They admit that the terminology is not wholly satisfactory, but they contend that it is better than any alternatives. The concept of panic may seem to overstate the case, but it remains appropriate to indicate how, at the height of social reaction, collective emotion overwhelms individual reason.
Disproportionality is probably the most contested judgment inherent in moral panic models. The originators remain adamant that usually such claims can be assessed for proportionality. As Cohen , p. Neither model tackles how the rise of the Internet and digital technologies, especially social media, has altered communication patterns during moral panics.
While undeniable in principle, the practical effects of digital communication on moral panics have yet to be empirically proven. In some instances, social media have merely intensified the level of vitriol directed at identified deviants. In other examples, such as designer drugs, the Internet was the vehicle for spreading knowledge about and access to them. But when legal action was taken, consumers had no voice. The charge of rigidity is denied by defenders of the models. Cohen explicitly concedes that a potential moral panic may be stalled or sidetracked.
Goode and Ben-Yehuda make a consistent and careful distinction between plentiful moral crusades and much rarer moral panics. The full-blown moral panic follows a predictable path and demonstrates consistent characteristics, but there are many claims making activities that never assume the status of moral panics.
The allegation of political partisanship—that conservative groups, but not liberal or radical ones, are castigated for seeking to create creating moral panics—cannot apply to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, who have explicitly derided moral panics that have been supported by radicals: Moral panic analysis does not automatically exonerate so-called progressive groupings who make controversial claims. Sex trafficking could be an example where those with the best of intentions are prone to exaggerate the existence of the problem because its nature is so vile Weitzer, ; Cree et al.
The final point of criticism is that moral panic analysis assumes a gullible public. The reply is that it is difficult for the public to resist media messages. Goode and Ben Yehuda argued that opinion polls continuously demonstrate that the media and the claims makers they validate do set the public agenda. Cohen, whose original work explored the many ambiguities and inconsistencies in audience interpretations of media messages, never assumed that the audience was gullible, although it was inevitably media dependent. The points at issue are substantial and complex; they have been simplified here for clarity.
Some issues are amenable to empirical evidence from studies that have either discovered inconsistencies in the models or concluded that the essentials of the models can be verified. Other issues are more abstract, concerning how we conceive the nature of social processes or even knowledge itself. If nothing else, moral panic analysis has helped stimulate debate about the social construction of social problems, which is lively and ongoing.
But the original models can no longer be freestanding—they need to be connected to other cognate strands in contemporary social science. One angle is to ask a simple question: What, if anything, are moral panics extreme manifestations of? One answer is moral regulation, discussed next.
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The concept of moral regulation holds that open societies conduct a continuous dialogue about the boundaries of morally acceptable behavior and how to regulate what is regarded as unacceptable. In principle, this can mean that activities once regarded as unacceptable are legitimated, such as homosexual relationships. In practice, though, the boundaries are continuously redrawn to cope with new kinds of moral impropriety, such as the misuse of social media. Alan Hunt analyzed 19th-century movements for moral regulation in the United Kingdom and United States.
He found moral regulation to be aimed at such traditionally immoral activities as sex, drinking, and gambling. He emphasized how organized advocates of regulation, who were usually middle class and often female, adopted common strategies. They identified and defined an immoral activity, specified who was involved in it, developed propaganda tactics, and demanded legislative action. These are essentially the same ploys that claimsmakers use today, despite huge changes in the social, economic, and political contexts.
Hunt, however, expressly distanced himself from the moral panic concept. By contrast, Sean Hier , wanted to retain a version of moral panic within the framework of moral regulation as a constant struggle over the process of moralization: He endorsed major criticisms of established moral panic analysis, including its reliance on cognitive, behavioral, and normative measures of the gap between the reality of the problem and its social construction. Drawing on the Foucauldian concept of governmentality, Hier sees moral regulation as invariably requiring ethical self-formation of both would-be regulator and regulated: There is no inherent limit on the scope of moral regulation: Moral panics and moral regulation share two characteristics.
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Each involves one set of people seeking to act on the conduct of others. But the differences are significant. Second, moral panics differentiate innocent victims from culpable perpetrators more clearly than moral regulation does. They appeal to a moral economy of harm: A moral panic is a temporary rupture when the routine process of moral regulation fails: Critcher objects to such a liberal extension of the scope of moralization.
Following Cohen , he holds that there is a boundary on moral panic topics. Food safety issues, like bovine spongiform encephalopathy BSE or E. In moral panics, blame is not a matter of technical or managerial inefficiency, but rather a serious moral failing. There is a difference between being corrupt and being incompetent. Critcher proposes instead assessing the construction of social problems on three criteria: He constructs a typology where issues and hence the likelihood of them transmuting into a moral panic rate high, medium, or low for each criterion.
Meanwhile, Hunt returns to his critique of moral panic models, arguing that they are limiting and limited. A journey down the moral regulation route may sooner or later involve jettisoning moral panic. Assessing explanations of who panics and why is our next consideration. Three possibilities are risk society theory, the culture of fear, and the politics of emotion. As Carrabine , p. At a very basic level, moral panics embody a sense of risk. Most obvious is the case of children at risk of abuse. But the sense of risk is palpable elsewhere as well: These are clearly different types and degrees of risk, but all indicate vulnerability and the need for protection.
It is a more elaborate enterprise to connect the particular concerns of moral panic analysis with the more global perspective of risk theory. This body of work associated with Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens—to which Lupton remains an essential guide—argued that modern Western societies had become extremely risk conscious. Lupton , p. Lupton, , p. Risk operates across both everyday personal life and the bigger issues of politics and public life. An enhanced consciousness of risk, therefore, might explain why late modern societies seem to experience a greater number and intensity of moral panics.
However, such a connection has yet to be made. Two factors may be important. One is that risk theory is appropriated by comparatively narrow specialisms. So analysts are interested in what risk theory says to or about child abuse, crime, drug taking, new media technology, or immigration. Few seem interested in how the risk society is likely to construct social problems as a totality.
The second factor is that in some areas—crime, drug taking, and, less clearly, child abuse—risk theory has been usurped by the governmentality approach. This utterly ignores moral panic analysis and subsumes risk within its overarching theory. So early attempts to combine risk and governmentality theory in analyzing the policing of crime, such as that by Ericson and Haggerty , have faded away. Risk theory has actually been used to mount an attack on conventional moral panic analysis.
Ungar , p.
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The assumptions made by moral panic analysts about which are the most salient issues, who are the most significant actors, and what are the most likely outcomes are all inappropriate for the more unpredictable, contested, and fluid course of problem identification and management in the risk society. Those moral panic scholars who had high hopes of risk society have had them dashed. The major works focusing on the topics and dynamics of fear are Furedi , Glassner , Altheide , and Bauman The clearest definition of the culture of fear comes from Altheide , p.
Each author specifies different causes for the culture of fear, but all identify the essential paradox—that Western societies, apparently more secure than any before, have produced a pervasive culture of fear, qualitatively different from anything which preceded it: It is realized most powerfully in traditional mass media sometimes entertainment but mainly news , as well as in other public discourse.
The culture of fear systematically misrecognizes social problems, producing a distorted and disproportionate response. A major consequence is hostility toward those defined as deviants. A secondary effect is to foster distrust of others, especially strangers. The argument is in many ways persuasive. It explains a predisposition to collective overreaction to and panic about perceived threats.
It includes an account of why those who objectively have least to fear subjectively experience that fear the most. It shares some deficiencies with risk theory. The geographical scope is vague, failing to explain which countries do or do not share a culture of fear. There are difficult historical questions about when and why this culture grew.
Its ontological status is dubious: Do we all live out fear on a daily basis, or is it a pervasive concern of political and cultural institutions that only occasionally impinges on the private sphere? In a rare critique of the thesis, Pain has emphasized its lack of empirical evidence of fear among the general population. Using data from polls following terrorist attacks in major capitals, she showed that fear is not the main emotional reaction; that when it occurs, it is at a low level; that it declines with time and distance; that it is consistently greater in the United States than elsewhere; and that fear is most evident among marginal groups, either within the majority community or among ethnic minorities.
Pain emphasizes that emotional reactions are more nuanced, varied, and situationally dependent than blanket profiles of whole cultures can accommodate. Just beneath the surface of moral panic analysis, and sometimes briefly on the surface, is a bubble waiting to burst: It is present in the original studies, as Cohen chooses the term panic and cites disaster research and Goode and Ben-Yehuda emphasize hostility and volatility as dimensions of collective behavior.
Emotional salience explains why some moral panics mugging, pedophilia, immigration galvanize the general public, while others recreational drug consumption, misuse of social media do not. Emotional vulnerability is implicit in the risk society thesis if thinly disguised as ontological insecurity , but explicit in the culture of fear, where whole societies are taken to be in a permanent state of emotional alert.
More recently, Hunt , p. This derives from traditional sociological analysis of system strain whenever the moral equation of effort and reward becomes imbalanced. This produces, especially among the aspiring middle classes, a degree of status frustration that finds emotional expression in hostility toward those perceived as deviant. Yet, like the risk society and the culture of fear, this is all so much fine argument, with little tangible proof. Walby and Spencer are critical of assumptions that the emotional mood of the public can be inferred from media coverage or political pronouncements.
Required instead is p. Anger and contempt, outrage, and disgust are common reactions to stories about abused children. Feelings of shame give rise to a need to blame somebody for the events Warner, , p. While emotions are generally thought of as being experienced by individuals and often being brief and episodic, the emotions that are politically important are experienced collectively and embedded in political institutions; they are also enduring rather than short-lived. Politicians, the media, and official inquiries articulate moral judgments, inviting the public to share their emotions.
Despite differences in welfare systems, Warner finds similar types of emotional politics around child abuse in Australasia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and New York in the United States, as well as Britain. Emotional blame is directed in different combinations at the underclass, women, and ethnic minorities. Emotion is socially structured.
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A sociology of emotions might also take advantage of insights from social psychology about how groups construct and maintain boundaries with other groups. Pearce and Charman utilized two social psychological models. Social identity theory seeks to explain the significance and dynamics of defining in-groups and out-groups. The theory of social representations examines how people construct common sense categorizations of other people and their behavior.
Their study analyzed discourse in both the media and focus-group discussions about asylum seekers in Britain. They discovered a consistent congruence between media and public discourses. Asylum seekers were perceived as economically, culturally, and physically threatening, especially as their inflow was uncontrollable. The project was not designed to explore the specifics of emotional response but resentment, hostility and metaphorical imagery inevitably of floods were all very evident. This article has outlined and explained the original moral panic models. It summarized what cumulative research has indicated as empirical generalizations about moral panics.
The many and varied criticisms of moral panic models were explored, as were the rejoinders from their supporters. Subsequently, the discussion explored the debate about whether or how to rethink moral panics as exceptional moments in an ongoing process of moral regulation. The focus then shifted to the broader societal context where, in different ways, theories about the risk society and the culture of fear sought to account for the apparently increasing prevalence of moral panics.
Finally, it looked at approaches that explored the social psychological dimensions of expressing collective emotions and constructing group identities. There has not been the opportunity in this text to consider the academic status of moral panic analysis.
The moral panic concept does not belong to any larger theory of the social formation. Moral panic analysis may be best understood as what Robert Merton , p. Middle range theory is principally used in sociology to guide empirical inquiry. It is intermediate to general theories of social system which are too remote from particular classes of social behaviour, organization and change to account for what is observed and to those detailed orderly descriptions of particulars that are not generalized at all.
Middle-range theory involves, abstractions, of course, but they are close enough to observed data to be incorporated in propositions that permit empirical testing. Middle-range theories deal with delimited aspects of social phenomena, as is indicated by their labels. Realizing the full potential of moral panic analysis as middle range theory may require a properly interdisciplinary approach.
It involves movement across disciplinary boundaries, such as those between sociology and psychology or policy and media studies. It also needs a comparative framework across space and time. While no single moral panic study can possibly be expected to incorporate all these disciplinary perspectives, that seems to be the direction in which the field of moral panics as a whole ought to go.
Only time will tell. There is no substitute for carefully reading the seminal moral panic texts in the order in which they were written. That can be found in Klocke and Muschert Classic criticisms of moral panic models have been edited by Critcher , while more recent debates are covered in a later collection Hier, b.
For applications of both models to a range of mainly British examples, see Critcher An ambivalent attitude to moral panics is evident in Jewkes , while a much more international focus can be found in Krinsky b. Finally, there are two readily accessible special editions of journals devoted to various aspects of moral panic. Mephedrone, assassin of youth: The rhetoric of fear in contemporary drug scares. Crime Media Culture , 10 1 , 23— News and the construction of crisis. Living in an age of uncertainty. Rhetoric and concern about child victims. University of Chicago Press.
The problems with moral panic: Cross-national diffusion of social problems. Legitimizing racial oppression by creating moral panic. Perspectives across time and space pp. State University of New York Press. More to fear than fear itself. Social Forces , 87 2 , — Folk devils and moral panics. Moral panics, governmentality, and the media: A comparative approach to the analysis of illegal drug use in the news.
An alternative account of LSD prohibition. Deviant Behavior , 23 July—August , — The presentation of child trafficking in the UK: British Journal of Social Work , 44 2 , — International Social Work , 51 6 , — Moral panics and the media.
Folk Devils & Moral Panics by Cohen, Stanley
British Journal of Criminology , 49 1 , 17— Crime Media Culture , 7 3 , — Is your teen at risk? Discourses of adolescent texting in United States television news. Journal of Children and Media , 6 2 , — Online dictionary of the social sciences. Open University of Canada. A study in the sociology of deviance. John Wiley and Sons. Mephedrone and the impact of the Internet on drug news transmission. International Journal on Drug Policy , 23 , — The culture of fear revisited.
On the concept of moral panic. Crime Media Culture , 4 9 , 9— Folk devils and moral panics: Crime Media Culture , 1 1 , — The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things: Crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage, and so much more. The social construction of deviance. Grounding and defending the sociology of moral panic. Mugging, the state, and law and order. Conceptualizing moral panic through a moral economy of harm. Critical Sociology , 28 , — Thinking beyond moral panic: Risk, responsibility, and the politics of moralization.
Theoretical Criminology , 12 2 , — Moral panic and the politics of anxiety. Moral panic, moral regulation, and liberal government. British Journal of Sociology , 62 3 , — Moral panics in the contemporary world. A social history of moral regulation. Moral panic and moral regulation. Detective work, mass media, and constructing collective memory.
Media representations of crime and justice pp. Moral panics in contemporary Great Britain. The symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York University Press. Why do some issues fail to detonate moral panics? British Journal of Criminology , 49 1 , 35— London and Thousand Oaks, CA: The impact of key events upon the presentation of reality. European Journal of Communication , 10 3 , — Sociology Compass , 4 5 , — Moral panics over contemporary children and youth.
The Ashgate research companion to moral panics. Policy, politics, and injustice. Moral panics, the media, and the law in early modern England. The shaping of folk devils and moral panics about white collar crimes. British Journal of Criminology , 49 1 , 48— Mad men, meth moms, moral panic: Gendering meth crimes in the Midwest. Critical Criminology , 18 , 95— Young people and new media. British Journal of Sociology , 46 , — Media coverage of novel psychoactive drugs NPDS and its relationship with legal changes.
American Journal of Criminal Justice , 40 , — AIDS, the policy process, and moral panics. Media strategies, representation, and audience reception in the AIDS crisis pp. Cyber bullying in US mainstream media. Journal of Children and Media , 9 4 , — Muslims and moral panic in the West. Moral panics and morality policy: The impact of media, political ideology, drug use, and manufacturing on methamphetamine legislation in the United States.
Journal of Drug Issues , 4 4 , — The new geopolitics of fear. Geography Compass , 4 3 , — The normalization of adolescent recreational drug use. A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic. Bad news for refugees. Moral panics in the contemporary world: Terrorism, moral panic, and US civil society. Critical Criminology , 12 3 , — The war on terror as political moral panic.
Moral panic versus youth problem debates: Three conceptual insights from the study of Japanese youth. Moral panic versus risk society: The implications of the changing sites of social anxiety. British Journal of Sociology , 52 2 , — Mugging as a moral panic: A question of proportion. British Journal of Sociology , 37 2 , — How emotions matter to moral panics. Moral panics by design: The case of terrorism. Current Sociology , 1— The emotional politics of social work and child protection.
The social construction of sex trafficking; Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade. Every era has its own moral panics. It was Stanley Cohen s classic account, first published in the early s and regularly revised, that brought the term moral panic into widespread discussion. It is an outstanding investigation of the way in which the media and often those in a position of political power define a condition, or group, as a threat to societal values and interests.
Fanned by screaming media headlines, Cohen brilliantly demonstrates how this leads to such groups being marginalised and vilified in the popular imagination, inhibiting rational debate about solutions to the social problems such groups represent. Furthermore, he argues that moral panics go even further by identifying the very fault lines of power in society. Full of sharp insight and analysis, Folk Devils and Moral Panics is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand this powerful and enduring phenomenon. He is a member of the British Academy.
Stanely Cohen's study of deviant groups - society's "folk devils" - and the public and media reaction to them, is widely hailed as a classic of its kind. With great insight he reviews recent theory and criticism about the concept of "moral panics" and discusses the moral panics surrounding the folk devils of recent times: Show more Show less.
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