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"Moral panics cannot exist in the late-modern era" - Anna Creek

Anna Creek is a 3rd year student at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in Criminology and Sociology. Anna is looking to eventually work somewhere within the prison service

Stan Cohen on Moral panics part 1

Somewhat predictably, this essay opens with a quote from Stan Cohen's 'Folk Devils and Moral Panics...' (2002) so as to define the key term. It would, after all suggest naivety to not begin by acknowledging one of the topic's founding fathers.


"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." (Cohen1972)


Such a definition provides the basis for this essay in a sense that it is from here that the moral panic concept took hold of the social sciences and that which led itself to praise and criticisms alike. This text has three general sections, taking the following form; a focus on the origins of the moral panic concept, where the pioneering works of both Jock Young (1971) and Stan Cohen (2002) will be highlighted in order to identify the moral panic as a theory necessary for consideration. The consequent development and adoption of the term in the United States will further be identified through the particular writings of Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) who gave us clearly defined characteristics associated with an episode of moral panic as well as three models by which to typify one. This leads into the second section, discussing the emerging criticisms regarding 'moral panic'. Here, the text examines moralisation and within this, moral boundaries, multi-mediation, moral regulation and the risk society as well as touching upon criticisms of the role of the media in an episode of moral panic.


The essay then moves into its third section, regarding the potential to develop the framework by which to analyse moral panics. This is where the text turns to the conclusions made by the prior critiques as a way of evolving the concept to account for apparent pitfalls and surrounding queries in this late modern era. The late modern era, it should be mentioned is synonymous with industrial societies, modernity, late modernity and postmdernity (Thompson, 1998) and as such, will also be referred to as contemporary society or culture. So, the argument put forward by this essay proposes that whilst there are criticisms of moral panics in the surround of contemporary culture, the conclusions that can be made from relevant analyses point not towards the eradication of the moral panic concept but rather towards its development so as to account for the inherent features of contemporary society. As this essay contends, there is far greater evidence in support of the existence of moral panics in the late modern era than there is evidence in supporting the case that they cannot exist. What is needed, is reform.


The essay delves straight into 'moral panic' as a concept in its own right, to ground the reader's knowledge before critique. But, as Cohen (2002, p.xxii) explains, one could trace the origins back further and consider "the sixties fusion of labelling theory, cultural politics and critical sociology". In 1971, Jock Young had his work entitled 'The Drugtakers...' (Young, 1971) published and was actually the first to reference the term 'moral panic'  (Thompson, 1998) although not in this famous work.  It is now Stan Cohen who is widely considered as key in moral panic research, not to suggest Young is no longer considered, but rather that Cohen has become the sociologist most associated with the concept. This is more than likely due to his development of the term in his book 'Folk Devils and Moral Panics...', originally published in 1972, but which has since endured three editions, for this reason this essay will refer to the latest (Cohen, 2002).


Already quoted above is the definition through which Cohen (2002) begins his work. Thompson (1998) draws on this, breaking it down to note five key stages of the moral panic. In the first stage, someone or something comes to be defined as a threat to the values of society; secondly, the media portray the threat in a recognisable way. The third stage follows where concern amongst the public is aroused, linking to the fourth stage where authority figures respond. Finally, the panic either diminishes or brings about change. These stages outline the classic style moral panic which will later be developed through critique alongside the components and characteristics of moral panics detailed through the writings of Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009, originally published in 1994).


Both Young (1971) and Cohen (2002) see the police as amplifiers of deviance, contributing to what is commonly held as the deviance amplification spiral (Krinsky, 2013; Thompson, 1998; Critcher, 2008). Another critical point of the work of Cohen (2002) in particular, is the emphasis placed on the mass media as a key agent in a moral panic, responsible for exaggeration and distortion respectively (Critcher, 2008). In tracing the origins of the 'moral panic' concept, Krinsky (2013) places the works of Young and Cohen in the 'first wave' alongside one other piece of research conducted by Hall et al (1978). They consider the mugging crisis as a moral panic in the United Kingdom. Critcher (2008) highlights that this moral panic fits the classic model almost exactly, mirroring as he goes on to say, the processual model of Cohen's (2002) work.


The processual model can be thought of in terms of providing an account of the key agents involved in a moral panic as well as the causes and consequences of the panic (Critcher, 2008). What Hall et al (1978) put forward then, is a Marxist critique of false consciousness, whereby the moral panic over muggings and in general come to be seen as 'diversionary manifestations' with the intention of maintaining the status quo (Krinsky, 2013). To put this simply, it has been perceived that Hall et al (1978) were eluding to the fact that the government used the folk devils, (young black males) as scapegoats for wider political concerns.  


The processual model, to which this first wave of moral panic research adheres to, can be contrasted with the attributional model where concern lies with how problems are constructed (Critcher, 2008). Thus, this text turns to the 'second wave' of moral panic research (Krinsky, 2013) and the development of the concept in the United States. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) are paramount to this development in providing five key features or characteristics of a moral panic (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009; Krinsky, 2013; Garland, 2008). These are concern, over a group or category and their behaviour, leading to anxiety surrounding the group or category; hostility, against 'the enemy' and expressed through stereotypes; consensus, or a collective feeling of threat; disproportionality, that is through exaggerated figures or the fabrication of figures and so forth; and finally, volatility, which refers to the short, sharp episodes of the panic. Moreover, Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) go further and establish three types of moral panic model.


The first is the 'grassroots' model which sees a moral panic emerging from widespread concern within the community, the public, the grassroots. Thompson (1998, p.18) attributes this to the anxieties in the past over witches in America, noting that "there was no interest group or elite that stood to gain from engineering such fears...". The grassroots model then refers to just that, the grass; the bottom layer of society, where there is no gain from other sectors of society in bringing to light the issue. Another of the three models is the eltite-engineered (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009) which suggests that the creation of a moral panic lies with political, economic and other such elites in "propaganda campaigns designed to avoid a genuine solution to a real structural problem" (Rohloff & Wright, 2010, p.407). The middle ground, as it were, and the third model, is the interest groups theory which suggests that the creation of a moral panic lies with the middle sector of society, this may include the police, media, religious groups and others which have a particular interest or concern over bringing a particular issue to light (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009).


This is by no means a complete history of the 'moral panic' concept but simply an attempt to bring to light the very basic yet important aspects of the concept. It should also be noted that there are many more theoretical qualities of this model which could have been explored, much of which is discussed by Thompson (1998). Moreover, to review the validity of the statement that moral panics cannot exist in the late modern era, one needs to turn to the criticisms of the original moral panic model. As the reader might imagine, there is much literature pertaining to such a topic and so this essay will simply identify an overarching concern of moralisation, which will feed on further subjects, such as moral boundaries, regulation, multi-mediation and the risk society. The subsequent topic of the media will further be noted.


Throughout this body of the essay, the original theory that moral panics serve to clarify moral boundaries, or rather that they reaffirm moral values must be held at the forefront of one's knowledge. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009, p.29) assess that "moral panics are likely to "clarify the normative contours" and "moral boundaries" of the society in which they take place", attributing a clear cut distinction between 'them' and 'us'. This considers a line between morality (us) and immorality (them). To refer back to Cohen's (2002) example as a way of emphasising this point, the 'mods and rockers' were acting in an immoral fashion, distinguishing themselves from the rest of moral society (Hier, 2008; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009).


However, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) highlight the breakdown of this moral distinction  through their assessment that the blamed individuals or groups, the 'folk devils', now have the power to get their viewpoint across by creating "their own media to counter the biased mainstream media" (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995, p.568). Moreover, this expansion of the media and its plurality in its inclusion of counter arguments, implies a paradox of the media and of moral panics; the mass media serves to promote moral panics, contributing to exaggerated public fears, yet it also serves to represent alternative viewpoints in challenging the grounds for social control (Altheide, 2009). The original concept of the moral panic saw folk devils as demonised and marginalised from mainstream society (Cohen, 2002) and yet this assessment rejects such a view.

In addition, while the subject of the media is rife, one might turn to another criticism outside of moralisation which posits the role of the media as neglecting an active audience.


The original model of 'moral panic' saw the media as key in its creation, through sensationalist reporting and exaggeration (Cohen, 2002; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009; Hier, 2008) which implied a passive audience and a fear that the mass media were turning their audience into 'zombies' (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). However, this notion of a passive audience, unchallenging of the media's attempts to incite a moral panic has been rejected as, since the middle of the twentieth century, audiences have come to be seen as active consumers of the media in an aforementioned multi-mediated society (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009; McRobbie and Thornton, 1995). More than this, the way the term 'moral panic' is now used within the media suggests an uncritical, general usage, similar to that of a 'catchphrase' (Garland, 2008, p.19). This may point to a suggestion that the success of creating moral panics has diminished as the media's use of the term has become predictable, general and so, less powerful (Garland, 2008).


Furthermore, Hier (2008) inspired by the work of Hunt (1999, 2003) considers a change in the processes of moral regulation. Remembering the opening to this section of critique, the original mode of moralisation saw a distinction between the boundaries of morality and immorality which was then criticised through the blurring of those boundaries. Hier (2008, p.174) further examines that "contemporary moralization finds expression in hybrid configurations of risk and harm" emphasised through an example of everyday moralisation. That is, individual risk management as protection against harmful others; so, drinking alcohol as a form of individual risk management, in an attempt to protect oneself against the drunk driver: the harmful other (Hier, 2008). Hier (2008) employs the notion of moralisation as an everyday occurrence through risk and harm; through individualising discourses (personal responsibility) against collectivising discourses (harms to avoid). So, the boundaries between morality and immorality existing through moral panics have in a sense broken down to these changing processes of moral regulation through risk and harm. Instead of moral panics being used to collectively reaffirm moral boundaries, moral regulation has, according to Hier (2008), transcended into individual moralisation of risk and harm in the everyday.


On the other hand and in the same article, Hier (2008) relates this sense of self governance to the risk society (Beck, 1992) and its consequent critique by Ungar (2001), claiming that under the blanket of a risk society, one would expect to see an increase in moral panics. What can be gathered from this is that if, as a society, we now live in times of more prevalent risks, accompanied by technological advances (Beck, 1992), through self governance of those increased risks, an outburst of panics are likely in an attempt to contain the new prevalent risks associated with a risk society. Or as Hier (2008, p.187) puts it:


"anxieties endemic to the risk society should be understood to energize collectivizing discourses of safety and security...this can be expected to generate a greater number of panics aimed at containing ubiquitous anxieties associated with 'late modern risks'"


If one then seeks to incorporate the subject of a multi-mediated society (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995) it could be suggested how a moral panic over a certain 'risk' might emerge but further be quashed or countered in an attempt to disregard the original panic, or indeed contain it. The prevalence of the media allows for such counter views to be heard.


However Ungar (2001) critically measures the concept of a moral panic against the risk society, seemingly seeking a rejection of moral panics in the late modern era. According to Ungar (2001), as new social anxieties have emerged, the questions motivating moral panic research have lost their utility. In other words, societies change and so, the phenomena associated with outbreaks of public concern should too (Ungar, 2001). Ungar (2001) identifies that since the 1980s and through industrialisation, nuclear, chemical, biological and medical anxieties have emerged within society (something that has also been highlighted by Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). This might then suggest the need to rethink the moral panic in the late modern era, replacing it perhaps with the move into a risk society. But, Thompson (1998) has also picked up on this changing site for social anxieties, (as has Garland, 2008) incorporating a greater breadth of subjects which may result in a panic.


Moreover, in identifying the risk society as a new format over moral panic research, Ungar (2001) goes on to consider how the notion of a folk devil might not hold the same meaning in the risk society, or may in fact not exist at all. The folk devil in this sense can be considered as a "foraging process, an essayed induction that must take hold (Ungar, 2001, p.281). The simile used in this depiction is that of a 'hot potato' (Ungar, 2001) whereby blame is passed from one target to another. Though Ungar (2001) gives the example of the Swine Flu scare in America in the 1970s, a more contemporary issue would be that of the recent 'horse meat' scandal. Were the supermarkets to blame?; was it the fault of the packaging companies?; or perhaps it was the responsibility of the meat suppliers. Here we see how the attribution of blame can be passed from one subject to another, unlike the individual or group singled out as a folk devil in Cohen's original model.


By entering into a discussion over the statement that moral panics cannot exist in the late modern era, this text has identified the criticisms of the moral panic concept and so, the original model. While these criticisms could be placed on a pedestal to show how moral panics cannot exist, this text rather contemplates the idea that moral panics can and do still exist but the model and framework for analysing them is in need of reform, so as to incorporate aspects integral to this late modern society. Under the banner of moralisation, for instance, there was a discussion over moral boundaries; the line between morality and immorality which McRobbie and Thornton (1995) saw as breaking down due to the multiplicity of the mass media. Our moral boundaries are no longer so clear because through the expansion of mediums, what an original marginalised folk devil could not do, they now can, and that is that they can respond to their demonisation. They can reject their negative, deviant label. Far from calling for the exclusion of moral panics in late modernity based on this movement, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) similarly assess that the model of moral panic just needs to be updated.  


Still in keeping with moralisation, another discussion developed over the changing sites of moral regulation; from moral panics as collectively reaffirming moral boundaries towards individual moral regulation through the notions of risk and harm. According to Hier (2008), due to the previously stated breakdown over the moral boundaries, moral panics can no longer seek to reaffirm societies morals as they once did (Cohen, 2002). Instead there has been a shift towards personal regulation of behaviour. Once again the original model does not account for individual responses to harmful others and so should be updated to assess this, not rejected. This discussion then followed the line into the risk society whereby it was argued that self regulation of behaviour could lead to greater moral panics; a direct rejection of the statement that moral panics cannot exist in the late modern era.


However, as with any theory, there sits a counter theory. In this case, this came in the form of Sheldon Ungar (2001) who critically placed the moral panic concept up against the risk society and sought to present the risk society as a more valid concept under contemporary conditions. But while such an argument may appear grounded in valid theory, Garland (2008) pin points what this essay seeks to conclude, that while moral panics and the risk society are two separate concepts, the former suggestive of anxious disapproval of moral threats and the latter as fearful uncertainty about material hazards; societal reactions to risk may also have the consequence of questioning the morality of certain ways of life. In this sense, according to Garland (2008), it is difficult to distinguish between the two concepts. More than this however, Ungar (2001) himself reiterates that the risk society cannot completely eradicate the moral panic and so the two should hold some sort of relationship. Hence, the moral panic model should be extended to include the concept of the risk society.


One final critique of the original moral panic model stepped outside of moralisation and instead clamped down on the media. In this discussion, the transgression from a passive to an active audience of media was emphasised as a consideration of how the media's influence in creating moral panics has become weakened. This point alone would serve to suggest the need for a reform of the moral panic concept which so heavily relied on the media in the cycle of deviancy and moral panic creation. So to conclude, this essay, through discussing criticisms of the original model of the moral panic concept, puts forward an argument that the concept and framework by which to analyse episodes of 'moral panic' needs to be developed in order to account for factors embedded in this post modern society; media saturation, risk and the key agents involved are all contenders to be accepted under a new moral panic model.



Altheide, D.L., (2009), 'Moral Panic: from Sociological Concept to Public Discourse', Crime, Media, Culture, 5(1), pp.79-99

Beck, U., (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Best, J., (2000), 'Moral Panics by Kenneth Thompson: Review by Joel Best', Contemporary Sociology, 29(2), pp.387-388

Cohen, S., (2002), Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, [third edition], London: Routledge

Critcher, C., (2008), 'Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future', Sociology Compass, 2(4), pp.1127-1144

Garland, D., (2008), 'On the Concept of Moral Panic', Crime, Media, Culture, 4(1), pp.9-30

Goode, E. and N. Ben-Yehuda, (2009), Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, [second edition], Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Hall, S., C. Critcher, T. Jefferson, J.N. Clarke and B. Roberts, (1978), Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: Macmillan

Hier, S.P., (2008), 'Thinking Beyond Moral Panic: Risk, Responsibility, and the Politics of Moralization', Theoretical Criminology, 12(2), pp.173-190

Hunt, A., (1999), Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hunt, A., (2003), 'Risk and Moralization in Everyday Life', in Ericson, R.V. and A. Doyle (eds), Risk and Morality, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp.165-192

Krinsky, C., (2013), 'Introduction: the Moral Panic Concept', in Krinsky, C., (ed), The Ashgate Research Companion to Moral Panics, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd

McRobbie, A. and S. Thornton, (1995), 'Rethinking Moral Panic for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds', British Journal of Sociology, 46(4), pp.559-574

Rohloff, A. and S. Wright, (2010), 'Moral Panic and Social Theory: Beyond the Heuristic', Current Sociology, 58(3), pp.403-419

Thompson, K., (1998), Moral Panics, London: Routledge

Ungar, S., (2001), 'Moral Panic Versus the Risk Society: the Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety', The British Journal of Sociology, 52(2), pp.271-291

Young, J., (1971), The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use, London: MacGibbon and Kee






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Moral panics part 2


Moral Panics

Download the podcast on Carey Allen's discussion of Moral panics and deviancy amplification (includes clips from Stan Cohen).

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