Saturday, 20 March 2021

Introduction to moral panics.


Introduction to moral panics.


Box, M. (2019). Introduction to moral panics.


Doctor of Philosophy. Federation University


This paper introduces the concept of moral panics in the context of a study of national security policy. It is an extract of a wider document prepared as part of the conformation of candidature process for a Doctor of Philosophy



The term ‘moral panic’ came to prominence in criminological discourse through the work of Stanley Cohen regarding the way deviant behaviour was politicised. Of importance, Cohen (2002, p. viii) is clear that to call something a moral panic does not imply a rejection of the phenomenon in question rather that “... the ‘thing’s’ extent and significance has been exaggerated (a) itself … and/or (b) compared with other, more serious problems.” Pearce and Charman (2011) argue that there is not a unified theory of moral panics, rather it is a concept which builds upon other criminological theories such as labelling theory. White and Haines (2000) outline succinctly that labelling theory sees crime as a social construct and what and who is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is determined by human interactions. This is something with which Young (2009) concurs, stating that the deviance is not inherent in behaviour or action but is something which is ‘bestowed’ upon it by the labelling of others. From a consequentialist perspective such points may not be a negative in an overall policy setting; by contrast, from a deontological perspective such labelling would go to the heart of the moral authority of the policy. Young goes on to argue that a tell-tail-sign of a moral panic is the amplification of stereotypes which are grossly disproportionate to the event or activity in question.  This is in concurrence with the argument of Brass (1976) that the nationalist leader sets about placing their group apart from another. Furthermore, the similarity with the third aspect of the motivations of terrorism is stark: that is the causing of an overreaction which will be discussed in the next section. This mutually supportive factor is why this tripartite of theories has utility for this research.

Howarth (2013, p. 689) argues that “…moral panics are more than expressions of outrage and misrepresentation by elites intended to reinforce dominant practices by demonising of outsiders and marginalised groups … [rather it is a] response to perceived danger, and heightened anxiety...”. Nevertheless, he goes on to argue that media in essence place themselves as a ‘moral entrepreneur, public protector and guard of public morality’ which creates a ‘media superstorm’ with “…highly emotive, evocative and mutually reinforcing discourse …”(p. 695).

Dagistanli and Milivojevic (2013, p. 230) bring an interesting contribution to this discussion as they see this notion of a moral panic being the product of “… moral entrepreneurs – such as the media, politicians, police and other criminal justice actors – who assert a self-proclaimed right to determine what is deviant or against the norm of society.” This is an important contribution as it opens the concept of moral panics to include an array of actors rather than focusing solely on the media: political actors and the media are the focus of this project. Soothill (1998, p. 25) argues that these actors ‘react out of proportion’ and a misrepresent of the facts. The overreaction is something which Morgan et al. (2010, pp. 582-583) highlight: after the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ “…the state’s reaction … should be out of proportion to the magnitude of threat posed.” Of significant relevance to this study is their argument that the moral panic is an apt descriptor of reactions to the current intensity of terrorism: “…we argue the concept of moral panic has utility for our analysis; not least since the ‘war on terror’, involving as it does a Manichean struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’…” (p. 596).

In summary, it is argued that a moral panic is a phenomenon brought about by heightened public fear of a perceived threat: the reality of which is immaterial. The demonised group is seen as the cause of the threat to social norms which creates a call for action from the public, led in most cases by the media or sections thereof. In response to that call, the government will react in a manner which itself is disproportionate to the threat: in essence the reaction is a political response to the call for action rather than a considered piece of public policy which could ultimately undermine the very essence of national security which the political actor is claiming to be attempting to protect.



Brass, P. (1976). Ethnicity and Nationality Formation. Ethnicity, 3, 225-241.

Cohen, S. (2002). Folk Devils and Morial Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. Routledge Classics.

Dagistanli, S., & Milivojevic, S. (2013). Appropriating the rights of women: Moral panics, victims and exclusionary agendas in domestic and cross-borders sex crimes. Women's Studies International Forum, 40, 230-242.

Howarth, A. (2013). A ‘superstorm’: when moral panic and new risk discourses converge in the media. Health, Risk & Society, 15(8), 681-698.

Morgan, G., Dagistanli, S., & Martin, G. (2010). Global Fears, Local Anxiety: Policing, Counterterrorism and Moral Panic Over ‘Bikie Gang Wars’ in New South Wales. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 580–599.

Pearce, J. M., & Charman, E. (2011). A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic. Crime, Media, Culture, 7(3), 293-311.

Soothill, K. (1998). Crime and the Media: A Vicious Circle? AQ: Australian Quarterly, 70(2), 24-29.

White, R., & Haines, F. (2000). Crime and Criminology: an introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Young, J. (2009). Moral Panic: Its Origins in Resistance, Ressentiment and the Translation of Fantasy into Reality. British Journal of Criminology, 49(1), 4-16.

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