Moral panic
A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population
A population is all the organisms that both belong to the same group or species and live in the same geographical area. The area that is used to define a sexual population is such that inter-breeding is possible between any pair within the area and more probable than cross-breeding with individuals...

 about an issue that appears to threaten the social order
Social order
Social order is a concept used in sociology, history and other social sciences. It refers to a set of linked social structures, social institutions and social practices which conserve, maintain and enforce "normal" ways of relating and behaving....

. According to Stanley Cohen
Stanley Cohen (sociologist)
Professor Stanley Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.-Life:Cohen was born in Johannesberg, South Africa in 1942. He grew up in South Africa and was an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand, studying Sociology and Social Work. He came to London in...

, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and credited creator of the term, a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 and interests." Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as "moral entrepreneur
Moral entrepreneur
A moral entrepreneur is a person who seeks to influence a group to adopt or maintain a norm. The moral entrepreneur may press for the creation or enforcement of a norm for any number of reasons, altruistic or selfish...

s", while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as "folk devil
Folk devil
A folk devil is a person or group of people who are portrayed in folklore or the media as outsiders and deviant, and who are blamed for crimes or other sorts of social problems ....


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
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...

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

Origins and use

While many believe the term was coined by Stanley Cohen to describe press reporting and the reaction of the establishment to the behaviour of mods and rockers
Mods and Rockers
The Mods and Rockers were two conflicting British youth subcultures of the early-mid 1960s. Mods and rockers fighting in 1964 sparked a moral panic about British youths, and the two groups were seen as folk devils. The rockers were motorcyclists, wearing clothes such as black leather jackets. The...

, it was actually first used in print in 1971 by his colleague Jock Young
Jock Young
This article is about the sociologist. For the rapper, see Yung JocJock Young is a British sociologist and criminologist.He began teaching at Enfield College of Technology....

 in "The role of the Police as Amplifiers of Deviancy, Negotiators of Reality and Translators of Fantasy."

Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and British sociologists. Kenneth Thompson
Kenneth Thompson
Kenneth Thompson or Ken Thompson may refer to:* Kenneth Thompson , Bishop of Sherwood* Kenneth Thompson , British ice hockey centre...

 has said that American sociologists tend to emphasize psychological factors whereas the British portray moral panics as crises of capitalism.

In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall
Stuart Hall (cultural theorist)
Stuart Hall is a cultural theorist and sociologist who has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1951. Hall, along with Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, was one of the founding figures of the school of thought that is now known as British Cultural Studies or The Birmingham School of...

 and his colleagues studied the reaction to the importation of the previously American phenomenon of mugging 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
Social control
Social control refers generally to societal and political mechanisms or processes that regulate individual and group behavior, leading to conformity and compliance to the rules of a given society, state, or social group. Many mechanisms of social control are cross-cultural, if only in the control...

. Crime statistics
Crime statistics
Crime statistics attempt to provide statistical measures of the crime in societies. Given that crime is usually secretive by nature, measurements of it are likely to be inaccurate....

, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes. Moral panics (e.g., over mugging) could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "police the crisis." The media play a central role in the "social production of news" to reap the rewards of lurid crime stories.


Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
  • Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative impact on society.
  • Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become "folk devils". A clear division forms between "them" and "us".
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the "moral entrepreneurs" are vocal and the "folk devils" appear weak and disorganised.
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.


Moral panics are considered to include some persecution
Persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group. The most common forms are religious persecution, ethnic persecution, and political persecution, though there is naturally some overlap between these terms. The inflicting of suffering, harassment, isolation,...

s of individuals or groups, such as anti-Semitic pogroms, Stalinist purges, the witch-hunt
A witch-hunt is a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic, mass hysteria and lynching, but in historical instances also legally sanctioned and involving official witchcraft trials...

s of Renaissance Europe. Most recently, various Muslim groups claim that some actions in Western countries following the September 11 attacks affecting Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

s, Muslim
A Muslim, also spelled Moslem, is an adherent of Islam, a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion based on the Quran, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God as revealed to prophet Muhammad. "Muslim" is the Arabic term for "submitter" .Muslims believe that God is one and incomparable...

s, or those mistaken for them have comprised a moral panic. A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse
Satanic ritual abuse
Satanic ritual abuse refers to the abuse of a person or animal in a ritual setting or manner...

 originated in the U.S and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s. 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
As a medical diagnosis, pedophilia is defined as a psychiatric disorder in adults or late adolescents typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children...

 to refer to unusual crimes of abuse such as high-profile cases of child abduction
Child abduction
Child abduction or Child theft is the unauthorized removal of a minor from the custody of the child's natural or legally appointed guardians....

 and murder
Child murder
The murder of children is considered an abhorrent crime in much of the world; they are perceived within their communities and the state at large as being vulnerable, and therefore especially susceptible to abduction and murder. The protection of children from abuse and possible death often involves...


Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking
Human trafficking
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of reproductive slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, or a modern-day form of slavery...

 and its more general conflation with prostitution
Prostitution is the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. The person who receives payment for sexual services is called a prostitute and the person who receives such services is known by a multitude of terms, including a "john". Prostitution is one of...

 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.

Various researchers have shown that fears of increasing crime or an increase in certain types of crime are 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 continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai (浜井浩一) points out how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s led to the widespread view that the crime rate is rising and that crimes are increasingly severe. This became an election issue in 2003 with a moral panic over the "collapsing safe society." Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs
War on Drugs
The War on Drugs is a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade...

. For example a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is an Act of Parliament which represents UK action in line with treaty commitments under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic...

, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."

In popular culture

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. . The game has been published by Wizards of the Coast since 1997...

(a fantasy role-playing game) has received negative publicity for alleged promotion of such practices as Satanism
Satanism is a group of religions that is composed of a diverse number of ideological and philosophical beliefs and social phenomena. Their shared feature include symbolic association with, admiration for the character of, and even veneration of Satan or similar rebellious, promethean, and...

, witchcraft
Witchcraft, in historical, anthropological, religious, and mythological contexts, is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a practitioner of witchcraft...

, suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

, pornography
Pornography or porn is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual arousal and erotic satisfaction.Pornography may use any of a variety of media, ranging from books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video,...

 and murder
Murder is the unlawful killing, with malice aforethought, of another human being, and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide...

. In the 1980s especially, some religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of Demon
call - 1347 531 7769 for more infoIn Ancient Near Eastern religions as well as in the Abrahamic traditions, including ancient and medieval Christian demonology, a demon is considered an "unclean spirit" which may cause demonic possession, to be addressed with an act of exorcism...

s. Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy
Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common...

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

In Iran
Iran , officially the Islamic Republic of Iran , is a country in Southern and Western Asia. The name "Iran" has been in use natively since the Sassanian era and came into use internationally in 1935, before which the country was known to the Western world as Persia...

, the feminine ideals and independent lifestyle represented by the fashion doll
Fashion doll
Fashion dolls are dolls primarily designed to be dressed to reflect fashion trends. They are manufactured both as toys for children to play with and as collectibles for adult collectors. The dolls are usually modeled after teen girls or adult women, though child, male, and even some non-human...

Barbie is a fashion doll manufactured by the American toy-company Mattel, Inc. and launched in March 1959. American businesswoman Ruth Handler is credited with the creation of the doll using a German doll called Bild Lilli as her inspiration....

 are considered a threat to Iranian values, "more harmful than an American missile
Though a missile may be any thrown or launched object, it colloquially almost always refers to a self-propelled guided weapon system.-Etymology:The word missile comes from the Latin verb mittere, meaning "to send"...

." In Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , commonly known in British English as Saudi Arabia and in Arabic as as-Sa‘ūdiyyah , is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab World...

, Barbie was banned by the religious police
Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia)
The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or HAIA is the Saudi Arabian government bureaucracy employing "religious police" or mutaween to...

 as a moral threat to Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

. Also in Saudi Arabia, the police issued a decree banning the sale of dogs and cats, seen as a sign of Western influence. The decree applies to the city of Jeddah
Jeddah, Jiddah, Jidda, or Jedda is a city located on the coast of the Red Sea and is the major urban center of western Saudi Arabia. It is the largest city in Makkah Province, the largest sea port on the Red Sea, and the second largest city in Saudi Arabia after the capital city, Riyadh. The...

 and the holy city of Mecca
Mecca is a city in the Hijaz and the capital of Makkah province in Saudi Arabia. The city is located inland from Jeddah in a narrow valley at a height of above sea level...

 and bans the sale of cats and dogs because "some youths have been buying them and parading them in public," according to a memo from the Municipal Affairs Ministry to Jeddah’s city government.


In 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. Others have criticized Cohen's work stating that not all the folk devils expressed in his work are vulnerable or unfairly maligned. Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality' and how it is accepted unproblematically in 'moral panics'.

The British television show Brass Eye
Brass Eye
Brass Eye is a UK television series of satirical spoof documentaries. A series of six aired on Channel 4 in 1997, and a further episode in 2001....

, written by and starring Chris Morris
Chris Morris (satirist)
Christopher Morris is an English satirist, writer, director and actor. A former radio DJ, he is best known for anchoring the spoof news and current affairs television programmes The Day Today and Brass Eye, as well as his frequent engagement with controversial subject matter.In 2010 Morris...

, attempted to satirise 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.

See also

Further reading

  • James M. Jasper
    James M. Jasper
    James Macdonald Jasper is a writer and sociologist who has taught Ph.D. students at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 2007...

    , “Moral Panics.” In N. J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Pergamon. 2001. Pages 10029-10033.

External links

  • Section 3.4: "Interpreting the crime problem" from Free OpenLearn LearningSpace Unit DD100_1 Online Open Education Resource Creative Commons by-nc-sa Licensed (originally written for the Open University
    Open University
    The Open University is a distance learning and research university founded by Royal Charter in the United Kingdom...

    Course, DD100, 2000)
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