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A Panic For Our Times?

December 13, 2012

Last summer when three colleagues in Social Work, each with interests in different child abuse ‘scares’ got together the collaboration resulted in three journal articles.  Each of the ‘scares’ we wrote about shared a common feature. The subject matters had become the subject of moral evaluation. Once a subject is so moralized, responses to it can lose any sense of proportion. Given the right (or wrong) set of individuals and circumstances a panic can ensue.

The notion of moral panic seemed to offer a useful analytic lens through which to consider our interests. The term is not a new one; it came to prominence in 1972 with the publication of Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics. In the book, Cohen analysed reactions to outbreaks of fighting among mods and rockers on Brighton Beach during the 1960s. A number of prominent academics subsequently applied the concept of moral panic to other social scares and anxieties.

There were indications of interest in our work from other academics at Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK, so we made a bid to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to hold a seminar series entitled ‘Revisiting moral panics: a critical examination of 21st century social issues and anxieties’. The bid was led by Social Work academics at the University of Edinburgh and involved six Higher Education Institutes, nine academic disciplines and sixteen academic staff drawn from the four countries of the UK.  We received support from the ESRC for three seminars: ‘Moral panics and the family’, ‘Moral panics with children and youth’ and ‘Moral panics and the state’.

The first seminar was held in Edinburgh on Friday 23 November and attended by 70 people. Stan Cohen was too ill to attend the seminar but sent his best wishes. In his absence we attracted the next wave of moral panic scholars, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda who together wrote the book, Moral Panics: The social construction of deviance and Chas Critcher, who was one of a group of sociologists to use the concept in relation to law and order and subsequently the media. The field of international experts was completed by Angela McRobbie, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths University.

Little did we know when we applied to hold the seminar series that the first of them would coincide with the UK being engulfed in a moral panic over the Jimmy Savile affair.  The Savile affair highlights a number of features of moral panics. It would seem to have some obvious basis in behavior that should not have been considered acceptable at any point in time. So, it’s not that there is nothing behind this or any other panic; there invariably is. It is just that the initial and legitimate kernel of concern gets blown out of proportion. In the Savile case, are there really suspects and fellow perpetrators in every town and hamlet? How much of what is written is exaggerated?  In such a febrile climate people can make claims for all sorts of reasons. They are not all true.  We are thus faced with questions as to whose claim is justified?  Who must be heard?  Who are we not listening to? The resultant heat of the moral panic distorts debate, making it hard to offer alternative points of view. The resolve of the police to get to the bottom of all that went on is unlikely to shed any real light on what did and, moreover, will create its own injustices as innocent people become caught up in their investigations.

In times of panic, denial is just as likely a consequence as over-statement and disbelief. The dust of moral panic often has to settle before facts can begin to get in the way. However, another of the effects of a moral panic is that it leads us to take some things too seriously and others not seriously enough.  Does the preoccupation with Savile’s wrong-doings prevent us engaging with the prospect of increasing child and family impoverishment as a result of so-called reforms to welfare?   Discuss.

If you want to engage in the debate join us at our subsequent seminars in Bath in May 2013 and Cardiff in November 2013.

Mark Smith, 13th December 2012

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