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Moral Panics for the 21st Century

February 8, 2013

Like many others, I have been interested in the idea of moral panics for a long time, probably since I first read Stan Cohen’s ground-breaking book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), as an Open University student in the early 1980s. This book really opened my eyes, not just to the specific examples given (e.g. ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ fighting on Brighton beach on a cold and wet Easter bank holiday in 1964) but also to the impact of moral panics more generally. I began to understand for the first time the ways in which social issues can get blown out of proportion to such an extent that there is a widespread feeling that something must be done, by government, by the police, by the judiciary, by social workers/teachers/others. I also read Policing the Crisis (1978) at this time, a study by Stuart Hall and others about another social concern, what was then called ‘mugging’. This book demonstrated clearly the connections between attitudes towards crime, crime control and institutional racism. It showed that the reaction to the crime of mugging had been deliberately accelerated; the response that followed was punitive and highly damaging, for individual black youth and their families, for communities and for society as a whole.

In 2012, my colleagues Gary Clapton, Mark Smith and I had what felt at the time like a passing conversation about moral panics, noting that it was 40 years since Cohen’s book had first been published, and agreeing that moral panics had not gone away. On the contrary, we could all identify moments in the intervening years when a social issue had been picked up by politicians or the media, exaggerated and ended up with negative outcomes as before. We decided to open up our discussion to others, and over a very short period of time, brought together 16 academics to work on a proposal for a seminar series – 4 HEIs and the 4 countries in the UK and 8 disciplines (Social Work, Social Anthropology, Sociology, History, Law, Divinity, Education and Psychology) were represented in our bid to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Our proposal was funded, and we are now running three seminars over 18 months in Edinburgh (November 2012), Bath (May 2013) and Cardiff (November 2013). The series is entitled: ‘Revisiting moral panics: a critical examination of 21st century social issues and anxieties’. A website provides lots of information about the work of the series:

My own particular interest in this topic emerged from a number of threads that come together in the moral panic idea: social work, history, sociology and feminism.

As a social work practitioner and academic for many years, I have been interested in the ways in which social work is (inevitably) part of social control mechanisms – its task is to ‘discipline’ as well as to care for individuals and populations. This draws on a Foucauldian understanding of social work as part of the ‘psy’ discourse (see Discipline and Punish 1977). I don’t see this necessarily as a bad thing, but I believe that it is important that, as social workers, we acknowledge that this is the case, otherwise we are at risk of acting naively or worse still, becoming part of the problem – making things worse for those whom we are trying to help. All the writing and research I have done in social work starts with the premise that we should try to ‘make a difference’ in spite of the constraints of the job. I am passionate about the capacity that we have as social workers to walk alongside people and learn with, and from, them.

All of this makes most sense for me when it is viewed historically. Another brilliant book, Pearson’s’ Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (1983) reminds us that life was not always better 20 or 30 years ago, as we like to imagine. Instead, we always look back with rosy-tinted spectacles, forgetting not only were that things just as bad (and good) then, but that the past is indeed a ‘foreign country – they do things differently there’, as L.P. Hartley wrote in his 1953 novel. So it’s vital again that we keep this in mind – that we don’t fall into the trap of judging the past on the values and practices of the present, and that we try instead to approach the past and the present with an open mind and humility. (I have followed up my own angle on the history of social work by researching a voluntary organisation that began its life in 1885 as the National Vigilance Association, saving women and girls from ‘the perils and evils of the white slave trade’. There is a reference list at the end if you’d like to find out more.)

Sociology brings all this together for me. I cannot see further than the need to understand problems socially – as C.W. Mills has argued, we need to understand the connections between individual biographies and history, between private troubles and public issues, and been agency and structure. This is what he calls the ‘sociological imagination’ (1959) and it is this that permeates all I think and believe. So, to understand social issues and anxieties as moral panics is not to minimise serious concerns, or to blame individuals for doing too much or too little. Instead, it’s about seeing things in context – about grasping the bigger picture – and about thinking seriously about the consequences of our actions and beliefs, as individual citizens and as members of the social work profession.

Feminist understandings have played a huge part in my intellectual and moral development over the last 40 years or so. My understanding of feminism, and of the exclusions, discrimination and oppression experienced by women, has been instrumental in giving me a sense of the exclusions, discrimination and oppression that others face, including black and minority ethnic people, gay and lesbian people, those with disabilities and younger and older people, as well as people living with HIV, those with drug and alcohol problems etc. etc. Feminism has also, over the last 100 years or so, been centrally involved in drawing public attention to a range of previously private and hidden issues including rape, domestic violence, child sexual abuse and prostitution. This has been incredibly important, drawing attention to the reality that ‘the personal is political’. And yet in doing so, it is important to acknowledge that we are (in moral panic language) ‘claims-makers’; and that by highlighting one voice or perspective, another may be silenced or ignored.  In other words, we need (again) to think about the possible consequences of what we are doing.

Gary, Mark and I have all taken one case study example and written about it in peer-reviewed journal articles: Gary has explored child protection, Mark has investigated abuse in residential child care and I have examined the response to child trafficking in the late 19th century and today. I have also written about child sexual abuse, child protection and the so-called ‘Jimmy Savile affair’ through blogs. All of these are available online through our website, as well as the paper presentations from the Edinburgh seminar:

There is much to talk about in terms of present-day moral panics. The Jimmy Savile story has not gone away; abuse on residential care pops up every now and again as a new/old issue; Magdalene Asylums in Ireland were this week’s cause celebre. None of this is to suggest that these issues are not important, or that we are being misled or ‘hoodwinked’ in some way. On the contrary, these issues are of major importance, and deserve to be treated much more seriously than is currently the case. It is to be lamented that there are so few investigative journalists today, and that there is such a lack of a historical perspective in much of the reporting in both the popular and broadsheet press. I have argued, for example, in a very personal blog, that by demonising Jimmy Savile, we lose sight of important issues about paedophilia, sexual abuse and victimisation. This does not, I would suggest, help us to either understand or respond adequately to the very important issue of child sexual abuse. Hence my agreement with a central idea within the literature that moral panics lead us to ‘take some things too seriously and others not seriously enough’, as Cohen argued in 1972.

We have asked all those giving papers at our seminars to think about the following questions in relation to their chosen ‘moral panic’ case-study example. These form a good way into any discussion of moral panics:

  1. What is this social issue or anxiety about?
  2. What is held up as evidence of this social concern?
  3. Who are its subjects?
  4. Who are the claims-makers/moral entrepreneurs who are leading on this issue?
  5. How does this issue connect to wider social concerns and tensions?
  6. What is significant about the historical moment at which the panic develops?
  7. What are the consequences of these moral panics?
  8. What lessons are to be learned?

Viv Cree, 7th February 2013

Resources: Recent articles

Clapton, G., Cree, V.E. and Smith, M. (2012) ‘Moral panics and social work: Towards a sceptical view of UK child protection’, Critical Social Policy, 1-21, doi: 10.1177/0261018312457860.

Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. and Smith, M. (2012) ‘The Presentation of Child Trafficking in the UK: An Old and New Moral Panic?’, British Journal of Social Work, 1–16, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs120.

Cree, V. E. (2008) ‘Confronting sex-trafficking: Lessons from history’, International Social Work, 51(6), pp. 763–76.

Smith, M., Cree, V.E., Clapton, G. (2012) ‘Time to be heard: Interrogating the Scottish Government’s response to historical child abuse’, Scottish Affairs, Vol. 78, Winter, 2012: 1-24.

 Further reading

Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers,

London, MacGibbon and Kee. (3rd edition published in 2003 by Routledge, London.)

Cavanagh, K. and Cree, V.E. (eds) (1996) Working with Men. Feminism and Social Work, London, Routledge.

Cree, V.E. (1995) From Public Streets to Private Lives. The Changing Task of Social Work, Aldershot, Avebury.

Cree, V.E. (ed) (2003) Becoming a Social Worker, London, Routledge.

Cree, V.E. (2000, 2010) Sociology for Social Workers and Probation Officers, London, Routledge.

Cree, V.E. and Davis, A. (2007) Social Work: Voices from the Inside, London, Routledge.

Cree, V.E. and Myers, S. (2008) Social Work: Making a Difference, Bristol, Policy Press/BASW.

Cree, V.E. (ed.) (2010) Social Work A Reader, London, Routledge.

Cree, V.E. (ed) (2003) Becoming a Social Worker, Global Narratives, London, Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish, London, Allen Lane.

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J. and Roberts, B. (1978) Policing the Crisis:

Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, London, Macmillan.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pearson, G. (1983) Hooligan. A History of Respectable Fears, London, Macmillan Press.


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