Scapegoating of People and Groups

Photo by António Santos in Manifesto74

In this tenth blog post, I depart from the analyzes by René Girard (1988, 1997, 2001) and Levine (2011) to reflect upon the scapegoat dynamics that affect individuals and groups in a spectrum that ranges from particular family dynamics that exclude certain individuals, unfavorable school and work contexts, to the social exclusion of entire groups of people, as it is often the case of certain categories of migrants, or ethnic and religious minorities (e.g. Roma/Gypsy people, Jews). From a historical perspective, mechanisms for creating and persecuting scapegoats were involved not only with some of the most odious phenomena and processes of group persecution in our collective memory, such as the Holocaust, but also in the persecution of historical figures, as it was notoriously the case of Jesus Christ.

  • This blog post is dedicated to the loving memory and inspiring work of anthropologist, psychoanalyst and researcher of the Roma/Gypsy people in Portugal José Gabriel Pereira Bastos, who passed away from Covid-19 22 months ago.

© Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022

* Cover Image Creative Commons License Type:


  • I introduce some considerations on the mechanism underlying the scapegoating process, by pondering the theories of René Girard (1988-2001) and Levine (2011).
  • I depart from there to the reflections by Jungian therapists in this regard (Perera, 1986), namely concerning the mythology of shadow and guilt, and the mechanisms of projection and displacement associated to such complex.
  • Ending, I reflect upon the application of the scapegoating process to certain groups and people, that threaten an idealized group identity and pathological social homogeneity.

Processes of scapegoating involve the conscious or subconscious choice of a person or group in which, through mechanisms of projection and/or displacement, undesirable thoughts are sent outside of us, externalized and focused on that individual or group – just like the uncomfortable feelings of inadequacy, aggression, hostility, incompetence or frustration, that we cannot work through within ourselves. Thus transferring, to that individual or group, disproportionate amounts of guilt, undue responsibilities, non-existent intentions and a whole list of imaginary failures, which seek to “justify” repeated negative treatment, and even its intensification over time. It is, therefore, a process resulting from a pathological dynamic of “outsourcing our own responsibilities and failures”, uncomfortable truths that threaten an idealized image of perfection in individuals, organizations or groups, forbidden untolds in certain contexts, or less pleasant and under-ellaborated feelings within oneself – because they are difficult to face, to express, and then to negotiate with others. In all scapegoating processes, a rather complicated relationship (of denial) with the truth becomes evident.

For René Girard (1988, 1997, 2001)[1][2][3][4] desire was mimetic or imitative. This mechanism of imitating the desire of other human beings proves to be even more powerful in groups. Which means that the greater the number of people involved in blaming a particular scapegoat, the easier it will be to convince ourselves of the guilt of the said scapegoat, and ease our own consciences. The scapegoat is pursued, expelled or eliminated, in the name of maintaining a “rotten peace”, group cohesion and a pathological group identity, without associated reflexivity. The scapegoating phenomenon initially produces relief and catharsis, in the sense that it temporarily lightens the supposed “problems” of the group: represented and condensed into a single target to be shot down, who can be phenotypically distinct, culturally and religiously diverse, who can have a divergent personality and/or expose uncomfortable truths, different life realities, contrasting points of view – or, purely and simply, who can represent otherness. It is often the different or the non-conformist who becomes the scapegoat, because it threatens an overly homogeneous group identity.

René Girard: historian, literary critic and philosopher of social sciences.

The scapegoat is also of the order of the sacrificial – and, at this point, it has deep connections with the religious. The death penalty is the ultimate example of atonement and sacrifice in contemporary justice systems: we like to delude ourselves, imagining that this sacrifice “is for the good of society”, to “maintain the necessary order and the primacy of law”, or to “remove the evil from our world”. Which, obviously, never happens with each conviction – such ordinary desire, because it is oversimplified, is of the order of the immature. And so, we justify the legalization of “justice killing” without further effort, to console the victims’ families and appease public opinions (who will then feel “safer”), or without touching conflicts and social structures, processes of reintegration and the maintenance of our prisons, nor educational systems and moral principles. Or to leave intact the incomprehensible shadows of human impulses and pure evil – more complex and, certainly, much more uncomfortable topics. We rationalize atonement, “in the name of a greater good”: “social order and peace”. But social peace does not come.

The figure of Jesus Christ is himself the epitome of the scapegoat: he “died for our sins” (Corinthians: 15) to give us all the “eternal life”. On the way to the cross, he was beaten and spat on. René Girard does not see the withdrawal of the sacrificial order in modern societies as synonymous with less violence, on the contrary. And while Girard also described the biblical Job (Ezekiel 14: and James 5:11) as a scapegoat, Levine[5] begged to differ:

«Biblical application of the scapegoat phenomenon to humans is quite different from what we find in Job, as we shall see with reference to Lev 16 and other “riddance” rites. The servant song of Isa 52–53 tells how the human scapegoat was conceptualized in the early post-exilic period and shows how the scapegoat differed from other sufferers. There is no connection between the well-being of the community and the sufferings of Job, whose laments admit of a psychological explanation. His heroic dissidence is not a scapegoat phenomenon.» (Levine, 2011: 413)

Job on the Dunghill (by Mexican painter Gonzalo Carrasco, 1881). Museo Nacional de Arte – Mexico City.

If, in the Bible, the scapegoat ritual involved two goats and appeared associated with the name of Azazel, a Chthonic god, Jungian therapists note that, in the modern scapegoat complex, “the energy field was radically broken and the libido has been separated from consciousness, so that the role of Azazel is deformed into that of an accuser of the victim, who is the scapegoat” (Perera, 1986)[6]. Thus, the mechanism of scapegoating involves the mythology of shadows and guilt – sadistic and superego accusers have often buried their own guilt under multiple veils of shadow. From where they can, then, be projected onto another: the scapegoat victim, who is burdened with undue transpersonal guilt and buried in shadows that do not belong to him/her/them at all – which often becomes evident even to third parties. The scapegoat, be it a group or an individual, has to be helped to maintain his/her/their integrity, to discover their own identity buried under projections, and to use their own voice.

Finally, I would like to reflect about the application of the principles that govern the scapegoating process: to the exclusion of certain social groups that are culturally, sexually, phenotypically and religiously different from the majority of the population, in contemporary societies. In the Portuguese case, it is worth highlighting the paradigmatic example of the secular exclusion of the Roma/Gypsy people[7][8] (who were, moreover, persecuted and decimated in other European countries, during the Holocaust[9] – with genocidal overtones since the 1500s, and countries such as Sweden and Finland maintained Roma sterilization programs well into the 1970s, while cases of forced sterilization were still in court recently in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic[10]). Just as it is advised to highlight the most recent case of South Asian migrants – often “singled out” and described by many Portuguese as “very dirty, disorganized, illegal, ignorant, smelling like curry, easy to exploit, likened to Gipsies, criminals, people who come here to occupy our houses and steal our jobs, migrants who lower our wages because they are ‘willingly’ subjected to exploitation, or even seen as people prone to spread the Covid-19 infection”.

Photo by Pexels, 2022.

An amalgamation of prejudice, intolerance, hatred, projection of frustrations and own failures, attempt at social, cultural and religious homogenization, lack of knowledge of what/who is diverse and xenophobia “justifies”, normally, the use of such groups as scapegoats. Which, moreover, clearly demonstrates an enormous lack of curiosity and inability to live with those who think and act differently from oneself, and with the unpredictability of real human relationships. The latter, incidentally, is a marked characteristic of societies governed by technologically mediated relationships, living an authentic neurosis of omnipotence: an attempt at totalitarian control of the social relationships.

But I would also like to reflect upon the application of the scapegoat mechanism within some axiological communities of belonging (such as the Nepalese community, or groups of migrants from the Palop – African Portuguese-speaking countries) and the host community (Portuguese). This is because a socially majority group (e.g. women), or a diverse group in terms of sexual orientation (e.g. homosexuals), can also be – and often is – chosen as a scapegoat for other individuals and/or subgroups, whose blame and expiations are projected onto them, in an omnipotent bid to control difference and socially homogenize. In general, the manichaean and dichotomous view of reality is childish and immature, or it even adopts what psychoanalysts call a “hysterical fantasy”: a fanciful division of reality between “castrated beings” and “non-castrated beings”.

*Please find the portuguese translation on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página


[1] Fleming, C. (2004). René Girard. Violence and Mimesis. Cambridge: Polity.

[2] Girard, R. (1988). Generative scapegoating. In Violent origins (pp. 73-105). Stanford University Press.

[3] Girard, R. (1997). Interview with René Girard: Comments on Christianity, Scapegoating, and Sacrifice.

[4] Girard, R. (2001). I see Satan fall like lightning. Gracewing Publishing.

[5] Levine, B. A. (2011). René Girard on Job: the question of the scapegoat. In In Pursuit of Meaning (pp. 413-420). Penn State University Press.

[6] Perera, S. B. (1986). The Scapegoat Complex. Toward a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt. Ed. Daryl Sharp. Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts. Toronto: Inner City Books.

[7] Magano, O., & Mendes, M. M. (2021). Ciganos/Roma em Portugal: políticas públicas e intervenção social. Manual para a Intervenção Social. Da teoria à ação, 279-306.

[8] Mendes, M. M., Magano, O., & Costa, A. R. (2020). Ciganos portugueses: escola e mudança social. Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas, (93), 109-126.

[9] Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies), 1939–1945 | Holocaust Encyclopedia (

[10] José Gabriel Pereira Bastos, co-founder of the Nucleus of Gypsy Studies at CEMME – Center for the Study of Migrations and Ethnic Minorities, CRIA-FCSH (anthropologist, psychoanalyst and researcher of the Roma/gypsy people in Portugal, a specialist in Freudian theory, anthropology of identity processes, analysis of cultural productions and anthropology of the symbolic, he sought to found a ‘general anthropology’, a global theory of the human being whose integrative and transdisciplinary dimension aimed to overthrow what he called ‘disciplinary splintering’) in Gypsyphobia in Portugal and Europe (english subtitles available):

[11] Watch also: The Vaccines of Thought by José Gabriel Pereira Bastos, an interview to Diniz Cayolla Ribeiro, a researcher from I2ADS – Porto University (english subtitles available):

Aditional References

Bastos, J. G. P. (2003). The hidden meanings of culture, ethnicity and identity: Anthropology from a divergent point-of-view. apresentado no ciclo de conferências “In search of hidden meanings: identity processes and strategies from a triple point-ofview”, Institut of European Studies, University of California, Berkeley (5 de março), documento policopiado.

Bastos, J. G. P. (2007). A Mudança na Cultura-Identidade, Interculturalidade e Hibridação Cultural. Cadernos de Sociomuseologia28(28).

Bastos, J. G. P. (2014). Da investigação por objetivos à antropologia dos processos identitários: um ponto de vista transdisciplinar e integrativo. Etnográfica. Revista do Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia18(2)), 341-364.

Bastos, J. G. P. (2016). Depois de Freud:“O Que é o homem?” Dramática humana e o Mal-Estar na Civilização. Trabalhos de Antropologia e Etnologia56.

Bastos, J. G. P. (2020). A máscara, incorporação da exterioridade, exclusão e controlo da interioridade, reforço da identidade. Trabalhos de Antropologia e Etnologia56.

Bastos, J. G. P. (2020). From negative visibility to positive invisibility–who needs to use Gypsies [Roma] as the anti-citizens of Civilized Europe?. Journal of Gypsy Studies2(1), 3-38.

Bastos, S. T. P., & Bastos, J. G. P. (1989). Reflexões sobre a patogenia de uma instituição pragmático-familialista. Psicologia7(2), 205-215.

Pereira Bastos, S. T., & Pereira Bastos, J. G. (2000). Diu, Mozambique et Lisbonne. Histoire sociale et stratégies identitaires dans la diaspora des hindous-gujaratis. Lusotopie7(1), 399-421.

Bastos, J. G. P., & Bastos, S. P. (2002). Imigrantes, minorias étnicas e minorias nacionais em Portugal, hoje: da exclusão social e identitária ao multiculturalismo?. AAVV, A Imigração em Portugal: Os Movimentos Humanos e Culturais em Portugal. Lisboa, SOS-Racismo, 272-288.

Bastos, S. P., & Bastos, J. G. P. (2007). “The Blood of a Muslim is Worthless, After All”. Identity Debates between Portuguese and British Sunnis in Leicester. Lusotopie. Recherches politiques internationales sur les espaces issus de l’histoire et de la colonisation portugaises, (XIV (1)), 271-285.

Bastos, S. P. (2006). Filhos diferentes de deuses diferentes. Manejos da religião em processos de inserção social diferenciada: uma abordagem estrutural dinâmica (Vol. 17). Observatório da Imigração, ACIME.

Bastos, S. P. (2008). Politizando as relações familiares dos imigrantes em contextos multiculturais. Uma perspetiva a partir da ecologia cultural portuguesa. Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana16(30).

Bastos, S. P. (2009). Manejos da religião, da etnicidade e recursos de classe na construção de uma cultura migratória transnacional. Análise social, 43-69.

Bastos, S. P. (2019). O Estado Novo e os seus vadios: Contribuições para o estudo das identidades marginais e a sua repressão. Etnográfica Press.

Lourenço, I. (2002). Susana Trovão Pereira Bastos, e José Gabriel Pereira Bastos. De Moçambique a Portugal: Reinterpretações Identitárias do Hinduísmo em Viagem. Etnográfica. Revista do Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia6(2), 407-409.

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