Coined in 1972, the term Moral Panic was first meant to describe how the public comes to a collective panic over threats to societal traditions and values. Moral Panics always involve the utilization of the media as the transmitter of information to society. Moral Panics can be initiated by Interest Groups, Elites, or Grassroots groups. However, the Interest Groups and Elites must have the support of Grassroots groups (and vice versa) if the Moral Panic is to be maintained. The term has evolved along with American society and now appears to be somewhat lacking in meaning. A constructionist American society seldom agrees on what is right and wrong and some writers claim the act of panic is actually veiled oppression. Media is acknowledged as the unchallenged transmitter of moral panic topics and various interest groups have identified the means to use the media to spin the notion of morality to fit their own needs.
Keywords Anecdotal; Collective Behavior; Constructionist; Deviant; Fear Politics; Folk Devil; Hegemony; Interest Groups; Mass Media; Morality; Oppression (Psychology); Panic; Prime Mover; Social Anxiety; Social Psychology; Social Structure
Coined in 1972, the term, Moral Panic, was first meant to describe how the public comes to a collective panic over threats to societal traditions and values (Cohen, 1972). Over the past two decades the term has evolved to encompass somewhat more and somewhat less than its originator author intended. Cohen crafted the following definition of Moral Panic:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person, or groups 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 politicians, religious leaders, and others; ways of coping are evolved; the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates and becomes more visible (Cohen, 1972, p. 9).
Moral Panic: A Sociological Phenomenon
Moral panic is a phenomenon that occurs once in a while. It appears in a non-random and non-regular pattern and its appearance cannot be forecast based on past patterns. Prior to the beginning of the moral panic, an entity (or group) will be identified as acting in a deviant way or promoting beliefs that create threats to the homeostasis of values existing in the society. This is the point in time when societal members become aware of how the society may be altered by the actions of the entity. In the past, social mores were carefully guarded and corrected within the context of a community. Community members were fairly homogeneous in how they dressed, believed, and acted. Values such as living in nuclear family groups, keeping children and women under control, shared religious beliefs, and showing respect to one's elders and leaders were shared by all community members. Threats to these values emerged in the form of social change which was creating social anxiety in the community members who would then identify a prime mover of the discomfiting change.
The "Folk Devil"
Cohen referred to the prime mover of change as a folk devil (Cohen, 1972). The folk devil could be a person (e.g., a divorced woman was viewed as a threat to the nuclear family), a group of people (e.g., Jews threatened to splinter the homogeneous and unifying religious beliefs and traditions of the community), or an event (e.g., women and teens pursuing casual sexual affairs, often referred to as Hooking Up, threaten the value of nuclear family groups and expose a communal lack of control over its women and children). In essence, the divorced woman, the Jew, and the act of Hooking Up come to be viewed as "the problem" (i.e., the identified folk devil) when, in fact, other factors are also contributing to the social change or ambiguity in the social system.
The underlying cause of moral panic is often the cultural strain and ambiguity caused by a social change which is already occurring. The identification of a folk devil often focuses the blame for that change on one entity rather than examining and addressing the underlying complexities of change (Hunt, 1997). For example, there is a moral panic that posits working women are the reason communities are unraveling and children are being left home unsupervised during the day. The identification of the working woman as the folk devil ignores:
• How economic forces compel many women in the lower-middle and middle classes to seek employment in order to help provide food and shelter for a traditional family unit;
• How the rise in divorce rates (and the actual structure of divorce law) places a disproportionate burden/risk on women who follow the traditional social contract (by dropping out of the workforce once they have children); and
• How affordable health insurance often forces women (who often find low paying jobs which offer low cost health insurance options) into the workforce because their partners have obtained a higher paying job that does not offer health insurance benefits or do not offer them at an affordable price; etc.
Additionally, many authors create confusion by labeling all forms of social anxiety as moral panics. In reality, a threat that is not predicted to result in a challenge to societal values and interests should fall under a different category of social anxiety (e.g. mass hysteria). For example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused great social anxiety. However, the incident did not threaten a specific social value or social more so it is not referred to as an incident of moral panic.
3 Typologies of Conveyance
Once a deviance has been identified as a threat to the social fiber, the threat is communicated to others within the society; and often to adjoining societies. The manner in which the threat is conveyed to the public has been examined and formulated into three different typologies:
• Interest Group;
• Elite-Engineered; and
• Grassroots (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994).
Interest Group Panics
Interest Group Panics are typically constructed and spread by public mass media, which is often propelled by various interest groups. It is often the media that identifies the folk devil, decides which interest groups will be heard, and identifies the purported societal harm that will occur should the folk devil not be eradicated (Hunt, 1997). Often times a cause is taken up by the media and anecdotal information is presented as fact; and accepted by society as such. The newspapers, internet news, and televised news reports play an important role in generating and transmitting moral panics. Public awareness of deviance is spread as people read or listen to reports of, for example, gang activity, child killers, random public shootings, drug activity, and the perils of the mentally ill in an uncaring society. News reports often identify a potential folk devil and suggest ways the folk devil can be stopped. Activities can be framed in a positive or negative light (e.g., people demanding a reassertion of traditional societal boundaries may be referred to as guardians of what is proper and necessary or as bigots who do not understand the need for social change) (Davis, 1986).
Elite-Engineered Panics are started by social leaders who have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the panic and they are amplified by the media. In this typology, the media does not identify the deviant behavior or the folk devil. Instead, it accepts the definitions and interpretations of the social elite and works to sustain them while overlooking the vested interests of the elite (Veno & Eynde, 2007). The elite most often utilize fear as the primary mechanism with which to generate a moral panic in order to sustain their control over political power, hegemony, or wealth within the society. The problem with Interest Group Panics and Elite-Engineered Panics is that they are difficult to sustain in society absent actual trigger events. Although the public may panic initially, they will begin to look around, scoff at the lack of confirming data, and move on to another issue (Hunt, 1997; Veno & Eynde, 2007). Hence many issues will be founded as a Grassroots Panic yet must be picked up by Interest Groups or Elites before they are transmitted to the public at large via the media or, at best, the Panics generated by the Interest Groups and the Elites must be confirmed by grassroots agreement or the...
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