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The term moral panic is most often attributed to British sociologist Stanley Cohen, who in a 1972 book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, defined it as a condition, episode, person, or group of persons that come to be seen as a threat to societal values and interests. In recent years, moral panic has been defined more broadly as any exaggerated fear or overreaction to social deviance. Moral panics are often traced to media attention and are fueled by politicians, law enforcement, or advocates or activists. Phenomena related to interpersonal violence that have been described as examples of moral panics include, but are not limited to, satanic ritual abuse, abuse in daycare centers, missing children, crack babies, sex offenders, and school shootings.
Among British sociologists, moral panics are likely to be interpreted as an expression of outrage by those in power over a threat perceived to challenge core societal values. Cohen, for example, describes media reaction to the violence between two British youth gangs during the 1960s that sparked a moral panic in Great Britain about the societal threat posed by British youth. Among American sociologists, moral panics are more typically understood within the context of a social constructionist perspective of social problems. From this perspective, social problems only come to be defined as such after claims-makers mobilize enough resources (e.g., media attention, money, political clout) to bring the social condition they deem egregious or harmful before the public eye. Because social problems compete for societal recognition and resources, claims-makers will invariably err on the side of exaggeration and overreaction. The concept of moral panics is important because it draws our attention to the rhetorical strategies employed by claims-makers in their attempt to garner attention for a particular cause.
Some moral panics fade from the public eye seemingly as quickly as they arise. For example, during the 1980s and early 1990s thousands of adult survivors of satanic ritual abuse supposedly recovered memories of ritual abuse, torture, pornography, forced prostitution, and child sacrifices at the hands of Satanists. By the late 1990s, however, with claims of an active satanic conspiracy largely discredited, the moral panic associated with satanic ritual abuse quickly subsided.
One should be careful not to focus exclusively on largely imagined fears such as satanic ritual abuse because such limited application may contribute to the misunderstanding that the term moral panic is synonymous with false or imagined. To describe a threat as a moral panic, however, is not necessarily to suggest that the threat is completely unfounded or that no public concern is warranted. Rather, moral panic merely refers to phenomena that generate fear out of proportion with the actual threat.
- Cohen, S. (2002). Folk devils and moral panics (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1972)
- Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
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