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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Too many moral panics not enough folk devils. Was Stan Cohen wrong about his own work?

This was posted on the Works for Freedom website in May 2013 which is sadly no more. I’ve just updated the links etc.

This is a short blog post, not a doctoral thesis.  I cannot come close to doing justice to the extensive primary and secondary literature on moral panics.  So apologies if I missed the very article or paragraph that says exactly what I say here.  But no apologies for running the argument as I feel it is under represented.  That argument is that the term ‘moral panic’ is overused.  That may be contested by few.  More contentious is my argument that even the late Stan Cohen misused it.

Rather than engage textually with many examples I offer, unusually for me, a bone-headed, positivistic, empirical account which updates my ‘Criminologists Say ….’.  A search of Lexis Library of UK newspapers shows 107 mentions of moral panics for the year 2012 (choosing the last twelve months throws up Stan’s obituaries) but only 22 of folk devils.  This is even replicated in the book with 83 mentions of moral panics against 44 of folk devils.  So to some theory.

Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton (1995: 559) argue that:

'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were; they not only find themselves vociferously and articulately supported in the same mass media that castigates them, but their interests are also defended by their own niche and micro-media. 

And even more importantly for my argument:

this approach challenged moral guardians by suggesting that their overreaction was counterproductive. The media coverage of deviance acted as a kind of handbook of possibilities to be picked over by new recruits (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 561).

I initially read the first edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers (the link here is to the third which can be recommended for Stan’s own thoughts on the development of the term).  My reading was after the first ‘moment’ of mod: indeed after I gave up riding a stripped down Lambretta TV175.  I also sported, at that time, what purported to be a Korean War surplus parka and a ‘suedehead’ haircut.  I further mangled sub-cultures by wearing the same gear on the Matchless 250 (a motorbike, the staple of ‘Rocker’ style) I rode after the scooter packed up.  So I was old enough to remember the events described by Stan as described by the media.  And I had personal access to the ‘handbook’ to which McRobbie and Thornton refer.

I may have come too late to mod but claim to have become sociologically aware early  (through my reading of the alternative press, mostly Oz, see this post) that as a young person who dressed in certain ways I was in danger of being stereotyped (see also this on beards and tattoos).

My argument is that the first part of the couplet ‘Folk Devil/Moral Panic’ has been paid insufficient attention.  In particular, their articulation in the subtitle ‘the creation of the Mods and Rockers’ (emphasis added).  I know from the standpoint of a young person at the time that Mods and Rockers and other youth tribes in many respects created themselves but in an asymmetric relation to the media and authority.  They may have come up from the streets but they entered most young people’s consciousness through their parent’s condemnatory media.  Their parent’s Durkheimian moral boundaries may have been reinforced but their’s were expanded.

With his emphasis on deviancy amplification I believe that Cohen is arguing that the moral panic is counterproductive because it creates folk devils who attract adherents.  So joining a youth tribe, taking ecstasy or legal highs might meet such a definition of a moral panic featuring a handsome devil but becoming a sex offender does not.  So it is disappointing to find Stan discussing the Cleveland sex abuse scandal thus, ‘the resulting moral panic became a pitched battle of claims and counter claims’ and goes on to talk of ‘satanic abuse’ cases as ‘more fictitious and one of the purest cases of moral panic’ (2002: xvii).

For me those events were media frenzies involving moral entrepreneurs and media in an amplification spiral that did not generate deviance but more victims.  The paedophile is not a ‘folk devil’ but a bogeyman or ‘boo’ figure.  Being so reviled attracts no adherents.  In the case of media drugs frenzies the ‘boo’ figure is the ‘evil dealer’ but the ‘folk devil’ is more often the booze, the weed, the Es or the legal highs rather than the wasted junkie (though fashion is sometimes accused of pushing this line).


So I believe that to follow Stan requires a parsimonious definition of a ‘moral panic’ and that one handy rule might be that if the media use the term it isn’t one.

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