Moral Panics Research Paper

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Students of deviance, social problems, and politics have used the concept of a moral panic to describe sudden concern over a group or activity, accompanied by calls for control and suppression. Out of an infinite range of potential perceived threats, one—which may be neither new nor on the rise—suddenly receives considerable attention. Marijuana use, motorbikes, and rock ‘n’ roll music are common examples. The news media, public officials, religious leaders, and private ‘moral entrepreneurs’ are key in focusing public attention on the issue, typically by identifying some recognizable group as ‘folk devils’—usually young people, racial and ethnic minorities, or other relatively powerless groups—responsible for the menace. New political or legal policies are sometimes the result, and new symbols and sensibilities (available as the raw materials for future panics) almost always are.

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1. The Concept Of Moral Panics

Trying to understand a 1964 incident in which massive police and media attention were given to an evening of rowdy behavior by young people at an English seaside resort, British sociologist Stanley Cohen first formulated the concept of a moral panic in 1972, borrowing the term from his colleague Jock Young. In Cohen’s (1972) words,

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.

The key idea, attractive to cultural constructionists, is that the public reactions and rhetoric are not clearly linked to any objective measure of threat. Scholars who use the concept of moral panic frequently try to show that the rates of the activity are actually declining or at least not increasing, or that those promoting the panic have interests in doing so that are independent of the actual harm done (for instance, police departments may receive more funding if they can persuade the public that Satanic child abuse is rampant). The term ‘panic’ seems to imply a disproportionate or self-defeating response, although the feelings and thoughts of those panicking will probably be the same regardless of the extent of any real threat. Although some involved in a panic are cynically trying to manipulate public opinion, others (presumably those being manipulated) really do perceive the putative threat as real. Most scholars have examined panics over aspects of life-style considered—at least by those embracing them, but also usually by the analyst too—to be harmless personal choices, such as clothing styles, sexual choices, or substance use. For them it is easy to show that, under certain value systems, any repressive action is unwarranted. Others have applied the term to actions that are clearly harmful, such as child abuse, but in which the response appears exaggerated or misplaced. For them it is more difficult to show that the response is disproportionate, although they may show that it is ineffective. The term has also been used to describe those opposed to technologies such as nuclear reactors. It is assumed that the emotional dynamics of a panic are similar in these diverse cases.

Many observers have found the concept of moral panics useful because it opens a window onto a society’s disagreements over basic values, often intuitively felt ones, as well as onto fears and anxieties that are normally submerged. A panic over child abuse may reveal broader concerns over changes in family structure; one over water fluoridation, fears of government bureaucracy; one over crack cocaine, racist attitudes toward African American urban youths. Cultural meanings rarely reveal themselves so starkly.

2. Moral Panics In History

Human history has been full of rumors, fears, and efforts—often deadly—to constrain or eliminate human sources of perceived problems. When the Black Death came to Europe in the fourteenth century, neither physicians nor priests were of much help, so large numbers of frightened Germans blamed the Jews who lived among them, exterminating most and driving the rest into Central and Eastern Europe. Because few disasters have been as widespread as the plague, few panics have been as broad, but local instances have been common throughout known history.

In the nineteenth century more systematic efforts appeared, especially in the UK and the USA, to make the lower classes conform to the expectations of the middle and upper classes, especially those aspects of life-style considered (by those behind the efforts) to be part of moral character. Drinking, cruelty to animals, neglect of children, pornography, even movies came eventually to be seen as antisocial behaviors that well-intended benevolent societies tried to extirpate, partly for the good of the lower classes themselves. Unionization, rebellion, and urban riots too were seen as little more than a form of crime or bestiality. For more than 100 years, most moral panics consisted of the privileged worried about the less privileged. (Although lower-class panics persisted, such as anti-Catholic riots in the USA.)

For most of this era, intellectuals were more likely to contribute to moral panics than to analyze, and thereby criticize, the panics of others. Few scholars questioned the widespread fears of urban mobs that characterized the middle and upper classes of nineteenth century Europe. In fact, they contributed to them, especially by dismissing ‘crowd’ behavior as irrational.

There seems to have been some kind of turning point around World War II, since which the sources of moral panics have grown more diverse. Intellectuals and academics, as they grew in numbers in the 1950s, instigated something like mild panics over conformity, the authoritarian personality, and mass society as signs of vulnerability to fascism or communism. Politicians were behind many of the panics over communist infiltration. Grassroots issue entrepreneurs seem to have motivated the American panic over fluoridation, however. In the USA, the majority of moral panics since the 1970s have been the work of the religious right, whose diligent organizing is one reason the USA seems to have more panics than most other advanced industrial nations. There, panics frequently cluster around sex for pleasure rather than procreation (loose morals, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, abortion), around race and poverty (crack and other drugs, welfare mothers, urban crime and violence), and around immigration (the English language, standards in the schools, overpopulation, job and wage competition). Each panic carries with it clearly defined folk devils.

Although moral panics are hardly new, they seem to have become more frequent in recent decades, or at least more visible to national audiences. For one thing, advanced industrial societies have a ‘social movement sector’ of professional activists who act as moral entrepreneurs as they try to attract attention, funds, and volunteers. Such individuals have long existed— think of Thomas Paine or Anthony Comstock—but they now have extensive formal organizations, political networks, and direct-mail fund-raising techniques at their disposal. Second, immigration into many countries has increased in recent decades, accompanied by heightened tensions over group boundaries, especially ethnic ones. Newcomers often have habits that are poorly understood and easily used to stigmatize the group. Increased penetration of the media, especially television, into each and every ‘deviant’ subculture has further spread awareness of alternative life-styles, especially sexual freedoms. The Protestant right in the USA and elsewhere has discovered the power of life-style panics for raising funds, if not recruiting new members.

3. The Role Of The Media

Much of the ‘panic’ in moral panics—the disproportionate nature of the response—is due to framing and amplification by communications media. If they do not report on a phenomenon, or do not frame it as something one should be frightened about, there is rarely a panic. Thus the rise of television everywhere and the wide readership for tabloid newspapers in the UK, for example, have been blamed for an increase in moral panics. In some views, the media reflect the values and interests of economic and political elites, and so focus on the groups and behaviors that frighten these elites. In a less conspiratorial view, the media simply look for unusual life-styles and behaviors as a means to attract viewers, readers, and so on. In doing so, they spread information about what mainstream culture considers deviant. Sometimes, it is deviant enough to ignite panic.

Cohen (1972) originally described three ways in which media coverage contributes to moral panics: in the exaggeration and distortion of what actually has happened; in predictions that the same kind of thing will happen again; and in the framing of key symbols in pejorative ways. To a large extent, these make the event or behavior into news.

4. Variations In Panics

A number of variations in culture and social structure affect the shape and outcomes of moral panics. One of the most important is the political, and especially the electoral, system. Where, as in the USA, politicians are left to raise their own funds and do their own campaigning in single-district elections, they may be tempted to play on the fears of the majority, which often have to do with life-styles of minorities. Where, as in Sweden, representation is more proportional and political parties control the chances of individual candidates, party leaders at least have the opportunity to curb efforts at creating moral panics for electoral purposes. Of course, this allows entire parties to play the panic card, as in the case of the National Front in France.

The structure of the media industry also has an effect. In some nations governments exert considerable control over the content of the media—although the widespread relaxation of such control in recent years may have contributed to an increase in moral panics. Their intervention allows governments to curb sensationalism and prevent moral panics, but it also allows them to incite them to their own advantage. On another dimension, in countries with nationally centralized news media, such as the UK, panics can spread more quickly than in countries where the media are more regional and local, as in France or the USA.

Other potential moral entrepreneurs face varying kinds of incentive structures. Local police departments, for instance, may need to appeal to city or regional governments for additional funding. Certain occupations may have opportunities for advancing into new terrain because of moral panics. The more that a taxation or funding system allows input from local units or from the general population, the more tempting it is for those whose funding comes from these sources to use moral panics to increase their budgets.

Some moral panics reflect widespread public anxieties and fears that are easily stirred up through news coverage. Others seem traceable to specific interest groups who will benefit from the panic. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) distinguish three models of moral panics, according to their origin. In one view, moral panics are relatively grassroots in origin, in a second they are organized by elites, and in a third vision they are promoted by interest groups or social-movement organizations. But there is no reason to think that all panics must come from the same source, so that one model would fit them all. Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s typology functions equally well for distinguishing different types of panic as different scholarly models: some panics are indeed more grassroots in origin, others are more elite-directed, and yet others are promoted initially by social-movement groups. In addition, some seem entirely a creation of the news media. These types may differ in their dynamics and outcomes as well as their origins.

As for differences in the general public, many commentators have assumed (more than demonstrated) that there are national differences in susceptibility to ‘mass mobilization’ in instances such as moral panics. It has been thought that a lively ‘civic culture’ should prevent the kind of demagoguery often associated with moral panics, and that formal education breeds tolerance for the alternative life-styles that are often demonized in panics. This evidence is not as strong as one might wish. Just the kind of educated, normally tolerant people one might expect to resist moral panics often end up leading them. One of their frequent (if not defining) features is the relative absence of critical, dissenting voices.

5. Controversies

The concept of moral panics has not lacked critics. Like all varieties of cultural constructionism, the analysis of moral panics can be turned against those who use it. Just as they find bias and exaggeration in their subjects of study, so their own critics can claim to find the same flaws in research on moral panics. Most scholars who have used the concept have been left leaning and thus quicker to discern panics on the right, for instance. A more fundamental criticism is that the term panic is necessarily pejorative, assuming rather than demonstrating that those analyzed are not entirely rational. To prove irrationality or disproportionality, analysts must presumably investigate the goals of those accused of panic (often a complex and poorly defined cluster of goals) and show that they are undermining their own progress toward those goals.

Debates over the utility of moral panics as an analytic tool tap into deep disagreements about the rationality of protest and politics. For most of the modern era, students of collective protest viewed it as immature, irrational, or manipulated, a kind of crowd dynamic leading people to do things they would not do otherwise. In this tradition panics, like fads, were analyzed in the same way as movements for unions or civil rights. To critics, moral panics are a holdover from this pejorative vision that dismissed protestors as irrational.

In recent decades a very different view of such activity has arisen, in which collective action is seen as a pervasive and regular form of politics, in which groups and individuals organize to pursue their own interests. They mobilize resources, look for political opportunities in which to act, and formulate rhetoric to appeal to as many potential supporters as possible. The concept of panic seems to undermine this positive view of such activity, but in fact it focuses attention on precisely the dynamics that this rationalist perspective tends to overlook. Issues must be chosen from a myriad of possibilities; grievances must be constructed; emotions must be aroused, often through the demonization of others; previously private issues must be portrayed as a public concern. The dynamics highlighted by research on moral panics, in other words, characterize a great deal of politics both institutionalized and not.

Moral panics remain a common occurrence in modern societies. They generate considerable scholarly interest, although some care must be taken to avoid loaded language and tendentious arguments about them—and some will always think that the term ‘panic’ itself is necessarily loaded.


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  2. Cohen S 1972 Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. MacGibbon and Kee, London
  3. Goode E, Ben-Yehuda N 1994 Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA
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  7. Springhall J 1998 Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta Rap, 1830–1996. St. Martin’s, New York
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  9. Waddington P A J 1986 Mugging as a moral panic: A question of proportion. British Journal of Sociology 37: 245–59
  10. Watney S 1987 Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. Methuen, London


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