Charles Krinsky

From its first use, the concept of moral panic has been especially valuable as a model for explaining punitive or disciplinary adult reactions both to the people and social forces alleged to put children and youth at risk and, paradoxically perhaps, to the social dangers that young people and youth cultures are themselves thought to pose. Tellingly, sociologist Jock Young coined the phrase in The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use (1971), his inquiry into the causes of the unwarranted concern over illicit drug use, including young people’s use of marijuana, that he found among British news media and police. A pathbreaking study of deviance amplification (a term introduced by criminologist Leslie Wilkins in 1967, referring to the escalation of deviance through social labeling), Young’s book shows that media condemnation of drug taking not only led to more arrests, but also resulted in a greater sense of community and shared identity among drug users, who increasingly felt alienated from the mainstream. The year after publication of The Drugtakers, Young’s colleague Stanley Cohen produced the definition of moral panic that would become by far the best known. In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen searches for the reasons that a series of minor altercations between two loosely structured groups of youths, the Mods and the Rockers, that took place in several English seaside towns in 1964 became, in the national media, a sign that gang violence represented a new and unprecedented threat to public safety. According to Cohen, during a 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. (2002, 1)

Moral panics are set in motion and, for the most part, carried out in the sphere of public discourse. Members of the media, politicians, clergy, “experts,” and activists unite to do battle with an exaggerated or imagined social menace, in the process stirring up fear, confusion, anger, and intolerance in the public mind. Cohen’s introduction of the concept of folk devils has, like his definition of moral panic, been widely influential, even though, as he later conceded, “It is quite true, of course, that the book was more a study of moral panics than of folk devils”

sociology. Young delinquents are far from unique in being associated with violence. Nevertheless. Youth may be regarded as both at risk and a source of risk in many moral panics. No age group is more associated with risk in the public imagination than that of ‘youth’. In his overview of the concept and phenomenon. researchers in Britain tend to investigate moral panics involving youth because – equally likely to be seen as threatened by a rising social problem or as the problem itself (even in the course of a single moral panic) – youth are extraordinarily prone to controversy. 1) Cohen describes the continually changing function that young people serve in many moral panics. England in 1993 suggests that he may underestimate the likelihood of children figuring as villains in moral panics. groups. This is not surprising in view of the transitional status of this age group. the Hells Angels. cultural geography. Moral Panics. like Cohen’s initial study. 2). especially those concerning the alleged breakdown of the family. The Teddy Boys. the Mods and Rockers. Of course. on youth cultures. and no one type of youthful deviant has been constructed entirely like any other. history. Although the first edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (unlike later editions) contains only fleeting discussion of folk devils (individuals. (1998. murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Lancashire. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth (2002). scholars working in fields as disparate as media studies. 44) In Thompson’s view. not least those involving young people. Since Young first addressed the topic (closely followed by Cohen). occupying a position between childhood and adulthood. and for good reasons. or behaviors that come to epitomize perceived threats during moral panics). children are not usually regarded as a source of risk. but apart from the relatively rare cases of children who commit murder (such as the Bulger murder). imagined risks to children also lie behind many moral panics. still “these groups have occupied a constant position as folk devils in moral panics” (Cohen 2002. his assertion that while young . area studies. the skinheads and the hippies have all been phenomena of this kind. and criminology have used the notion of moral panic to cast light on a variety of controversies and crusades. Cohen makes clear his position that young people are particularly likely to be cast in this role: One of the most recurrent types of moral panic in Britain since the war has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture (originally almost exclusively working class. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. sociologist Kenneth Thompson considers possible reasons that research on moral panics so often engages with youth issues: The subsequent development of the sociological analysis of moral panics in Britain continued to focus. Thompson’s own allusion to the nationwide moral panic that ensued when two ten-year-old boys. these cultures have been associated with violence. but often recently middle class or student based) whose behaviour is deviant or delinquent. (2002. To a greater or lesser degree.

As might be expected from their central position in the study of moral panics generally. Not only need the attitudes and activities of different social groups and organizations be taken into account and not subsumed under a consensual “society”. . analysed their copy and decried the misrepresentation of Acid House.Introduction  children are strongly identified with the institution of the family. and the homeless) can turn to their own niche media for support in defying public censure and constructing their own social identities. more grown-up youth are additionally seen. but now publicize dissenting opinions as well. having definite beginnings and ends. British contemporary youth (like such other folk devils as gay men. Thornton discuss moral panic over youth culture in the course of calling for a considerably revised theory of moral panic. In the case of acid house (a style of electronic music that became popular at dance clubs and raves in the 1980s) and the youth culture commonly associated with it: When the mass media of tabloids and TV become active in the ‘inevitable’ moral panic about ‘Acid House’. 566). as “both at risk and a source of risk” because of their “transitional status” remains highly plausible. who had to define themselves mostly in reaction to overwhelming mass media attacks. lesbians. McRobbie and Thornton urge them to acknowledge that both society and media have become much more fragmented and contradictory since the seventies. 567–568) Addressing British sociologists in particular. re-printed whole front pages. For example. 1). but also the disparate perspectives of different mass. making it more effective than ever as a framework for explaining exaggerated or imaginary social crises (1998. As a result. in an article published in 1995 sociologists Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. continue to induce moral panics. niche and micro-media need to be taken into account. Some 30 magazines now target and speak up for youth. one that recognizes that contemporary “‘folk devils’ can and do ‘fight back’” (1995. McRobbie and Thornton observe that media. analyses of moral panics over youth (and of those over children) have been crucial to these efforts at reconceptualization as well. still not as diverse as society itself. researchers in Britain and other countries have reexamined and elaborated the concept of moral panic. (1995. the subcultural press were ready. In “Rethinking ‘Moral Panic’ for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds. They tracked the tabloids every move. 568) Thornton and McRobbie contend that unlike outcasts of the past. Especially since the 1990s (which Thompson called “the age of the moral panic”). (McRobbie and Thornton 1995. by young people themselves as well as by adults. in which media promote and society enforces a uniform viewpoint.” McRobbie and Thornton declare. moral panics can no longer be seen as discrete events.

Adults – fans and detractors of new media alike – imagine that a well-defined boundary separates the offline world from “virtual” communities. heightened public concern about the victimization of the young might well be viewed as part of a reasonable move to confront an emerging social evil. Early in the introduction to his book. what they share is a tendency to regard the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ as not only different. Children. and this basic insight remains unchallenged. Like McRobbie and Thornton. noting. historian Philip Jenkins discusses circumstances in which. knowledge about the problem unquestionably expanded as never before. 10). The phenomenon demands public concern and appropriate policy response. which takes many forms. victimization surveys of the past two decades have consistently shown that millions of children are subjected to different forms of sexual maltreatment. whether or not incidence of child molestation increased at the turn of the twentieth century. but also discrete” (Holloway and Valentine 2003. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth Cultural geographers Sarah L. Holloway and Valentine appraise the divergent positions that adults have taken in regard to children’s use of information and communication technologies. They find that despite significant disagreement between the two camps. Holloway and Gill Valentine’s study. Furthermore. rather than being merely a sign of moral panic. In the opening years of the twentieth century. Focusing on recent moral panics in Britain. the identities that children are left free to develop electronically (in spite of moral panics warning adults about the dangers of computers and the Internet) are the same ones that also allow them some degree of autonomy in the “real” world. Jenkins argues that in a sense the threat associated with child molestation was unprecedented at the start of the twentieth century and remained a serious consideration almost a century later. whose online selves are as a rule “produced. For all the caveats that can be raised about their methods and definitions. however (Holloway and Valentine 2003. 6) According to Jenkins. lends weight to McRobbie and Thornton’s conclusion that present-day society and media are apt to be divided in their responses to the cultures and communities that children and youth create for themselves. Cyberkids: Children in the Information Age (2003). happens . Why should we not panic? (1998. Holloway and Gill look at moral panics that can readily be recognized as based largely on unfounded fears regarding young people. Unusually. 11). offline identities are typically considered more authentic and deep seated than those created online. recognize no such distinctions. adult supporters and critics of children’s activities online share one fundamental assumption: “While boosters and debunkers disagree about whether development of online worlds are positive or negative. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (Jenkins 1998). social and medical investigators argued convincingly that American children were being molested and raped in numbers far higher than had been imagined in any earlier era. mediated and consumed” offline. Child molestation.

but rather as crises associated with risk society. Jenkins strongly condemns moral panic. (1998. genuine public horror is aroused by sexual attacks against children. such as global warming or nuclear accidents. . Like McRobbie and Thornton (whom he cites at length). Outrage at random violence is transformed into a largely symbolic crusade against the nonviolent and thus squanders resources on the mildly deviant. understandably continues to cause considerable anxiety today. At the extreme. that result from late modernity. by sociologist Ulrich Beck in 1986 – refers to cultures in which mass media play decisive roles in revealing and managing the consequences of dangers. the facts of child molestation can generate enough “genuine public horror” to bring about necessary policy changes without the additional impetus of moral panic. 9) Needing no enhancement or mediation. which he sees as a distinct phenomenon: In the case of child molestation. as risikogesellschaft in the original German. a moral panic enables reformers to turn an actual danger into a symbolic evil. “Moral Panic versus the Risk Society: The Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety. one could contend that knowledge about moral panics is fundamentally tainted. constitute a closely related but more recent development. (The term risk society – introduced. discovered a century ago. Virtually all of the research involves retrospective studies of panics which were ‘deemed’ authentic. which they can then exploit to distract the public and divert limited resources toward suppressing largely unrelated and less harmful sexual behaviors. On the other hand. in his view.” sociologist Sheldon Ungar (a contributor to this volume) sheds substantial light on the structure of contemporary moral panics. But in the absence of comparable examples of unsuccessful efforts. conclusions about key variables and processes amount to asserting that what transpired (more or less) had to. .Introduction  far too frequently in the United States and this truth. In his 2001 essay. but the problems constructed around these incidents address issues not immediately connected with sexual violence . He remonstrates. Notwithstanding his stance that the problem of child molestation justifies public alarm.) Ungar draws careful distinctions between moral panics and the risk society crises that. including (Ungar goes on to explain) instances of extreme public anxiety that might better be understood not as conventional moral panics. Activists present minor sexual offenses as stepping-stones culminating in unacceptable violence and therefore deserving of our condemnation. (Ungar 2001. in presenting his analysis Ungar also invites scholars to rethink their assumptions and revise their theories about the phenomenon. . 277) Scholarship has been limited by researchers’ tendency to examine moral panics that have unquestionably occurred in the past instead of looking at more ambiguous circumstances.

Analyzing risk society crises and. Curiously enough. As unforeseen side effects. he points out that whereas moral panics often home in on readily recognizable groups. youth and other folk devils remain in some way identifiable figures accused of doing measurable harm to society. Stanley Cohen has commented. with multi-faceted targets that can include governments. Australia. Intended for a wide range of readers – including undergraduate and graduate students. (Ungar 2001. In contrast. The organization of Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth highlights some of the major topics currently under discussion by social researchers. in a larger sense. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth Referencing (again like McRobbie and Thornton) moral panics’ targeting of young people as folk devils as a prime example. educators. 281) No matter how distorted public perceptions of them may be. South Africa. no anthology centering on moral panics involving children and youth has yet been published. . and Urban Youth. and France. anthropology. cultural studies. the villains associated with risk society disasters are more likely to resist definition: For the most part. corporations. informative. Sex Panics. . considering the extent of scholarly interest in the subject. and criminology. the forces behind risk society crises are intrinsically unstable and therefore more difficult for researchers to identify and isolate. folk devils have been identified as youth or other dispossessed groups who are the target of moral outrage due to their ‘evil activities’ that threaten core values of society . Besides this introduction. manufactured hazards seem to generate a greater diffusion of blame. “Studying them is easy and a lot of fun” (Cohen 2002. Schools and Schooling. and enjoyable. Canada. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth aims to be readable. While readers must judge for themselves whether that may be the case here. the anthology is divided into four main parts: Defining Youth and Youth Culture. useful. xxxv). . history. and researchers – the essays contained in this volume have been gathered from a variety of fields and disciplines. Filling this gap. Each part begins with a brief introductory essay that draws links between the articles included in it and recent scholarly literature about moral panics over children and youth. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth collects scholarship written by researchers or drawing on cases from the United States. the United Kingdom. cultural geography. Concerning moral panics. understanding the conflicts and tensions that inhere in many contemporary societies necessitate searching for their causes and targets among institutions and groups not often pressed into service as folk devils. and other institutions. including sociology.

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