Every now and then the country gets its knickers in a twist about one thing or other. Whether it be The Mail accusing refugees of eating swans or hysteria about teen pregnancy. These sweeping waves of mistrust, fear, and criticism (among other things) are known as "moral panics", the groups they focus on, as "folk devils". Stan Cohen coined both these terms in the late 1960s. We had a chat with him about why people get so freaked out by deviants. By the way – we know people like posts about kittens, sex, and photos of tits, but this is a bit wordy.
Vice: You came up with the terms in the 1960s – what were you working on at the time, and how did you come to define moral panics?
Stan Cohen: Many of us were starting to write a countercultural version of traditional criminology, we used the term then, as it was very much created by the group of sociologists and sociologist working around these ideas in the late 60s. People like myself, and Jock Young, who wrote a book called The Drugtakers, these were the first few books in what became known as the "new criminology", or "the sociology of deviance". It was the mods and rockers phenomenon that I did my field research on.
So were you researching criminology, or sociology?
Well I see criminology as a branch of sociology. For me it’s the same, it’s the sociology of crime, deviance, and social problems. I was working on my PHD in 64-65, when the original mods and rockers confrontations were happening at the seaside. I used to go down to Margate and places like that over bank holiday weekends, conduct interviews and fieldwork.
Can you give me some quick definitions of moral panic and folk devils?
Yes. In terms of the reaction to delinquency, categories like crime aren’t fixed, they depend on social reaction. So those kind of new theories placed a lot of emphasis on the way society reacts to deviance or rule-breaking. Moral panics are expressions of disapproval, condemnation, or criticism, that arise every now and then to phenomenon, which could be defined as deviant. The example I took was the perceived misbehavior, which we would now call "anti-social behavior", of teenagers which was really exaggerated, and out of proportion to the original events.
The moral part is the condemnation and social disapproval, and the panic is the element of hysteria and over reaction. Which subsequently can be applied to all sorts of waves of phenomenon. It is largely created by the media: no media – no moral panic. The media are carriers of moral panics, which they either initiate themselves, or they carry the message of other groups. We see things about unmarried mothers, failing schools, the current crisis about children in care. These are all distinguishable moral panics, and the argument is that the reaction to deviance inflates and increases these groups.
So if a moral panic is proportional to the perceived moral threat, it is no longer a moral panic? Is it the disproportion that defines it?
I think that’s right. The theory works on the assumption of disproportionality. That is a point that has divided a lot of people. It is not a requirement of a moral panic that it be exaggerated, but I think you could call it a factor. It’s a sticky point.
When you coined the term, it was based so much on contemporary goings on, how do you feel about the habit and practice of applying "moral panic" as a term to historical events like pogroms and witch hunts? Is that a valid use of the term?
It can be taken a bit too far. It is fine if it just sees these as historical parallels, but historical examples are obviously lacking some of the main features of "moral panics". It’s OK to use a comparison as long as you realize that we are talking about very different types of phenomenon, particularly in reference to media. These historical panics were not media driven in the way that modern ones are, nor are they often attached to popular culture. Whereas the groups that I studied were deeply attached to modern pop culture - it just boiled down to a difference in consumer styles, mods were consumers, broken away from 50s style, on the scooters, Ben Sherman shirts, the precursor of today’s stylistic people. The rocker was drawing on the older, working class culture, the remnant of 50s culture. Both groups ended up as caricatures of themselves.
Do subjects of moral panics ever become empowered by the moral scrutiny they come under? Can a group gain from being folk devils?
It’s a good question, but usually the power of the media is so great that just emphasises their lack of power. They are the objects of media reaction. It is true that sometimes deviants fight back against the labels, the kind of sociological term we use for that is "labeling theory" or "social reaction theory". The power of powerful groups, media, police, the criminal justice system, professionals and so on, to label people. But you are right, too much emphasis on the power of the social reaction might lead us to ignore cases where subjects fight back.
If you look at the history of counter-cultures, you have the least powerful at one end, and at the other the most powerful intellectually motivated countercultures who are folk devils that fight back – they might be empowered, especially if they are treated unfairly.
Did you at the time feel that you took any side in the confrontation between the media and the folk devils you were studying?
I know what you mean, but I think I was genuinely trying to understand the social reaction. I wasn’t fighting a battle on behalf of the mods or the rockers. My personal sympathies lay with the underdog, as they still do. But at that time it was not so great an issue. The mods or rockers were not real carriers of any substantial opposition or political message, that would be to romanticize them far too much. I try to see things from both sides. I spent the day in the clubs and on the beaches, then going back to my flat to change into a suit to interview the police and magistrates in the evening.
So are moral panics inherently a bad thing?
No. There are good moral panics, and bad. There are moral panics that highlight worthy problems. Society does, at times, deny the presence of certain problems, things are normalised. There was a horrible example recently of an incest case where you had two decades of normalisation, people had covered it up and denied it, what we actually needed there was a good moral panic. Social reaction theory or MP theory is not very significant if it just looks at the over reaction, it has to produce cases of under reaction too.
The singling out of major atrocities for example, those are beneficial moral panics. Things like huge campaigns to try and solve problems in the third world, to stamp out disease and so on.
Do you think that widespread fears, and general dissatisfaction in a population can make a it less vulnerable to these panics?
I don’t think so. The jaded argument doesn’t really apply. Certainly people are overwhelmed by the amount of information they are getting, that might make some difference, information overload is a big issue these days. People are asked so often to help a cause, contribute money, and so on. But at the same time we remain in a state of crisis, as always, about the moral boundaries of society. As long as there is not one single set of moral values across a whole society, there will always be these episodes of moral panic.
BRUCE LA VRAI