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Moral panic refers to a distinctive type of social deviance characterized by a heightened sense of threat in some segment of the population, sudden emergence and subsidence, attribution of the troubled condition to a folk devil,” and a disproportionate response relative to an objectively assessed threat level. The term moral panic was initially coined by Jock Young in Stanley Cohen’s Images of Deviance (1971). Cohen subsequently employed the concept in his study of two 1960s British youth movements, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). He defined a moral panic as a group or condition that is a response to a threat to established values or interests. The central actors in moral panics include the media, the public, law enforcement agencies, political officials, and action groups. The targets are folk devils,” individuals or groups who personify evil by engaging in harmful behavior that must be halted.
The most systematic theoretical formulation of the moral panics concept has been developed by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda in Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (1994). They enumerate a number of indicators of a moral panic focused on a group or category: heightened concern, increased hostility, consensus about the threat, disproportionality of the threat, and episode volatility. The concept of moral panics has been profitably applied to a number of episodes over the last several decades involving controversy over issues such as illicit drug use, the existence of religious and satanic cults, the vulnerability of young children, predatory crime, troublesome youth, and sexual exploitation and deviance.
Scholars also continue to debate whether moral panic constitutes a discrete, meaningful category of sociological analysis and the relative merit of functionalist and critical theory perspectives. These various critiques suggest a number of theoretical and methodological issues that have yet to be resolved.
- Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994) Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Blackwell, Oxford.
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