Moral panic

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Preparing to burn a witch in 1544. Witch-hunts are an example of mass behavior fueled by moral panic.

A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.[1] The term first appeared in the English language in 1830 in The Quarterly Christian Spectator. Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension, and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo.[2]

The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.[3]

Historic use of the term[edit]

The Quarterly Christian Spectator, a publication from 1830, wrote:

Do they not speak as men do on other subjects, when they express activity? And is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic?" [4]

It was used again in the following year, with the same meaning as the term used in modern social sciences:

Magendie a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is".[5]

Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964.[6]

According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),[7] a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".[8] Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as "folk devils".

Differing views[edit]

Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray moral panics as crises of capitalism. [9]

British criminologist Jock Young first used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Notting Hill between 1967 and 1969 .[10] In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of moral panic, Hall et al. theorized that the "rising crime rate equation" performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "police the crisis." [11]


Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:


Jewish victims of a pogrom in Ekaterinoslav in 1905

Moral panics are considered to include some persecutions of individuals or groups, such as the Reign of Terror and Stalinist purges. More recently, various Muslim groups have demonstrated concern due to claims that some actions in Western countries following the September 11 attacks affecting Arabs, Muslims (or those mistaken for them) have comprised a moral panic.[12] Some American sociologists have also viewed responses to these attacks as moral panics.[13]

A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse originated in the US and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s.[14][15][16][17] In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.[15]

Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the "white slavery" panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the Mann Act.[18][19][20][21]

Research shows that fears of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a populations' "herd mentality," continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate is rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.[22]

Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."[23]

Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 90's, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs.[24][25][26] News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998", for overstating the threat, and for excessively raising it in women's minds for the rest of their lives.[25] For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.[27]

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons (a fantasy role-playing game) has received negative publicity for alleged promotion of such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s especially, some especially Fundamentalist Christian religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of Demons.[28] Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.[citation needed]

It has been suggested that the recent drive to regulate video games is another instance of moral panic over the content of popular culture.[29][30][31] The industry response has been to create a self-regulatory ratings system similar to that used by the film industry.[32]

Some specific examples[edit]

Any conspiracy theory may cause a panic. McCarthyism was a prime example of such a moral panic. By the use of propaganda and scapegoating, a culture of fear was created; which built to a frenzy with the initial creation of mass hysteria, before running its course, and eventually dying out.

Currently, school or workplace bullying and the knockout game are receiving much media attention. Back in the 1980s, the Video nasty was the focus of societal scrutiny. Various Urban legends have also been at the forefront of panics in the past. Politicians, especially, may often evoke the phrase, "It's for the children," as an attempt to illustrate morality differences with an opponent's view.


The British television show Brass Eye, written by and starring Chris Morris, attempted to satirise the public's tendency to fly into a moral panic, most notably in the episodes "Drugs" and the special "Paedogeddon". In these episodes, celebrities and politicians were duped into appearing in fictional campaigns against particular social ills, thus demonstrating the tendency for both such groups towards jumping onto the bandwagon of campaigns against social problems, principally to raise their own profiles.


In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor. Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.[33]

The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value.[34] Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press
  2. ^ Kuzma, Cindy. "Rights and Liberties: Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics". AlterNet. September 28, 2005; accessed September 5, 2008.
  3. ^ Cohen, S., p.16
  4. ^ The Quarterly Christian Spectator: Conducted by an Association of Gentlemen (1830) Vol. II. A. H. Maltby. New Haven/ New York
  5. ^ The Journal of Health Conducted by an Association of Physicians (1831) p. 180
  6. ^ McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet
  7. ^ Hayes, H. & Prenzler T. (2012) An Introduction to Crime and Criminology: 3. Frenchs Forest: Pearson
  8. ^ Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St Albans: Paladin, p.9
  9. ^ Thompson, K. in C. Critcher, (2006). Critical readings: Moral Panics in the Media. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2006)
  10. ^ Young. J (1971) 'The Role of the Police as Amplifiers of Deviance' in Images of Deviance; Young, J. (1971) The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. London: Judson, McGibbon and Kee
  11. ^ Hall, S., et al. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan Press. ISBN 0-333-22061-7 (paperback) ISBN 0-333-22060-9 (hardbound)
  12. ^ Bavelaar, R (2005-09-21). "'Moral Panic' and the Muslim". IslamOnline. Retrieved 2009-03-06. [dead link]
  13. ^ Victor, J (2006-07-01). "'Why the terrorism scare is a moral panic'". freelibrary. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  14. ^ Ben-Yehuda N; Goode E (1994). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 0-631-18905-X. 
  15. ^ a b Jenkins, P (1998). Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 207–231. ISBN 0-300-10963-6. 
  16. ^ Victor JS (1993). Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Open Court Publishing Company. pp. 55–6. ISBN 0-8126-9192-X. 
  17. ^ de Young, Mary (2004). The Day Care Ritual Abuse Moral Panic. Jefferson, North Carolina, United States: McFarland and Company. pp. 42. ISBN 0-7864-1830-3. 
  18. ^ Doezema, Jo (2000). "Loose women or lost women". Gender Issues 18 (1): 23–50. doi:10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9.  (HTML version)
  19. ^ Weitzer, Ronald. (2007). "The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade", Politics & Society 35(3):447–475. doi:10.1177/0032329207304319.
  20. ^ Milivojevic, Sanja (2008). "Women’s bodies, moral panic and the world game: sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond". Proceedings of the 2nd Australian & New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference. pp. 222–242. 
  21. ^ Davies, Nick (2009-10-20). "Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-11-29. 
  22. ^ Hamai, K (2004). "How 'the Myth of Collapsing Safe Society' Has Been Created in Japan: Beyond the Moral Panic and Victim Industry (Rising Fear of Crime and Re-building Safe Society in Japan: Moral Panic or Evidence-Based Crime Control)". Japanese Journal of Sociological Criminology (29): 4–93. 
  23. ^ "Drugs – facing facts: The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy" (pdf). Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. 2007. p. 15. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  24. ^ Jenkins, Philip (1999). Synthetic panics: the symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York, NY [u.a.]: New York University Press. pp. 20 and 161–182. ISBN 0814742440. 
  25. ^ a b Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009). Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed. ed.). Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 217. ISBN 1405189347. 
  26. ^ Webber, Craig (2009). Psychology & crime. London: Sage. p. 67. ISBN 1412919428. 
  27. ^ Quigley, P.; Lynch, D. M.; Little, M.; Murray, L.; Lynch, A. M.; O'Halloran, S. J. (2009). "Prospective study of 101 patients with suspected drink spiking". Emergency Medicine Australasia 21 (3): 222–228. doi:10.1111/j.1742-6723.2009.01185.x. PMID 19527282.  edit
  28. ^ Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
  29. ^ Byrd, Patrick (2007). "It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Gets Hurt: The Effectiveness of Proposed Video Game Regulation" (pdf). Retrieved 2007-03-19. 
  30. ^ Christopher J. Ferguson (2008). "The School Shooting/Violent Video Game Link: Causal Link or Moral Panic?" (pdf). Retrieved 2009-11-13. 
  31. ^ Gagne, Kenneth A. (2001-04-27). "Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games". Retrieved 2010-06-10. 
  32. ^ Entertainment Software Rating Board
  33. ^ Cohen, S. (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson, pp. xxvi-xxxi
  34. ^ a b Jewkes Y (2004). Media and crime. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0-7619-4765-5. 

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