A Socological Understanding of Moral Panic

Painting of a Salem witch trial by Tompkins H. Matteson symbolizes the concept of moral panic.
The Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692 by Tompkins H. Matteson. Douglas Grundy/Getty Images

A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.

Moral panics are often centered on people who are marginalized in society due to their race or ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, or religion. As such, a moral panic often draws on known stereotypes and reinforces them. It can also exacerbate the real and perceived differences and divisions between groups of people. Moral panic is well known in the sociology of deviance and crime and is related to the labeling theory of deviance.

Stanley Cohen's Theory of Moral Panics

The phrase "moral panic" and the development of the sociological concept is credited to the late South African sociologist Stanley Cohen (1942-2013). Cohen introduced the social theory of moral panic in his 1972 book titled "Folk Devils and Moral Panics." In the book, Cohen describes how the British public reacted to the rivalry between the "mod" and "rocker" youth subcultures of the 1960s and '70s. Through his study of these youth, and the media and public reaction to them, Cohen developed a theory of moral panic that outlines five stages of the process.

The Five Stages and Key Players of Moral Panics

First, something or someone is perceived and defined as a threat to social norms and the interests of the community or society at large. Second, the news media and community members depict the threat in simplistic symbolic ways that quickly become recognizable to the greater public. Third, widespread public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the symbolic representation of the threat. Fourth, the authorities and policymakers respond to the threat, be it real or perceived, with new laws or policies. Then, the moral panic and the subsequent actions of those in power leads to social change in the community.

Cohen suggested that there are five key sets of actors involved in the process of moral panic. They are the threat that incites the moral panic, which Cohen referred to as "folk devils," and the enforcers of rules or laws, like institutional authority figures, police, or armed forces. The news media plays its role by breaking the news about the threat and continuing to report on it, thereby setting the agenda for how it is discussed and attaching visual symbolic images to it. Enter politicians, who respond to the threat, and sometimes fan the flames of the panic, and the public, who develop a focused concern about the threat and demand action in response to it.

The Beneficiaries of Social Outrage

Many sociologists have observed that those in power ultimately benefit from moral panics, since they lead to increased control of the population and the reinforcement of the authority of those in charge. Others have commented that moral panics offer a mutually beneficial relationship between news media and the state. For the media, reporting on threats that become moral panics increases viewership and makes money for news organizations. For the state, the creation of a moral panic can give it cause to enact legislation and laws that would seem illegitimate without the perceived threat at the center of the moral panic.

Examples of Moral Panics

There have been many moral panics throughout history, some quite notable. The Salem witch trials, which took place throughout colonial Massachusetts in 1692 are an oft-mentioned example of this phenomenon. Women who were social outcasts faced accusations of witchcraft after local girls were afflicted with unexplained fits. Following the initial arrests, accusations spread to other women in the community who expressed doubt about the claims or who responded to them in ways deemed improper or inappropriate. This particular moral panic served to reinforce and strengthen the social authority of local religious leaders, since witchcraft was perceived to be a threat to Christian values, laws, and order.

More recently, some sociologists have framed the "War on Drugs" of the 1980s and '90s as an outcome of moral panic. News media attention to drug use, particularly use of crack cocaine among the urban Black underclass, focused public attention on drug use and its relationship to delinquency and crime. The public concern generated through news reporting on this topic, including a feature in which then-First Lady Nancy Reagan participated in a drug raid, shored up voter support for drug laws that penalized the poor and working classes while ignoring drug use among the middle and upper classes. Many sociologists attribute the policies, laws, and sentencing guidelines connected to the "War on Drugs" with increased policing of poor urban neighborhoods and incarceration rates of residents of those communities.

Additional moral panics include public attention to "welfare queens," the notion that poor black women are abusing the social services system while enjoying lives of luxury. In reality, welfare fraud is rare, and no one group is more likely to commit it. There is also moral panic around a so-called "gay agenda" that threatens the American way of life when members of the LGBTQ community simply want equal rights. Lastly, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Islamophobia, surveillance laws, and racial and religious profiling grew from the fear that all Muslims, Arabs, or brown people overall are dangerous because the terrorists who targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had that background. In fact, most acts of domestic terrorism have been committed by white men unaffiliated with Islam.