Childhood Studies Moral Panics
Gary Clapton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0245


Who would have thought that scuffles between teenagers on the southeast coast of England on a cold April weekend in 1964 would have produced the notion of moral panic? Originating as a concept used to understand the reaction to the behavior of these teenagers, moral panic is one of the few sociological ideas that has entered common parlance. The reaction was considerable in relation to the degree of harm or damage. However, local and national media picked up on the events and alarm expressed by civic leaders and local business groups and made hay with headlines decrying the behavior and announcing the arrival of riot police to relieve what was described as a besieged town. More headlines further contributed to a spiral of reaction, and the issues were raised in the Houses of Parliament. The police and judiciary were urged to “crack down.” In the climate of a much-distorted view of events and behavior, overlong and custodial sentences were handed out for petty offenses such as vandalism. The participants in the moral panics include “folk devils” (the English teenagers), an influential and exaggerating media, local interest and pressure groups (civic and business leaders, religious leaders, and those who make “claims” as to expertise on the perceived problem), local and national politicians, the police, and judges. An important feature of moral panics is the “reaching beyond” the immediate problem with claims that there are society-wide implications; in the case of the teenagers in 1964, their deviant conduct was claimed to be symptomatic of general decline in morals. A moral panic is distinguished from general social anxieties and specific moral crusades when there is first a heightened concern over behavior of a group and the consequences this poses for wider society. There must be a division between “them,” the folk devils, and “us,” the responsible and law-abiding citizens. There must be consensus within society, or at least considerable segments of it, that the threat proposed is very serious. Additionally, the threat, damage, costs, and figures proposed by claims-makers are wildly exaggerated and do not coincide with an objective reality. Finally, moral panics are volatile. They typically explode, reach a pitch, and subside. Classic moral panics can also result in illiberal laws. As we will see, children and young people, and childhood, have regularly been the sites of moral panics.

General Overview

Cohen 1972, Stanley Cohen’s account of the reaction to youth behavior on the English coasts in 1964, was not the first to deploy the term “moral panic.” In his warning of the reach of “electric media,” the author of McLuhan 1967 hoped that the discussion could take place without getting into “moral panic.” The identification of “moral entrepreneurs” in labeling individuals as deviants from social and moral norms by Becker 1963 also provided a base for Cohen to build upon. There are two canonical contributions to the vast amount of literature on moral panics. Firstly, Cohen’s oft-cited definition of a moral panic describes how an episode or group of persons can come to be seen as a threat to societal values and portrayed as such in stereotypical fashion by the media, resulting in turn in moral outrage from editorial writers, prominent interest and pressure groups, and politicians bolstered by experts that will dutifully confirm the danger. Sometimes the panic subsides but at other times there may be more serious repercussions, such as the emergence of regressive laws and policies. Cohen 1980 takes pains to point out that assessing societal alarms through the lens of moral panic theory is not to suggest that there is nothing to be concerned about, but rather that the degree and intensity of the reaction to the event or behavior of the persons involved are inappropriate. Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994 provides the second most influential contribution to the literature. The authors outline five indicators of a moral panic. Volatility—a panic can appear and subside suddenly; hostility—in an eruption of media concern, “folk devils” are identified and cast as enemies of society. There must also be measurable and considerable public concern. There also must be consensus, a broad social and political unanimity that the grounds for concern are significant and action must be taken. Finally, they note the disproportionality of a moral panic in which the reaction and measures to the problem are exaggerated and out of proportion to the magnitude of the threat posed. Other key contributions are Hall, et al. 1978, a work on street crime that showed how social and political forces lined up against designated folk devils—“muggers”; Young 2009 and Young 2011, whose author has regularly intervened in the development of moral panic thinking; and Critcher 2017, which has developed our understandings of the moral dimension of moral panics.

  • Becker, Howard S. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press, 1963.

    Outsiders is one of the first books on labeling theory and its application to studies of deviance and is a key starting point for Cohen’s thinking about how the Mods and Rockers’ behavior in 1964 was demonized.

  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1972.

    The founding document. A skillfully written good read. Never out of print and well-thumbed even after fifty years.

  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.

    With new lengthy introduction responding to reaction to first edition, especially countering claims that moral panic theory serves to diminish or dismiss legitimate worries.

  • Cohen, Stanley, and Jock Young. The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. London: Constable, 1973.

    An edited collaboration by two of the founding fathers of moral panic thinking that brings together early thinking on the role of the media.

  • Critcher, Charles. “Moral Panics.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.155

    Highly readable “state-of-play” summary of moral panic supporters, doubters, and agnostics that offers further thoughts on the moral regulation dimension of moral panics.

  • Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panic: The Social Construction of Deviance. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    Highly significant in the development of moral panic thinking in the identification of the constituent elements of a moral panic.

  • Hall, Stuart, Charles Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-15881-2

    Sometimes criticized for being overly conspiratorial in its depiction of how political and social elites may instigate a moral panic, in this case over the alleged activities of youth street gangs (“muggers”). Nevertheless a classic example of a case study of social anxieties using a moral panic lens.

  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Sphere, 1967.

    “The medium is the message,” foundational work on understanding the media as distinct from what the media tells us.

  • Young, Jock. “Moral Panic: Its Origins in Resistance, Ressentiment and the Translation of Fantasy into Reality.” British Journal of Criminology 49 (2009): 4–16.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azn074

    A critique of uses of the moral panic concept and a reformulation of the notions of moral disturbance, disproportionality, displacement, and volatility.

  • Young, Jock. “Moral Panic and the Transgressive Other.” Crime Media and Culture 7.3 (2011): 245–258.

    DOI: 10.1177/1741659011417604

    Argues that moral panics can be viewed as a “dramatic form of othering” that is an acute manifestation of the moral indignation chronic in our society. “The searchlight of panic and ressentiment scours the social structure for cases of faux injustice and springboards of moral outrage” (p. 256).

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