Sociology Index


Moral panic is a panic or overreaction to forms of deviance, doing or wrong doing, believed to be threats to the moral order. Moral panics are usually fanned by the media and led by community leaders or groups intent on changing laws or practices. Sociologists are less interested in the validity of the claims made during moral panics than they are with the dynamics of social change and the organizational strategies of moral entrepreneurs. There are five elements that define the moral panic: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility. Concern must manifest in a concrete way as we see in technophobia. Moral panics revolve around many issues.

Moral panics was first popularized in 1972 when Stanley Cohen wrote ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers’. When a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests, then moral panic occurs. Moral panics project fears that surround the introduction of new communications media, including film, television, information phone calls and Internet. These moral panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues.

A moral panic is framed in terms of morality and usually expressed as outrage rather them unadulterated fear over the potential misuse of some technology or practice. In a technological society, it is the new technologies that figure prominently as the focus of moral panics. Internet pornography and its accessibility to children has been perhaps the longest-running moral panics of recent times.

Example of moral panic is the fear that revolves around mobile phone cameras and CCTV cameras. Moral panic can include ‘opinion polls, public commentary in the form of media attention, proposed legislation, social movement activity, and so on. There is an increased level of hostility toward those involved in the behavior that is considered central to the moral threat or moral panic.

Moral panics gather converts because they touch on people's fears and because they also use specific events or problems as symbols of what many feel to represent 'all that is wrong with the nation.'

Moral Panics Of The 1980s

Satanic ritual abuse was the subject of a moral panic or satanic panic that originated in the United States in the 1980s. Culture wars over music fed the satanic panic of the late 1980s. This all happened during a period of what sociologist Stanley Cohen called “moral panic,” the collective societal fear that some evil force would destroy us all. In Stanley Cohen’s 2002 introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics, he writes that in moral panics, “the prohibitionist model of the ‘slippery slope’ is common," and "crusades in favor of censorship are more likely to be driven by organized groups with ongoing agendas.”

Moral Panics as a Sociological Phenomenon

The first reference regarding moral panics can be traced back to Jock Young and his work ‘The Drugtakers’ (1971) where the author discussed the public concern about an alarming increase in drug abuse. Observing the moral panic about drug-taking, he noted that this led to the establishing of police drug squads and led to an increase in drug related arrests. Thompson concluded that ‘it highlights the spiral effect produced by the interaction of the media, public opinion, interest groups and the authorities which gives rise to the phenomenon which has become known as a moral panic’ (Thompson, 1998: 7).

This kind of interaction is reminiscent of Howard Becker’s term ‘moral entrepreneurs’ and their role in the interpretation of deviant behavior and the labelling types of individuals as deviant and behavior (Becker, 1963). Supported by the media and leading social movements, these types of crusaders aim at regulating moral values and also, which is far more important, exercising social control upon the masses.

Moral Panic Articles

To catch a predator? The MySpace moral panic. - Alice Marwick.
Abstract: This paper examines moral panics over contemporary technology, or “technopanics.” I use the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace to demonstrate links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children.

Moral Panics and Crack Cocaine. By Dimitar Panchev.
Abstract: The aim of this paper is to give an outline of the ‘moral panics’ phenomenon and apply it to understanding the crack cocaine scare which developed in the United States during the mid-1980s. The analysis will focus on the social and historical context in which the ‘panic’ occurred and the facilitating factors which contributed to its spreading: the conservative political climate, the role of the media and moral entrepreneurs (Becker, 1963), the ‘crack babies syndrome’ as a consequence of the created ‘moral crusade’ against crack cocaine.

Moral Panics and the Social Construction of Deviant Behavior: A Theory and Application to the Case of Ritual Child Abuse. Jeffrey S. Victor.
The objective of the article is to develop a theory of the causes and transmission of moral panics. The theory is designed to explain forms of collective behavior, previously labeled panics, scares and persecutions.

Part one of this article presents criteria for the identification of moral panics.

Part two of the article offers models for analyzing the social conditions, which cause moral panics and lead to the social construction of definitions of deviance.

Part three examines the social processes by which moral panics are transmitted between different societies. In order to illustrate the theoretical analysis, the article presents information about the current moral panic involving criminal accusations of ritual child abuse by secret, satanic cults.

The Folk Devil Reacts: Gangs and Moral Panic - Jenna L. Cyr.
Previous analyses of moral panics and gangs have emphasized the impact of media images as well as the public, police, and legislative response in relation to the immediate threat posed by gangs and gang members. What is absent from the current moral panic literature is the effect that a moral panic may have on the group or individual to whom it is directed. In this article, survey data from gang-involved and non-gag-involved youth, as well as police and gang task force members, are used to extend the empirical analysis of moral panics into the communities at which they are directed, using the criteria set forth by Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994). The gang moral panic seems to have the power to change how youth in gang-impacted communities conceive and present themselves.

Moral Panic and Holland’s Libertine Youth of the 1650s and 1660s 
Benjamin B. Roberts.
Leendert F. Groenendijk, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. During the 1650s and 1660s, the Dutch Republic witnessed a wave of moral panic created by moralists. Holland’s youth were used as a scapegoat to create moral panic among political leaders in order to reform Holland’s secular society.

Primary Definitions of Crime and Moral Panic:
Research on crime news continues to generate scholarly interest, particularly in the realm of social constructionism. In this study, the authors contribute to this area of inquiry by administering a content analysis of 105 feature articles on crime published in four national newspapers between 1992 and 1995. The significance of primary definitions of crime within the context of the dominant ideology and moral panic is discussed at length.

Kill the Cat Killers: Moral Panic and Juvenile Crime in Slovenia - Gregor Bulc. 
Through the concept of moral panic, the author analyzes public reactions to three high school boys from Trzic, Slovenia, who were accused of killing more than forty cats in March 2000. The author uses discourse analysis to interpret newspaper articles and television reports and to examine the nature of quotes offered by state agents and experts. The analysis is based on the constructionist paradigm and focuses on the claim makers rather than the behavior and people defined as deviant. The author emphasizes the considerable role of the mass media, experts, interest groups, and popular myths in the emergence of the moral panic. He argues that moral panics regarding youth function as a symptom of broader ideological struggles between different discourses and regulative practices.

Aids, Moral Panic and Opinion Polls - Yvette Rocheron , Olga Linn.
This article looks critically at the current literature about Aids and relates some of the assumptions to the concept of the 'moral panic'. It discusses moral panic concept in relation to what we know about mass communication effects today and looks at the encoding and decoding of messages in a specific social context.

Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance - Goode and Ben-Yehuda
Moral Panics is an indispensable text for every scholar. Moral panics is one of the most important sociological ideas.