Moral panic definition according to stanley Cohen

Moral Panic- Definition, Examples, and Stages


Moral panic is a term that Stanley Cohen coined in his 1972 study “Folk devils and moral panics,” which he published in “Essays in the study of religion, crime and deviance.” The condition or situation is linked to a particular group’s specific behavior and beliefs.

According to Oxfordreference, the exact definition is “A mass movement based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group of people is dangerously deviant and poses a threat to society’s values and interests.”

This behavior is considered deviance from the norms and values accepted by the majority of the members of society. Societal deviance may or may not be criminal, but it is considered immoral and unacceptable by most members of society. The behavior may be by any group in the society, such as government, corporations, schools, and religious groups.

Moral deviance is mostly identified by the public, mass media, and sometimes by government agencies. This identification leads to the formation of groups that are against these deviant behaviors. These groups, in most cases, include members of the mass media, politicians, and religious groups.

The concept of moral panic was coined because these people suddenly become very active against the threatening behavior or beliefs of the deviant group. These groups also become very active in organizing campaigns intended to punish people who participate in the threatening behavior.

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The Differences Between the American and British Moral Panic Definitions

The British Way

The British definition includes the concept that something bad has happened, but the public has not yet identified it.

When something bad happens, there is a need to identify who is responsible for that and how it will be punished. This identification will depend on the values and norms of society. During these incidents, some people are very active in blaming others for that event, and they also propose solutions to solve the problem. Examples of moral deviance according to the British are as follows:

  • Police bungling
  • Bribery and corruption.
  • Serial murders
  • Child molestation.

The American Way

The American definition of moral panics is based on the British one. The main difference is the way it has been expanded. The difference is because, during the late 60s and early 70s, there was a massive cultural change in America.

This change was major, leading to new forms of deviance and a need to create new panics. The main objective was to make people fear these new forms of deviance. The changes were done to eliminate them before they spread to other communities.

The major forms of deviance that have been identified in America include the rise of black gangs and drug use. The black gangs were mainly involved in activities such as stealing, mugging, rape, etc.

Drug use has been classified as a form of deviance that is associated with other forms of deviance. It was believed to be more dangerous than other forms of deviance because it was a gateway to other types of deviance.

This definition also states that the majority of people do not accept social norms and values. If this happens, there is a need to take action against those violating these norms and values.

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Perpetuators of Social Action Against Moral Panics

Moral entrepreneurs and the mass media identify a threat to societal values and perpetuate social construction.

Moral Entrepreneurs

Moral entrepreneurs are those who bring moral panic to the public media attention. They are mostly made up of individuals such as religious leaders, government officials, and other high-profile people in society.

Moral entrepreneurs and members of the public form social movements to lobby for different things such as legalizing drugs or protesting against homophobia. These groups influence public policies.

Mass Media

After moral entrepreneurs identify a threat to societal values and interests, they raise it with the media. The media, in most cases, is the factor that amplifies moral panic by publicizing it through radio, television, print media like newspapers and magazines.

The mass media plays a huge role in perpetuating social action against moral panics. This is because the public normally does not act on its own to get involved in social actions, but because of media attention, the public becomes interested and involved. This involvement is brought about by social movements that lobby for certain policies to control a group’s harmful behavior.

When a cause of social anxiety is published online, the masses gather information and respond to the said moral panic. The issue often becomes a debate matter among various individuals and groups who have various views.

As a result, these opinions and arguments are then spread through various social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which only add to the concern. Pressure on policymakers sometimes also comes from the public.

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Executers of Social Control and Moral Regulation

Politicians and law Makers are the executors of the panic moral laws. They also make laws to control and/or punish the deviant group, which is a reaction of social control against the deviants.

Political forces also make use of the panic moral laws to preserve their political careers. There are two types of political forces that react to moral panics.

  • The first type is those who consider themselves a liberal who will try all means to stop the behavior of the deviant group.
  • The second type of political force is conservative politicians who use the panic moral laws to maintain their dominant position in society.

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Types of Moral Regulation

Moral regulation is the process where deviant behavior becomes a social problem, and action is taken to ameliorate the situation. This regulation occurs when certain groups are threatened by the behavior of a set of people. Moral regulation flags the group viewed as threatening and results in social action against it.

Moral regulation is divided into three types

  • Community-based action-where an individual tries to control a deviant behavior without the help or interference of the government.
  • Government-based regulation-This one is more organized and formalized.
  • Moral regulation-This happens when community groups are involved in the regulation with the help of law enforcement agencies.

The Stages of Moral Regulation

Emile Durkheim identified different stages of moral regulation.

Stage 1: Behavior or social group of people is viewed as deviant by the majority of the society.

Stage 2: A public outcry begins to change or stop the behavior of the deviant group.

Stage 3: The government becomes involved in moral regulation.

Stage 4: A political movement emerges and fights for control of the deviant group. This is the point where social movements for control emerge.

Stage 5: Laws are made, and law enforcement agencies in society punish the deviant group.

Stage 6: The deviant group either stops or changes its behavior due to enforcement of laws and moral regulation followed by the majority of the society.

Stage 7: A consensus or agreement between the majority of society and that particular group is reached and maintained.

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Sources of Social Anxiety in Moral Panics

There are several causes of social anxiety which will make a certain thing become a moral panic.

  • The first source of concern is the media which will publish information about the different social problems.
  • Another cause is the pronouncement of a health official that declares certain issues as a danger to a certain demographic or group in society.
  • The pronouncement of a religious or community leader presents certain issues as dangerous and unacceptable in their respective society.
  • The pronouncement of an official from the law enforcement agency declares certain issues as dangerous and is punished by law.
  • The reaction of moral crusaders- people who are very sensitive to certain issues and react harshly against them.

Causes of Moral Panics

There are several causes of moral panic which make certain behavior a social problem. Deviant behaviors are the most common causes of moral panics. These include:

  • Violence against women
  • Sexual violence like rape and pedophile acts
  • Gang Violence
  • Moral Panics about teenage pregnancy is also common in modern society.
  • Social issues that can cause a moral panic include.
  • Drug abuse( wrong drug use)
  • Moral Panics caused by systems in society.

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The General Stages of Moral Panic


Deviance concern

The behavior that is considered deviance is first observed by some individual (moral entrepreneur) in a society. The moral entrepreneur then shows that the behavior has come from a different culture or was imported from another society.

The reason for linking the behavior to a different culture or country is that they see that it is unacceptable in the social group.


This reaction is a response from the public that has observed this deviant behavior. The general public will react by demonstrating against the deviant group or publicly criticizes the group.


The third stage of moral panic is the resolution stage, where a solution is found to the conflict aroused by the deviance. The public may form groups to petition or lobby for a change in the laws to reflect their values.

Moral Panic Epilogue

The moral panic usually subsides after the groups deemed deviant have either been punished or changed into a more acceptable and normative form. The public will also stop being agitated by the deviance from the norms. The media will too lose interest in the issue and concentrate on other issues in society.

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Cohen’s Moral Panic Model

According to Cohen, four common features can be found in all moral panics. These are:

  • Availability of a demonized enemy.
  • Search for a victim group or groups to blame.
  • An overarching threat to the social order is fueled by the public’s fear and anger.
  • A societal response, which may include punitive action against members of the victim group, a change in legislation, and increased surveillance.

Cohen highlighted that moral panics are symbolic threats that get society’s attention and focus it on the need to protect itself from ‘evil forces.’ Cohen also identified five roles in the moral panic:

  1. Reacting role – The main actors in the reaction phase of moral panic are usually people afraid of the change in society. The role of these people is to react and criticize the group that is being threatened publically.
  2. Co-opting role – According to Cohen, this is the role that powerful people play to calm or contain those who are anxious and afraid about moral panic.
  3. Mobilizing role – This is the role of the moral entrepreneurs in a moral panic. They are usually people who want to be seen as protectors of society. These people will use the threat of deviance to mobilize support and increase their legitimacy by portraying themselves as the defender of societal morals.
  4. Disagreement role – This is the role that people who disagree with or are unthreatened by the deviance in society play. This role is to voice their disagreement with the threat that is being posed. Cohen noted that these people are usually members of the media or academics.
  5. Expert role. This person will play an important part in calming society so that any overreaction to the issue can be avoided. The expert will usually have expertise in “the issue” and try to diffuse the situation.

Stages of Cohen’s moral panic theory


Stanley Cohen highlighted five stages of moral panic:

  • The identification of a threat to risky behavior – Displays of deviant behavior by some members of society. This deviance is usually displayed by youths or those under 30 years old.
  • Society’s reaction is the reaction that the public has to those people who are deemed, deviants. They may include publicly criticizing them, demonstrating against them, or threatening to take legal action against them.
  • Conflict resolution – The public has decided to either change the laws in their favor or punish/re-educate the deviants.
  • The public is also no longer anxious about the deviance in society.
  • The media have lost interest in the issue.

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The Folk Devils and Moral Panics Theory

Folk devils are people who are accused of causing harm to their community. The public will blame the deviant group for the problems that are happening within society. The public will also look for those responsible for the problems and make them scapegoats in the moral panic they experience.

The public rallies behind the moral entrepreneurs to protect society from the folk devils to perpetuate social change. Once this is done, the next step is to change the laws or increase surveillance to prevent further deviance. The public will also look for those involved with deviance to criticize.

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Past and Ongoing Historical Examples of Moral Panics

Video Games

In the mid-1980s, the media created several articles that depicted video games as violent and dangerous. Many parents were concerned about their children getting addicted to video games.

There were also concerns about the content of the video games and how it was enticing children to commit violence, especially against women. Many people were also concerned about the influence video games have on children.

This moral panic led to Congress investigating these concerns and passing legislation, namely the Video Game Rating Act of 1994.

Child Abuse

Child abuse is a problem that has plagued the United States for many years. One such incident was in 1987; A female toddler abuse victim named Jessica Carpenter went to the media for help. The police were fired from this case because they were involved in a cover-up. Widespread media coverage created a moral panic that led to the creation of several policies and laws.

The first was the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which required states to enact laws that fully comply with certain requirements of CAPTA.

The second was the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was created in 1984. It has since helped report child abuse cases and created programs to prevent child abuse from occurring.

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The War on Drugs

What is now known as the War on Drugs was not called that until its second phase in 1982. This moral panic began in the early 1970s when President Nixon declared a drug emergency following the heroin epidemic.

The media then began to cover this issue heavily, and in 1982, President Reagan declared a national War on Drugs. This led to the creation of several policies, such as House Bill 468. The bill required that any city receive federal money for their budget to implement drug testing in schools.


In the late nineteenth century, the United States began to show disapproval of homosexuality, despite being accepted previously. Homosexuality began to be viewed as something immoral and a mental illness.

This controversy led to the creation of several institutions and state practices used for the re-education of homosexuals. The first was the creation of the Committee of Supreme Court Justices that declared that homosexuality as illegal.

The second was by creating laws such as the DSM-II, which listed homosexuality as a mental illness. The third was the institution of re-education centers, which were later shut down due to controversy.


In England, there was a moral panic in the late sixteenth century that arose from the people’s fear of sexual predators. The concern over beastility led to the passing of several laws that made beastility a capital crime.

In England, any man who “carnally knoweth” a beast or a woman is guilty of the crime. The accusations caused those who were convicted to receive the death penalty. These penalties led to widespread rumors and accusations that began to destabilize the government.

This moral panic resulted in several people’s execution and eventually led to the downfall of the Elizabethan age.

Witch Hunts and Trials

In the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a moral panic of witchcraft between 1300 and 1800. The public believed that witches were responsible for all misfortune in society, including poverty, floods, and sicknesses. This panic was fueled by the belief that witches attended sabbats, gatherings of witches who would worship Satan.

The concerns over witchcraft led to the execution of thousands of innocent people. Many women were convicted and burned at stake for being witches. Men were also accused and killed in these trials.

This moral panic was fueled by the media, especially pamphlets distributed to spread fear and distrust. The resultant social anxiety led to the creation of several policies in an attempt to prevent witchcraft. Another policy created was the Malleus Maleficarum, which served as a guide on how to identify and punish witches.

Mods and Rockers

The Mods and Rockers were subcultures of the 1960s—the two groups engaged in a moral panic. Eventually, the police, politicians, and the media got involved.

The two groups differed in their main activity-music. Mods listened to ska, jazz, and soul music while Rockers listened to rock music. The two groups were also distinctive in their fashion styles. Mods wore sharp suits while Rockers dressed more casually and liked American clothes such as blue jeans.

Initially, the two groups were seen as separate subcultures, with little interaction between them. The perception changed when Rockers started to wear boots and ride motorbikes. Mods started to associate the Rockers with several dangerous activities, such as riding motorbikes without a license, riding in the dark, and listening to rock music.

Events’ Clashes

The Mods and Rockers’ subcultures collided when they attended events at the seaside. The main beach where the events took place was between Clacton and Frinton in Essex. The place was referred to as “The Holy Land” of Mods and Rockers. The events at the beach were attended by thousands of youths from both sides, often ending in clashes.

One of the main events was The Battle of Clacton, where hundreds of Mods and Rockers clashed at a local amusement park on 5 September 1964. The police intervened, but the event became violent, and the police ended up just watching as both groups fought each other.

Police and the media attention

The police soon began to direct their attention towards the Mods and Rockers. Numerous arrests were made, but this did not stop them from attending events at the beach.

The attention of the police and media became even more focused on the mods and rockers when they clashed again at Clacton. The event, on 26 August 1965, was to commemorate the Battle of Clacton. Around 1,000 mods and rockers attended the event.

The police had been informed about the event by a newspaper and went to Clacton in large numbers. When they arrived, a crowd of Rockers rushed towards them, and the police had no choice but to intervene. This intervention started a battle between the mods, the rockers, and the police.

Several people were injured, dozens were arrested, one person was charged with causing an affray and another with obstructing a police officer, one of the most serious charges ever made in Britain against a juvenile.

The media’s attention on both groups only increased as time progressed. Several papers published headlines that focused on the Mods and Rockers as a threat to society.

With the increase in media attention, politicians got involved. They believed the mods and rockers were a bad influence on children and began to discuss ways to handle them in the House of Commons.

Politicians’ involvement

The politicians called for harsher measures to be taken against both groups. In the end, they advocated a mix of education and tougher legislation, such as banning motorbikes from Clacton.

The government also increased police powers, giving them more authority to deal with mods and rockers at events like beach parties. For example, the police were given the power to stop and search those attending the event.

The police began to infiltrate both groups and arrest them for minor crimes such as being drunk in public places. This action resulted from fear since the police anticipated backlash from the two groups and the public. The police believed this would stop them from attending events at the beach and stop any future clashes.

However, the increase in police attention only caused tensions to escalate between mods and rockers in the Clacton area. The mods from London were shocked and angry that their actions had attracted so much media and police attention.

The mods and rockers eventually faded as a subculture because the mainstream adopted their style of music, and they became middle-class members of society.

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Child Molestation in Daycare Centers

During the 1980s, child molestation in daycare centers became a major concern of citizens. The media covered the molestation cases, which led to distrust within communities. It was a top news story in the U.S. during its peak, and the coverage lasted for years.

The media coverage caused all daycare centers to lose their credibility and eventually led to the closing of several institutions.

Sexual Crimes against Children in Day Care Centers was used to describe this occurrence, although it is now known as daycare sex-abuse hysteria.

The media played an important role in this moral panic because they portrayed the daycare workers as having a secret agenda and working together to harm children.


Examples of Contemporary Moral Panics

Some of the contemporary moral panic examples are Islamic extremism and terrorism, Anti-gender movements, and Human Trafficking.

Islamic Extremism and Terrorism

Islamic extremism and terrorism are the contemporary moral panics taking place in America since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

After 9/11, the U.S. government began to monitor Islamic immigrants and mosques suspected of having terrorist links. There was intense media coverage about the “war on terror” and Iraq, which led to discrimination against Muslims.

Currently, Muslims are portrayed as terrorists, and their religion is often associated with violence.

There have been many hate crimes against Muslims because of the way they dress and their beliefs. Supporting human rights for Muslims is often considered a radical cause, especially in the Middle East. Post-9/11, the media coverage has influenced public opinion.

Anti-gender movements

The anti-gender movements are growing and spreading across the U.S., which may be a contemporary moral panic.

Many recent articles in the media suggest that gender is a social construct, and it has been reported on through several websites, magazines, and film documentaries.

There has been a movement in the U.S. called transgender rights, which members of the Democratic Party support, and it is spreading across the U.S.

Human Trafficking

Human Trafficking is another contemporary moral panic that is flourishing in the U.S and other countries.

In America alone, hundreds of thousands of people have been trafficked annually. The victims often include women and children forced into prostitution, and many sex slaves come from other countries.

There are currently almost 21 million slaves globally, and human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal industries.

One of the reasons human trafficking has become so widespread is a lack of public awareness about it, especially in many first-world countries.

Many of the sex slaves that are brought to the U.S., Europe, and other developed nations are not compensated with money; rather, they are forced into prostitution.

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The Comics Code Authority

In the late 20th century, a moral panic about comic books that deal with violent and sexually explicit material was started. This panic led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which was established by the industry in 1954. The CCA had a strict set of rules that every comic book had to follow. In 2000, the comics industry abandoned the CCA in favor of self-regulation.

The government did not set up the Comics Code Authority; instead, it was instituted by comics industry members. The CCA had certain rules that every comic book had to follow if it wanted to be approved.

These rules suggested that there should be no crime, no nationalistic fairy stories or legends, and no words or themes that would be considered crude. The CCA was in effect for many years until the comics industry abandoned it in the year 2000.

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Moral panics are on the rise; however, there is only limited research about them. Many issues need to be addressed to prevent moral panic from occurring.

The media and other communication agencies should be aware of how they cover issues related to social groups and minorities. In addition, the media can help cultivate understanding about a certain social group or issue by reporting on positive aspects of it rather than negative ones.

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