  The present argument insists that the kinds of discrimination – the variations in aggression, which is a crucial distinction with respect to scapegoating – rely upon the kinds of prejudice that have achieved consensus status. That is, racial prejudice ought to be primarily understood as operating at the group-level (Billig 1976; Blumer 1958; Bobo & Hutchings 1996; Denis 2015) and the most extreme forms of discrimination ought to be primarily understood as rooted in the most consensual prejudices.

Histories of group prejudice are predicated on enduring widespread and shared frustrations and difficult life conditions which lead to a collective search for explanations and solutions (Glick 2005; Hughes 2003; Petersson 2003; Tajfel 1981). Since it may be too difficult for a group to explain causation for these frustrations and conditions, scapegoating a salient, weaker, racialized minority group “offers simpler, culturally plausible explanations and solutions for shared negative events” (Glick 2005:253). Such a choice is never arbitrary; rather, it is the product of the dialectic between social identities and social representations which characterizes unequal power relations between groups (Hall 1997; Howarth 2006). Members of social collectives mobilize social representations to legitimize, negate, or generally transform group identities (Link & Phelan 2001) in competitions over group position (Blumer 1958; Bobo & Hutchings 1996) which reciprocally shape group characteristics. In other words, prejudice is said to derive from a distaste for undesirable group characteristics, yet the outcome of most prejudice – overt discrimination – cannot help but create the social conditions, that is, a lack of opportunity, poverty, or ignorance, that produce those undesirable characteristics said to invoke prejudices (Mellema 2000; Zawadski 1948). Social representations, “the conscious and unconscious sum of ideas, prejudices, and myths that crystallize the victories and defeats of the races regarding how the world is and ought to be organized” (Bonilla-Silva:66), are both produced from and result in the material conditions of group life. Although this seems to bridge on tautology, the following section explains how the coproduction of social representations and material conditions for group-based life can inform a theory of scapegoating.


Frustration-aggression theory (Dollard et al. 1939) is often the way most people understand scapegoating (Lindzey 1950). The theory holds that a person succeeds in reducing his frustration by displacing it through hostility directed towards the more or less helpless members of minority groups in the form of discriminatory behavior. Dollard et al. (1939) also added that “aggression is not always manifested in overt movements but may exist as the content of a phantasy or a dream or even a well thought-out plan of revenge. It may be directed at the object which is perceived as causing the frustration or it may be displaced to some altogether innocent source” (10; emphasis added). The emphasis in the preceding quote is meant to draw the reader’s attention to the notion that the symbolic dimension of social representation may play a crucial role in distinguishing scapegoating from other forms of discrimination. We will move to a discussion of this, but first must turn back to Allport’s (1948) original model of how prejudice escalates into scapegoating.

Fig 1. – A Continuum of Social Relationships Among Human Groups (Allport 1948:10)   

Fig 1. shows Allport’s (1948) original model drawn from the ABCs of Scapegoating. His original formulation presented here and within his seminal text, On the Nature of Prejudice (Allport 1954), was undoubtedly a massive contribution to understanding group prejudice and discrimination. Allport himself however later offered critiques of the limitations of his framework. Allport’s (1948) model and almost all of those that followed primarily focused on individual psychopathology as the root cause of scapegoating and, as such, cannot adequately capture scapegoating as a group-level phenomenon. Numerous scholars assert that scapegoating cannot be adequately captured at the individual-level. For example, Tajfel (1981) hypothesized that individual frustrations lead people to blame other individuals, whereas shared (group-level) frustrations predispose people to blame other groups. Events that are interpreted as applying to the group as a whole arouse group-based sentiments (Durkheim 1998; Glick 2005), especially with respect to group-based racial prejudice (Blumer 1958) which Bobo & Hutchings (1996) insist can only emerge from competition among racialized groups. Drawing from these ideas, this section critiques the gaps in Allport’s model and psychopathological models more generally, while the next section will present a revised model for a theory of scapegoating.

Zawadzki (1948) was the first major critic of Allport’s (1948) theory of scapegoating. He claimed that the theory rested on an admixture of Freudian theory and the Frustration-Aggression hypothesis (Glick 2005). Previous notions explained extreme discrimination through a ‘well-earned reputation theory’ which assumed that undesirable group characteristics were inherited and essential and, not surprisingly, this line of thinking was eventually dismissed as archaic and racist.

Consequently, Zawadski (1948) posited that mid-20th-century ‘scapegoat’ theories arose out of a reaction to this racism. He continues that these reactionary stances overcompensated with their sensitivity to whether group characteristics could arouse prejudice and thereby denied their existence altogether.  He insisted that a comprehensive theory must necessarily understand prejudice as produced through interactions, explain how social conditions precipitate the need for a scapegoat, and, most importantly, provide a cogent mechanism for explaining the choice of a particular group. Zawadski (ibid.) and Berkowitz (1962) both argued that a scapegoat theory must also include both the motivations of the ‘scapegoaters’ and the stimulus qualities of the scapegoated group. Regardless of the distortions that stereotyped social representations have undergone, a proper scapegoat theory ought to be able to find “what grain of truth lay within and how or why they’ve undergone distortion” (Zawadski 1948:135). An aggressive focus on the drives of the scapegoating group cannot provide a successful account of the stimulus which evokes persecution (Wills 1981) and thus fails to adequately explain the choice of target.  Without a thorough examination of the characteristics of the socially victimized ethnic group, we risk stunting our understanding of intergroup competition, processes of shared attribution, and the resulting patterns prejudice may take (Berkowitz 1989; Duckitt 1992; Glick 2005).

According to Allport’s (1948) model, discrimination eventually leads to scapegoating, but the two are distinguishable “only in the amount of violence or expressed aggression” (13) and that “if conditions are ripe – if frustration, ignorance, and propaganda combine in proper proportions – [then] discrimination breaks over into scapegoating” (14). This distinction seems to lack conceptual clarity. Furthermore, it still fails to address the important question of why certain minority groups are chosen over others. Fiske et al. (2002) and Glick (2005) assert that a stereotype content model can help rectify this situation. The contents of group stereotypes are determined through the structural characteristics of relations between groups. These contents are limited to the possibilities for attributing causality. Causing widespread frustrations is unlikely to be attributed to a group largely viewed as incompetent and helpless. An elderly person would not be accused of some crime requiring great speed or feats of strength. That would never achieve consensus. Instead, shared attributions will only be directed towards those groups conceivably powerful enough to cause social harm (Allport 1948, 1956; Eagle 1981; Link & Phelan 2001). Power however can only provide part of the explanation, for if a group is high status, competent, or powerful, they could possibly be admired or sought as allies, rather than seen as enemies. Consequently, perceived intentionality is also a crucial component (Berkowitz 1989; Glick 2005) insofar as scapegoating groups must have reason to believe that the scapegoated group has both the power and malevolent intentions for social harm.

These two factors combined, power and intention, generate what Glick (2005) calls envious prejudice, which is qualitatively different from other forms of prejudice. Allport (1956) was careful to note that there are both negative and positive forms of prejudice, although it is the former on which most scholars focus. Envious prejudice is a pattern of attitudes combining both admiration for another group’s success and resentments and distrust over their social position. Glick (2005) provides an explanation of how “the nineteenth-century anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion…perfectly illustrates the character of envious prejudice. Far from being disparaged as inept, the Jews’ [malevolence,] power and abilities are exaggerated to a hysterical degree” (251). He further develops an explanation of how scapegoating is a collective commitment to hateful ideologies which creates “a consensus that spawns political movements (e.g., Nazism) and coordinated hostile actions (e.g., discriminatory laws, organized mass killings, etc.)” (ibid.:251). Although his revisions to Allport’s (1948, 1956) theory of scapegoating are comprehensive in explaining the final stages, there still seems to be substantial gaps in explaining the rise from tolerance through to these final horrible stages.

The next section of this article will address how contributions from social identity and cultural studies scholars may help to fill these gaps. The present work will do so by connecting the theory of social representations, here understood as those shared schematic categories that enable the interpretation of the cultural world (Hall 1997; Hall, et al. 2013; Howarth 2006a, 2006b; Tajfel 1981; Tajfel & Turner 1979), with theoretical advances on social stigma, here understood as how schematic categories are linked to stereotyped beliefs about other groups whose social representations are then ‘marked’ as not merely having, but being, a set of wholly undesirable group characteristics (Goffman 1963; Howarth 2006a, 2006b; Link & Phelan 2001).


Social representations do not merely influence daily practices, they constitute them (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Hall 1997; Howarth 2006b). Just as a social identity, a personal sense of ‘we’, relies on an ideal-type of ingroup to which one belongs to generally stimulate group cohesion (Sherif 1958; Tajfel & Turner 1979), so too must social representations of outgroups play a crucial role in how ingroup attitudes escalate from tolerance to envious prejudice. Fig. 2 presents a revised model of a theory of scapegoating that accounts for social representations for which this essay argues.

Fig. 2 – A revised model of a theory of scapegoating that accounts for social representations

Notably, although most theories suggest that the choice of scapegoats is derived from cultural traditions (Duckitt 1992; Glick 2005; Link & Phelan 2001), what is largely missing from most accounts of prejudice, discrimination, and hence scapegoating, is an explanation for the origins of such traditions (Zawadski 1948). Rene Girard (1986) offers an origins-story compelling for its elegant simplicity. In essence, he proclaims that culture arose out of mimetic desire. That is, human beings, imitative in nature, borrow desires from one another. This idea can be crudely captured by the colloquialism, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. Mimesis inevitably results in conflict over the possession of objects of similar desire and, from this, cultural variations begin to take shape. Branching off Girard (ibid.), the current article contends that differing levels of social cohesion, economic stability, and access to resources results in variations in cultural context. These differences in context inform racialized encounters and stereotypes begin to form between and across groups and ingroup/outgroup tensions emerge (Allport 1948, 1956; Duckitt 1992; Durkheim 1998) which produce, as a function of group cohesion and the clarification of group norms, the social representation of the deviant Other (Burke 1995; Eagle 1981; Tajfel 1981). The formation of stereotypes and the social representation of the deviant Other are the substrate for variations in moralities and hence can enhance the plausibility of ascribing moral blame to an outgroup for causing an ingroup’s woes (Glick 2005; Goffman 1963; Howarth 2006a; Mellema 2000; Rothschild et al. 2012). Although Allport (1948, 1954) discussed the centrality of systems of beliefs to the development of prejudice and that prejudice builds through antilocution, his analysis does not adequately emphasize how cultural context is fundamental to shaping beliefs and thereby attitudes, predilection, and antilocution. Cultural context, largely missing from Allport’s (1948) original formulation, must inform his phase of ‘predilection’ or “the simple preference of an individual for one culture, one skin color, one language as opposed to another [in a social climate where] we are privileged to disagree on such matters, and, as a rule, we respect one another’s choice. Predilections are inevitable and natural” (ibid:12).

The present article proposes that from this substrate sprouts the main ingredient necessary to the manifestation of scapegoating practices: envious prejudice. Allport’s (1954) original conceptualization of prejudice is generally accepted as the most inclusive and exhaustive:

…a pattern of hostility in interpersonal relations which is directed towards an entire group, or against its individual members…[that] performs a specific…function for its bearer…there must be an attitude of favor or disfavor; and it must be relegated to an overgeneralized (and therefore erroneous) belief. (12-13; original emphasis)

However, numerous scholars have suggested that scapegoating manifests out of a qualitatively different kind of prejudice rooted in group envy (Girard 1986; Glick 2005). For example, the rivalry characterizing variations in cultural context described above results in endless tensions, for which scapegoating becomes a standard group-based problem-solving strategy (Eggen 2011). In regular cultural processes of social-sorting, between the useful and the harmful, a certain logic of sacrifice is at work; one object is accepted while another discarded. This logic informs an understanding of the standard concept of prejudice as patterns of attitudes of favorability, or not, towards a group and its constituent members which labels members of the ingroup as close to us while labelling members of the outgroup as different and disposable; both for arguable and justifiable reasons. However, envious prejudice is markedly different. As Glick (2005) explains,

High status or powerful (socioeconomically successful) minorities that are viewed as competing with the dominant group are subjected to envious prejudice: they are admired for their success, but also resented for it; stereotyped as highly competent, but as having hostile motives. Because envied minorities are viewed as having the power and intent to harm, they are at risk of being blamed for causing group-level frustrations (250).

In other words, whereas the commonly accepted conceptualization of prejudice describes how one group labels another group as disfavorably different and thus stereotypes outgroup members as easily disposable, envious prejudice is more prone to manifesting as extreme violence insofar as members of an outgroup are perceived as more capable of challenging ingroup cohesion, norms, and access to resources. If the social representation of a certain group can be labelled as both malevolent and powerful within the cultural context, then it is much easier to rationalize the attribution of moral blame that founds hateful ideologies and consequent violent action (Girard 1986; Howarth 2006a, 2006b; Mellema 2000; Rothschild et al. 2012). As Fanon (1952) and Hall (1997) have powerfully argued, the sense people make of racialized encounters resides beyond the individual mind embedded within broader power matrices of knowledge and representation.

These broader systems are constituted by constructed categories linked to stereotyped beliefs and have radical political ramifications for racialized groups (Glick 2005; Howarth 2006a; Pok 1998). There are many examples, including how the Dutch and Irish were attributed as disagreeable low-lifes by English colonists in the 19th century (Link & Phelan 2001); how Blacks were victimized in postwar Japan to strengthen Japanese collective identity (Hughes 2003); or, most saliently, how the Nazis tagged Gypsies and Jews as subhuman vermin not worthy of life (Greenberg & Koslof 2008). There are two points common among all these examples worth noting: they are constituted by unequal power relations and that race is seen as a ‘real mark’ of morally justifiable threat, shame, oppression, and a devaluation of social identity (Eggen 2011; Howarth 2006a). This process of devaluation whereby differences are distinguished between and negative stereotyped labels conferred upon social representations could be very appropriately explained as social stigmatization (Goffman 1963; Howarth 2006a; Link & Phelan 2001). Drawing from Goffman (1963), “the Greeks…originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier” (11), which was “burnt or cut into the skin to symbolize the threat or danger of the so-stigmatized person” (Howarth 2006a:442). When considering the stigmatization of a social representation of a group, these ascribed ‘marks’ have been shown to produce historically discreditable social representations that strongly associate a group with undesirable characteristics (Hall et al. 2013; Zawadski 1948). While numerous scholars argue that the stigma inscribed upon social representations are contingent because they solely exist in individual relational encounters (Eagle 1981; Howarth 2006b), others insist that such stigma are highly durable and resistant to change (Hall et al. 2013; Hall 1997; Katz 1979).

The present work espouses the latter view that understands social stigmatization as a process by which the social representation of a minority group is ascribed durable moral blame for the misfortunes of the ingroup (Petersson 2003; Tajfel 1981) resulting in a consensus that these Others are not being adequately punished (Mellema 2000) and the consequent moral, social, and political status loss for members of the stigmatized group (Link & Phelan 2001). Conversely, through identifying, derogating, and stigmatizing the outgroup as a threat to those conditions favoring the ingroup (Wills 1981) the ingroup can thus improve its social position (Blumer 1958), obscure its culpability in producing its own unfortunate social representation (Allport 1948), and enhance group unity (Eggen 2011). At this point in the process, increases in discrimination – overt acts of aggression towards a stigmatized group – may proliferate and feed back into the cultural context informing group beliefs and systems of representation. However, here we also gain purview on the centrality of power to the process of scapegoating. The attribution of causality and resulting stigmatization can produce from a previously discreditable social representation an entirely spoiled social representation of some targeted group. Once a consensus is reached that race is ‘real’, the ‘mark’ of pollution, and a sign that a group and its constituent members are to blame for unfavorable material conditions, discrimination – overt acts of aggression and violence directed to a racialized minority group – can be rationalized. As Bobo & Hutchings (1996) remark with respect to racial group competition, the social representation of the discriminated group is now perceived as punishable without ingroup perceptions of moral impropriety.


Once this critical mass is reached, it is the conditions of social crisis which incite a moral panic (Hall et al. 2013), spike perceptions of irreconcilable group-threat to a critical level (Blumer 1958; Greenberg & Kosloff 2008), and sensitize and mobilize moral entrepreneurs to realize a solution (Duckitt 1992; Tajfel 1981) for restoring perceived control (Rothschild et al. 2012). Within the cultural context and consensus of a dominant ingroup, a racialized minority outgroup has been socially represented as the source of the ingroup’s failures, deepest fears, and the greatest obstacle to achieving ingroup goals (Berkowtiz 1989; Greenberg & Koloff 2008). Social difference is reproduced, and elaborate acts of exclusion can now be realized and rationalized (Girard 1986; Howarth 2006a). A group-level consensus on the source of group threat may be realized at this point and the political system of power need not favor the views of the ingroup consensus. Scapegoating has reached its apex when a group-level ideology of hate and the desire to eradicate the source of group threat shapes political systems which favor ingroup consensus on the eradication of a racialized minority group (e.g., Nazism) (Allport 1948; Glick 2005), but can also explode from broad, grass-roots social networks without broad political support with very similar horrible outcomes (e.g., Rwanda) (Duckitt 1992; McDoom 2013).


This essay has presented revisions to Allport’s (1948, 1956) framework for understanding scapegoating as a group-level process. Individual-level instances of blame-shifting and displacement are informative and such scholarship ought to be pursued to better understand individual-level processes which constitute the phenomenon of scapegoating. However, because scapegoating operates primarily on a symbolic level of social representation, the present article argues that the concept of scapegoating ought to be reserved for use in group-level analyses and explanations. The revisions here suggest that scapegoating is best understood as the apex of intergroup tensions: the desire of a dominant ingroup to eradicate a salient racialized minority outgroup. This framework suggests that Girard’s (1986) concept of mimesis, or the unavoidable borrowing of desire and resulting rivalry over resources, generates cultural contexts which are the source of predilection, stereotypes, and envious prejudice. Envious prejudice has been distinguished from the generally accepted conceptualization of prejudice and, it has been argued here, is more prone to manifesting as extreme violence insofar as an outgroup is perceived as more capable of challenging the ingroup. This framework relies on the theory of social representation which holds that group categories are embedded within broader systems of knowledge and meanings with respect to group characteristics. To better understand the evocation of group-based envious prejudice, it is presented here that scholarship must examine the group characteristics of both the ‘scapegoater’ and the ‘scapegoated’ and the structural characteristics of the relations between groups. The present argument proposes that social stigmatization also operates within these broader systems, where powerful groups can ascribe moral blame for social problems to the perceived group characteristics of a salient racialized minority group and its constituent members. These broader ascriptions reify race as a ‘real mark’ of a polluted and undesirable group. This essay positions a real or perceived social crisis which heightens perceptions of group threat as a necessary condition for provoking a search for explanations for the cause for declining social conditions, which can easily lead to the attribution of social causality. This can be expected to explain the social stigmatization whereby a discreditable racialized group representation becomes spoiled and the group in question targeted for removal or elimination. Racial discrimination can then be easily and ethically rationalized. Full-fledged group persecution can then become a solution for the social misfortune and discontent of an ingroup.


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