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Moral panics and the importance of staying unfinished

March 9, 2015

I have spent the last three years eating, breathing and dreaming about moral panics – they have, quite literally, been my main preoccupation, in teaching, in research, and in life. Ever since our first meeting in the spring of 2012 to discuss a possible application for a seminar series, the theory and practice of moral panics have absorbed my attention, and taken me into places I would never have expected, academically and personally. So what was this all about?

It was in the mid 1960’s that Stan Cohen and Jock Young first met at as young students undertaking PhDs at the London School of Economics: Stan was a psychiatric social worker and Jock a sociologist. Both men were outsiders – Stan from South Africa and ‘Jock’ (his nickname says it all) from Midlothian via Aldershot, where his lorry driver father relocated when Jock was 5 years of age. These were the heady days of the so-called ‘swinging 60s’ – of counter culture, the civil rights’ movement in the US, recreational drugs and flower power, and the beginnings of alternative ideas about racism, sexism and of course, deviancy. The men became lifelong friends, setting up the National Deviancy Conference (NDC) in 1968, which fore-fronted new ways of thinking about power, labelling and youthful rebellion. Jock gave his first paper on The Role of Police as Amplifiers of Deviancy at the 1968 conference, and this became the basis for The Drugtakers (1971), a ground-breaking ethnographic study of bohemian counterculture in Notting Hill, which focused on jazz musicians’ drug use and the reaction to this. Meanwhile, Stan was already working on his own case-study of the Mods and Rockers phenomenon, exploring the impact that societal reaction had on their behaviour. Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) became the classic text on moral panics from then on, though it was Jock who had first used the term. Stan Cohen explained moral panics as follows:

‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.’ (1972: 9)

Most importantly, as Cohen later emphasised, ‘The argument is not that there is ‘“nothing there” … but that the reaction to what is observed or inferred is fundamentally inappropriate’ (2002: 172).

It was this idea that we have sought to engage with over the last three years, in inputs and discussions at seminars across the UK and in writing about pornography, child abuse, feminism, child trafficking and child sexual exploitation, and a host of other topical and difficult subjects. We have also encouraged others to write articles and blogs for our website ( and we have prepared an edited book series, Revisiting Moral Panics, which will be published by Policy Press in June 2015. Throughout all this activity, we have generated a lot of interest and fairly consistent appreciation – practitioners, academics and some service users have said they were pleased to see the social issues and anxieties of the day opened up for critical scrutiny and looked at with fresh eyes. We have also had to cope with some flak – some people have felt that in writing critically about some issues, we may have played into the hands of those who would minimise the harm of, for example, sexual abuse. My view has always been that we must speak out, even when it feels uncomfortable – we must try to hold true to the central ideas and the continuing usefulness of the concept of moral panic, remembering that moral panics occur and recur all the time; they are fundamentally about moral concerns (about what we think of as right and wrong; good and bad); they reflect underlying our anxieties about risk; they have negative consequences, for individuals and for society; and they are almost always a distraction from something else, which is likely to be more damaging for society as a whole. With this in mind, Stan Cohen urges that we should ‘stay unfinished’ in our thinking – keep asking questions and be prepared to be wrong sometimes! A good message for social workers and for anyone who intervenes in the lives of others in order to ‘do good’…

Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Oxford: Martin Robertson
Cohen, S. (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. 30th Anniversary Edition, London: Routledge.
Young, J. (1971) The Drugtakers, London: Paladin.

Viviene Cree

9th March 2015

An amended version of this article is published as ‘Putting Society’s Anxieties in Focus’, Professional Social Work, March 2015, page 10.


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