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Study notes

Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Cohen 1972)

  • Levels: AS, A Level, IB
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Stan Cohen (1972) researched the fights, which took place mainly in English seaside resorts on bank holidays, between two youth subcultures: the mods and rockers.

Cohen was influenced by Becker and labelling theory and so was particularly interested in the response to the events rather than the events themselves. He was especially interested in the media response.

His study was a mixture of observation, content analysis and interviews. His findings supported many of the ideas articulated in the previous section, but he also introduced two new concepts into sociology:

Folk Devils

Cohen argued that when the media reports on deviant behaviour they construct a narrative which features a clear villain: the folk devil.  In his study, the folk devils were the violent youth subcultures, "mods and rockers". The creation of folk devils can kickstart a moral panic.

Moral Panics

The term can be applied to any sensationalist, or over-the-top, reaction to an issue that appears to relate to morality: to right and wrong. Other moral panics that have been of interest to sociologists have included the acid house scene in the late 1980s and the 2011 London riots. The implication, in the term "moral panic", is that the reaction is out of proportion to the act and indeed that the reaction might, in a real sense, create the phenomenon itself (see deviancy amplification)

Cohen found that while there were some minor scuffles when the different subcultures met on a bank holiday, the media created a story out of these turning it into a much more significant phenomenon. The reaction meant that the police responded to future conflict more forcefully and thus created further conflicts. The people involved had read stories about themselves in the media and started to play the parts that were written for them. Other people wanted to join in: to have their "five minutes of fame". As such it is a good example of how societal reaction to deviance can amplify that deviance.

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