Moral Panics

24 Jul

“Perhaps more than any other disease before or since, syphilis in early modern Europe provoked the kind of widespread moral panic that AIDS revived when it struck America in the 1980s. ” —Peter Lewis Allen

A moral panic, according to Barrat seems to be directly related to deviance. In the form I have chosen to display it, it is also an instance of deviance, of the so called ‘youth culture’ deviance. Since the Second World War, Britain has had to face a changing youth culture. This dramatic change, from a seemingly general passiveness and conformity, to a consumer with freedom, financially and socially. Teenagers, after the war found themselves earning a wage closer to that of the generation above them which ultimately ended up in their dependence upon the older generation as less important, therefore they had more freedom and were more able to express themselves as they wanted. This change in the nature and quality of life for the younger generation consequently resulted in various other culture groups forming within society among the younger generation. I am attempting to explain the nature of society with regards to deviance in ‘youth culture’s’ as it is directly relevant to the example of a ‘moral panic’ that I am to give. I shall be using the upsurge of ‘Acid House’ parties in the late eighties, and shall try to explain this in the form of a moral panic as Stanley Cohen did with the ‘Mods and Rockers’ phenomena.

Acid house parties really came into the limelight in the late eighties, especially 1989/90, when they received much popularity and publicity due mainly to the mass media. It must be stressed that a ‘moral panic’, a social phenomena which causes a public outcry amongst ‘right thinking members of society’ due to second-hand information being passed on is directly related to the media. People’s knowledge and opinion of certain events or trends are generally influenced greatly by what they read in papers, what they see on television, and by what they hear on the news. Consequently, it is the mass media that generally creates a ‘moral panic’.

The ‘sceptical’ revolution in criminology and the socially of deviance is different from the older style which was ‘canonical’ in the sense that it saw the concepts it worked with as authoritative, standard, accepted, given, and unquestionable. Cohen describes the new tradition in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, as ‘sceptical’ because when it sees terms like ‘deviant’, it asks ‘deviant to whom?’ or ‘deviant from what?’; ‘and when certain conditions or behaviour are described as dysfunctional, embarrassing, threatening or dangerous, it asks ‘says who?’ and ‘why?’. In other words, these concepts and descriptions are not taken for granted.

One of the major problems is that of ‘labelling’. The ‘labelling theory’ states that their is a good chance of those being labelled, derogatively or otherwise, will meet the prerequisites of the status they have been assigned by others, normally a representative of the establishment, e.g. teacher’s, politicians etc. This self-fulfilling prophecy seems to be a very important part of the creation of ‘moral panics’, the mass media being the major instrument of voicing a general view of what the ‘right thinking members of society’ ‘should’ think. Thus creating a one-sided view of the situation, and with regards to the popular press, we know that information is often used in a way to help spice up a good story, whether it be placing more attention and space to it, or making it one sided by leaving out the major opposing arguments. The biggest problem can lie in what is left out of a report, as David Glover said: ‘Though it is fairly easy to recognise prejudiced or loaded phrases and questions it is harder to identify ‘incompleteness’ in a news report or a current affairs programme.’

The papers also use ‘social experts’ and other professional people and people in authority. The good part of the public usually accepts these views without question, whether because this is what they want to believe or because society has taught them to be submissive and accept authority without question. These people in ‘authority’ also seem to be the furthest people from the particular problem and have no first hand experience of the situation. Cohen says that the information the public receive is second-hand, and it is another point to add that the papers usually receive the information second-hand themselves, therefore when the public does receive the information, a lot has been lost along the way.

In order to explain the creation of a moral panic, I am going to use the prevalence of so called ‘Acid House Parties’ in the late eighties. The term ‘Acid House Party’ comes from the appearance of many songs using the words ‘acid’ or ‘aciiiid’, the yellow smiley faces which were common on such records at the time, which became a symbol of this particular youth culture for a while. All these references refer, of course, to acid or trips, the drug which was and still is very cheap and widely available almost everywhere in the country. The mass media hooked on to the term, and consequently, almost any type of party or whether it had been officially organised or not, came to be known as ‘Acid House Parties’. The media had caught on to the present dance and drug scene, which probably wasn’t much worse than it was previously, but the prominence of the ‘smiley face – acid song’, as well as an upsurge of so called ‘raves’ at the time.

The ‘scene’ received much bad publicity from the popular press and thus led to a public outcry for the police to clamp down on illegal raves and drug dealers etc. The acid house parties were seen as deviant, and those who organised and attended the parties were condemned and regarded as deviants. The media distorted and exaggerated the facts, which led to the public concern of ‘something must be done’. The authorities are put under pressure as they are seen to be doing nothing, therefore they intervene. Obviously there were illegal occurrences taking place, selling drugs for example. This situation leads to what is called by sociologists as ‘deviancy amplification’. The hype in the paper etc. lead to the ‘scene’ becoming more popular amongst certain youths, it is seen as exciting and larger than life. The more people getting involved in the scene obviously leads to more and larger parties being thrown. ‘Dodgey’ promoters hold ‘rip off’ parties as a result of the media claiming that large profits are being made. Drug dealers are attracted to the parties as the media emphasise the drugs being taken. Thus the acid House culture becomes more popular and widespread.

This particular youth culture, like any other has its own symbols and trademarks. The Mods have their Parker jackets, scooters etc., the Rockers have their swastika’s, studs etc., skinheads with , obviously shaved heads, and bovver boots etc. The Acid House Culture also had theirs, as with other groups their are different strata’s within this group as well. However, it was easy to identify a ‘raver’, there were dungarees and surreal ‘acid’ jumpers, at the beginning there was the obvious ‘smiley face’ badges, T-shirts etc., BodyGlove, a make of clothes was very popular and very expensive, and there was the very popular bandanna which were seen everywhere at ‘raves’. Obviously not all people wearing these particular clothes were ravers or drug takers, but the scene and its members had been labelled.

To continue, this ‘amplification’ led to more news coverage, increased police activity and further public concern. The Government intervened here and passed the ‘Graham Bright Bill 1989’, which imposed heavy fines and sentences on promoters of illegal parties, and the police intensified their raids. Legislation had been passed because of the ‘moral panic’ that had arisen from the massive negative publicity that this scene received. Lots of arrests were made, action was being taken to confirm the validity of the initial reaction. This is the moral panic as illustrated through the ‘Acid House’ scene.

It seems as though these episodes of ‘moral panic’ are part fabrications and part exaggerations. David Barrat, in his book ‘Media Sociology’ tells us that moral panics not only appear on a national scale but also within local communities. He states that local media, newspapers and radio, often run campaigns on issues ranging from ‘juggernauts’ to ‘gypsies’. Most people are aware of local issues that have created a local outcry, such as new-age travellers or drug dealers in their community. These can also lead to moral panics. Barrat gives us five things in particular to look out for: 1. Distortion and exaggeration, inaccuracies in reporting and language (‘military’ and ‘animal’ analogies are common). 2. The classification of unconnected events under the umbrella of the ‘deviant’ label. 3. Evidence of ‘official’ responses (societal reaction) and policy changes. 4. The relative space given to different groups (hierarchy of access). 5. Evidence of ‘effects’ on the behaviour and self-concepts of those who are labelled.

It is this sort of activity, according to Barrat, that we should look out for to possibly identify the occurrence of a moral panic. Barrat emphasises various aspects of the factors that create a moral panic. He says that, as Cohen and Young (1981) have argued, the “‘moral panic’, unlike a rumour, is not a process everyone can join in ‘democratically’, contributing their own slant on the message like a game of Chinese whispers.” This is partly the result of mass communication, which is a ‘one-way’ process of communication. As Barrat states, there is no equal access, and the views of the powerful occupy a privileged position in the media. In the case of reports of ‘deviance’, as already mentioned, the view aired is usually that of professionals, e.g. opinions of “judges and magistrates, of members of parliament and senators, of police chiefs and senior officers, and of those public figures who claim a mandate as the ‘moral guardians’ of society.” We rarely receive a first hand account from ‘deviants’ themselves.

Much of the problem with regards to ‘moral panics’ seems to be the lack of communication between members of different groups of society. Most post-war youth cultures seem to have been ostracised by the mass media, and consequently, those ‘right thinking members of society’ who seem to believe everything they are told by the establishment, even when hyped up and exaggerated.

These ‘youth cultures’, according to Cohen (Folk Devils and Moral Panics), find a solution to what they see as a problem. For example, the Mods were bored and disillusioned and wanted to be free to do what they wanted, therefore they hit the road. They went to Clacton, Brighton etc. and were ostracised and condemned without total justification. Obviously there was trouble, but a lot of this seemed to happen after they had already been labelled as ‘a bad group’, and they were consequently turned away from cafes etc. They found a solution to their problem but were condemned for it. It does seem that moral panics will continue, and it is unlikely that they will ever disappear, therefore Cohen’s ‘folk devils’ will continue to be created: “This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society as present structured will continue to generate problems for some of its members – like working-class adolescents – and then condemn whatever solutions these groups find.”


All quotes and information regarding Stanley Cohen from – Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Chaucer Press, 1972.

All quotes and information regarding David Barrat from – Media Sociology-(Society now), Tavistock Publications, 1986.

The Sociology of the Mass Media, David Glover, Causeway Press, 1984.

Policing the Crisis-Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Stuart Hall et al, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1979. (background)

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society


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