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Revision Extra - Moral Panics

Friday, May 29, 2009
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Here’s a little extra - a rough, model answer for a synoptic Crime and Deviance question on assess the usefulness of Cohen’s concept of moral panics.  Its not perfect, but it should give you some ideas and hints about how to make theoretical links in C and D questions.  The headings are just there to guide readers in this case - you wouldn’t use them in a real essay.  As for posting up essays on the blog - well, I feel a bit uneasy about this - its open to mindless plagiarism. But one can only trust people.  Examiner’s -if they are at all on top of things - will keep changing and tweaking questions.  This one could be easily altered just by the addition of a couple of extra words or by changing the synoptic link.  So read widely,think for yourself and look at lots of past papers.

Assess the usefulness of the concept of moral panic.

(synoptic link to sociological theories)

Introduction

The concept of moral panic was created by Stan Cohen in his landmark study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, published in the 1960s.  Cohen can be broadly seen as an interactionist, and his research was mainly qualitative.  Whilst his work had a considerable influence, in more recent years some of the theoretical weaknesses have become more apparent.  This essay will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Cohen’s concept of moral panic and attempt to weigh up its usefulness for contemporary sociology. 


Interactionist paragraph

Cohen’s theory of moral panics draws on the interactionist perspective.
This can be seen in the way that Cohen shows how a criminal act is labelled and certain groups are stigmatised. Deviance is therefore shown to be socially constructed through the reactions of media, police, and the public.  However, there are problems, both with interactionist theory, and with Cohen’s use of it.  Firstly, Cohen can be seen to rather neglect the idea that labels and identities are negotiated, since he tends to portray the mods and rockers as the victims of public reaction to the media and to moral panics.  This glosses over the fact that not all members of the public may react in the way he supposes, and condemn the mods and rockers.  So, like the concepts of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy, Interactionism can, paradoxically perhaps, become a deterministic theory, which neglects to fully consider the way roles, identities, and labels are negotiated. More generally, one common criticism of Interactionism is that it neglects to explain the source of power in society.  Traditional Marxists for example, would be very clear that the reasons why mods and rockers are singled out and focused on in the way Cohen shows, is because they are working class; the forces of law and order do not exert anything like as much concern in investigating the crimes of the rich and powerful.

 

 

Structure/action paragraph


Weaknesses can also be identified in Cohen’s theory in terms of the structure/action debate.  Although Cohen takes an interactionist approach, the picture he presents of moral panics and deviance amplification seems to be very structural.  This means that in practice, Cohen’s explanation suggests that the mods and rockers have no freedom in their actions; they are portrayed as powerless victims in the face of media distortion and public outrage.  Another aspect of the study, which shows a structural bias, is Cohen’s assumptions of public reaction.  Cohen seems to assume that the public will indeed all react in a particular way, and that this reaction is something that is directly caused by the media’s reporting; it seems therefore to be an automatic response.  This implies that the public have no free will to respond to media reporting and a ‘moral panic’ in any other way.  In fact, as other studies, such as the Open University’s discussion of the Leah Bett’s case suggests, different sections of the public may respond to media coverage in different ways.

 

Social Change/Modernity to Postmodernity Paragraph


Lastly, many sociologists (perhaps including Cohen himself) would point out that since the 1960s, society has undergone considerable social change.  Sarah Thornton’s study, ‘Club Cultures’ is perhaps the best summary and example of these criticisms.  Thornton argues that Cohen makes a mistake in assuming that there is simply one uniform response to moral panics.  She points out that we now live in a more fragmented society, and that there may be very many different reactions to moral panics. Thornton argues that rather than see the targets of moral panics are not always passive victims of the media and a uniform public reaction.  She argues that the example of rave music in the late 80s and early 90s shows how ‘deviant’ groups can seek out notoriety and moreover use it to create their own oppositional and non-conformist identity.  Of course, this is also reflecting the structure/action debate as discussed previously, because in Thornton’s account, she shows how some young people may actively court infamy and notoriety.  Equally though, she also points out that nowadays the line between deviance and normality is increasingly blurred, since she thinks it is the case that to be ‘normal’, and not to drink underage, would be deviant.


Conclusion

Cohen’s concept of moral panic can therefore be seen to have some disadvantages. It does not fully take into account peoples agency, and whilst it is inspired by Interactionism, perhaps surprisingly, it tends to become rather deterministic. It can also be seen to have rather little to say about why the key agencies of social control construct folk devils such as the mods and rockers, and perhaps more structural accounts, such as those based on Marxism, can provide a better explanation.  However, having said this, Cohen’s concept should not be judged too harshly. Like all sociological work, it reflects the concerns and views of and particular time and a particular society.  Whilst the concept may now be seen to have some flaws, it does have the great merit of highlighting the role which the media can play in the construction of deviance. Also, whilst no doubt some groups may seek to become the subjects of media attention, Thornton may be going too far if she is suggesting that all of the subjects of moral panics seek notoriety. Equally, not all groups will have the ability to control the media in the way which Thornton suggests.  The idea of moral panic therefore remains useful and important in sociology, but we should not overlook some of its limitations.

 



 

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