Separating scapegoats

By Tom Douglas.


£37.50 (hardback)

£12.99 (paperback)

ISBN 0-415-11018-1 (hardback)

ISBN 0-415-11019-X (paperback)

This is a title which is bound to attract the interest of social
workers and social work teachers. Practitioners are confronted
daily by scapegoating processes in the families, groups and
communities with which they work, as well as in their own teams and
organisations. Tom Douglas has done a careful job of synthesising
the literature on scapegoating, but not a very illuminating

The author argues that transformations in modern societies have
left behind cosmologies once associated with scapegoating rituals.
But his unsatisfactory division of societies into ‘ancient’ and
‘modern’ means that the specific character of social processes in
which scapegoating occurs become blurred. We do little justice to
the complexities of discrimination by reducing it to a single
mechanism in which disapprobation is loaded onto a ‘different’
other. All social work students learn about institutionalised
racism, and must grapple with understanding its perpetuation even
when no overt acts of prejudice or hostility are evident. Rather it
may be that racism is, as one black writer memorably put it,
‘hiding in the structures of the welfare state’. The publisher’s
blurb for the book announces it as ‘Directly responding to the
Diploma in Social Work’s call for texts on anti-discriminatory
practice’. I fear it does not do this.

Part one of the book on ‘Ancient ritual’ does contain much of
interest. Douglas introduces us to professional scapegoats
(sin-eaters), substitutes (whipping boys), and the more familiar
victim. Part two addresses scapegoating as ‘Social behaviour’ but
is let down by some rather poor sociology. Parts three and four on
‘Theories and explanations’ and ‘Management’ are helpful in drawing
together well-known sources in the literature, although there is a
repetitive feel to the material and the case studies failed to come
alive for me. There are important questions for practitioners about
how to distinguish blame and responsibility in human affairs, and
how to better tolerate experiences of pain and guilt which are at
the root of scapegoating impulses. Douglas’s rather mechanical
analyses gave me little help in thinking about these matters.

The further I read, the more I felt that the concept of
scapegoating cannot alone bear the weight which Tom Douglas wants
it to carry. Those who are looking for an interesting and useful
sourcebook on this particular aspect of small group and family
dynamics may be rewarded. Anyone seeking understanding of wider
socio-political processes and their resonance or intersection with
the psychological may be disappointed.

Andrew Cooper is professor of social work, Tavistock
Clinic and University of East London.

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