Granfalloonery, scapegoating, social dominance theory and Conservatism


Anyone who has read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle will know what a granfalloon is. The University of Chicago awarded Vonnegut a Master’s in anthropology for what was essentially a work of satire, irony, black humor and parody. The term has since been adopted by market researchers and social scientists.

A granfalloon is a group of people who affect a proud and shared identity or some cohesive purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless – associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise. Yet members often feel very superior in some way to others.

Granfalloons are powerful propaganda devices because they are easy to create and, once established, the granfalloon then defines social reality, establishes a normative order, by demarcating and maintaining social identities. Granfalloons also play to our strong normative tendencies towards sociability, grouping and a fundamental need for a sense of belonging, based on perceived shared characteristics. They tend not to like deviations from the norm. Or at least from what they perceive as the norm.  

However, group identities constructed around labels such as “strivers”, “tax payers” and “hard working families” are non inclusive, too. These are created politically to justify economic exclusion and outgrouping, and to manage public perceptions. Exclusive language and dominant, prejudiced narrative is an effective means of social control since it can be used to frame the interpretation of events. The group categories are designed to create or redefine moral norms and also, to stigmatise, to define deviance and to create scapegoats.

One of the purposes of the construction of granfalloons is to create categories of outsiders, as much as it is to create a false sense of privilege amongst ingroup members.

The granfalloon technique is used in advertising, in political rhetoric and by pseudoscientists, cults and other dubious groups, as a technique of persuasion in which individuals are encouraged to identify with a particular granfalloon or social group. The pressure to identify with a group is meant as a method of securing the individual’s loyalty and commitment through adoption of the group’s symbols, slogans, language, norms, rituals, actions, goals and beliefs. We like to conform and we like to “belong” and that is manipulated endlessly by granfallooners everywhere.

It’s ultimately very socially divisive. 

Think of UKIP’s extensive granfalloonery; the shrinking island of logic; an ever-decreasing ingroup of supremicists, and you get the gist. The only people who properly “belong” in UKIP  are older, “hard done by” white labourers, predominantly but not quite exclusively males, who don’t like anyone else’s social groups. Everyone else is “privileged” in some way, and that’s a bad thing to be, apparently. Scapegoating can often cause oppressed groups to attack other oppressed groups. Even when injustices are committed against a minority group by a majority ingroup, minorities sometimes lash out against a different minority group in lieu of confronting the more powerful majority.

Sometimes the oppressed can be very oppressive too.

Then there is the “all in it together” granfalloonery of Conservatism, where social groups are targeted by the ever-electioneering, purposeful and powerful elite to vote for policies that serve absolutely no-one but the elite, and cause real harm to other group members of society. All that “hate thy neighbour stuff”, you know: it’s the sick and disabled people, the unemployed people, the ethnic minorities, the working poor, the junior doctors, the unions, the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, the “extremist” critics and academics. How very dare they.

But the biggest miscreants of all are in office, for crying out loud. “They’re behind you!” came the pantomime call from a usually passive, disengaged audience. We all know the score, yet here we are as an entire society of sub-grouped granfalloons, following all the divisive finger-pointing and scapegoating like dizzy, distracted cats running around in circles chasing unravelling strings.


The Conservatives are creatures of habit rather than reason. Traditional. That is why their policies are so anti-progressive, and stifling for the majority of us. It’s also why Tory policies don’t meet public needs. 

I’ve observed before that there’s always an air of doom and gloom when we have a Tory government, and a largely subdued, depressed, repressed nation, carrying vague and fearful intuitions that something truly catastrophic is just around the corner.

I’ve said more than once before that we always witness the social proliferation of fascist ideals with a Tory government, too. It stems from the finger-pointing divide and rule mantra: it’s them not us, them not us. But history refutes as much as it verifies, and we learned that it’s been the Tories all along.

With a Conservative government, we are always fighting something. Poverty, social injustice: we are forced to compete and fight for political recognition of our fundamental rights, which the Tories always circumvent. We fight despair and material hardship, caused by the rising cost of living, low wages, high unemployment or more recently, underemployment, and recession that is characteristic of every Tory government.

I think people often mistranslate what that something is. Because Tory rhetoric is all about othering: dividing, atomising of society into bite-sized manageable pieces by amplifying a narrative of sneaking suspicion and hate thy neighbour via the media. Scapegoating serves as a mechanism of psychological dumping and emotional relief in acts of misplaced aggression towards oppressed outgroups for oppressed ingroups. The social order is maintained this way.

In social psychology, the granfalloon concept stems from research by the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel, in particular, from social identity theory. The significance of ingroup and outgroup categorization was identified using a method that has come to be known as the minimal group paradigm. In his research, Tajfel found that strangers would form groups on the basis of completely inconsequential criteria, such as liking certain paintings, fictions, pseudoscientific dogmas or Elvis.

In one study, Tajfel’s experimental subjects were asked to watch a coin toss. They were then designated to a particular group based on whether the coin landed on heads or tails. The subjects placed in groups based on such meaningless associations between them have consistently been found to “act as if those sharing the meaningless labels were kin or close friends.” Research demonstrates that people are differentially influenced by ingroup members. That is, under conditions where group categorisation is psychologically salient, people will shift their beliefs in line with ingroup social norms.

Outgrouping leads to the homogeneity effect. This is a process where the perception of members of an outgroup as being homogenous arises (“all the same”), while members of one’s ingroup are perceived as being individual and diverse. This is especially likely to occur on the basis of prejudiced, stereotyped negative characteristics. Of course ingroup members can be perceived as being similar to one another in regards to loosely identified positive characteristics. This effect is called ingroup homogeneity.

Authoritarian governments often utilise granfalloonery, maintaining social order by the creation of social allegiances through various means of outgrouping and ingrouping, socialisation and indoctrination. This is also used to justify prejudice, discrimination and socioeconomic inequality.

Being sociable is a positive human quality. But perhaps being duped by trivia and artificially constructed categories, intentionally stigmatised identities and politically constructed social taxonomies is also a human tendency. It seems so.

Granfalloonery is used as a propaganda technique. It is an improper appeal to emotion, which purposefully bypasses the rational thought-processes of populations. It used for the purpose of changing the opinions of a targeted audience or population. The closely related Bandwagon technique involves encouraging people to think or act in some way simply because other people are doing so.

Some people much prefer wide social inequalities. Social dominance orientation (SDO) is conceptualised as a measure of individual differences in levels of group-based discrimination; that is, it is a measure of a person’s preference for status-ranking and hierarchy within society and domination over what are perceived as lower-status outgroups. It is a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between social groups. High scores of SDO predict stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice. SDO correlates with forms of right-wing authoritarianism. Hello Mrs May.

The concept of SDO as a measurable individual difference arose from social dominance theory. Individuals who score high in SDO desire to maintain and, in many cases, increase the differences between social statuses of different groups, as well as individual group members. Typically, they are controlling, manipulative, competitive, aggressive, dominating, tough, and relatively unempathic, uncaring power-seekers. People scoring high in SDO also prefer hierarchical group orientations. Often, people who score high in SDO have strongly held beliefs in ‘meritocracy’, hierarchical societies and forms of social Darwinism.

See also:


False-consensus effect

How to sell a pseudoscience – Anthony R. Pratkanis

Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance



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11 thoughts on “Granfalloonery, scapegoating, social dominance theory and Conservatism

  1. Really enjoyed this Sue, concise and well written.
    It is the nuts and bolts of how we are manipulated by the Conservative government so that we fall in line. I feel a new Granfalloonery coming on with Tom Watson in the biased media outlining the terminology in his outburst..Trots and arm twisters for the derogatory partitioning of Jeremys supporters from labour voters..not going to spin though hopefully .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, the left are just as prone to granfalloonery, sadly. Yet we are supposed to be about anti-authoritarian principles, equality and inclusion. Very sad times when we see the Labour movement that evolved over more than a couple of centuries in such jeopardy as it is now. Shot by both sides.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the reasons I write is to keep a hold of ideas and insights to use them as part of our arsenal against the establishment and neoliberalists more generally. It helps to frame our debates and so on, as well as hopefully helping to raise awareness


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