THE CRIMINOLOGY OF MORAL PANICS
"Knowledge is our best protection against panic" (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
This particular area of criminology -- the study of moral panics -- is something of a lost specialty area. As Jewkes (2011) states, it enjoyed a ten-year (1965-1975) period of popularity and today only merits the briefest of mention in textbooks. It is usually classified as a type of labeling theory, particularly among components of labeling (and critical) theories which hold that all deviance is relative. Among American criminologists, Schur (1971) is probably one of the earliest exponents of the labeling approach, and British criminologist Young (1971) is most likely the best representative of the critical criminology approach. Also within the conflict theory tradition, Chambliss (1988) makes a good starting point for any beginning reader. However, two figures stand out who might be called giants in the field: Leslie Wilkins (1965), who attempted to construct a systematic way of predicting tolerance levels of crime on the basis of standard deviations in his Social Deviance book; and Stan Cohen (1972) who devised what might be called a non-technicist, romantic yet futurist approach in Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
The systematic approach is usually called "deviance amplification theory" and is sometimes encountered in textbooks via other terms or concepts, such as "widening the net", "positive feedback loops", or "iatrogenic effects." Anyone familiar with labeling theory will recognize these terms. Widening the net is an established concept in juvenile delinquency where the process of formally responding to delinquent behavior only makes the problem worse; i.e., it "widens" the net of social control or the need for more formal processes. Because excessive expansion of the criminal justice system is seen as a bad thing, many moral panic researchers are sympathetic to the radical idea of decarceration (Scull 1985). A positive feedback loop in systems theory is one which has an amplifying effect by relaying pieces of information or symbolic "messages" between individuals in society and society as a whole. A positive feedback loop in criminological theory usually indicates the emergence of some new subcultural value or norm. A negative feedback loop helps the system tend toward stability. The word "iatrogenesis" was first introduced by Ivan Illich (1974) and has since been most associated with the field of medical sociology or mental illness studies (e.g., Lemert 1962; Scheff 1984) but also nursing and epidemiology because iatrogenesis technically means when caregivers spread disease by careless care giving. Psychologists will also be familiar with the notion of "Pygmalion effects" which might be included as part of the rich conceptual vocabulary in this area.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a systematic extant literature for deviance amplification theory. My own research (OConnor 1990) into community tolerance for gay-bashing tried to be true to the original, mathematical formulation of the Wilkins model. In this study of a southern Illinois phenomena, community tolerance for self-made vigilantes attacking gays with baseball bats in state parks manifested a 2.0 standard deviation increase from normally tolerated interpersonal violence, but as soon as the media focused on the death penalty for offenders, the tolerance level went down. However, most studies of moral panic phenomena are not quantitative, but descriptive, such as the "discovery" of child abuse (Pfohl 1977), the crackdown on drunk driving (Ross 1994), and the craze or fascination with serial killers (Jenkins 1994). From the offense-specific nature of these studies, one gets the idea that moral panics almost always involve some kind of behavior considered "immoral" or having some element of moral turpitude, so a brief review of morality is in order.
What's "Moral" about Moral Panics?
|Morality is not the same as ethics. Morality can support or underpin ethics, but it more commonly exists as a cultural or public phenomenon that varies over time. Ethics (or ethical systems) usually stand the test of time. A good definition is provided by Gert (1998) who says that "morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal." The part about lessening evil or harm is the ethics part (more precisely, the applied ethics part). The more important parts have to do with public systems and rationality. The idea that morality is public and applies to all rational persons is called the "normative" (as opposed to the descriptive) approach. The word "normative" derives from the sociological concept of "norms" which are the building blocks that hold society together. However, norms only define the limits or boundaries of expectations about acceptable ranges of behaviors, not the behaviors themselves. The normative approach is usually value-free, and comes in two varieties: moral skepticism and moral nihilism. The descriptive approach tries to compare some social standard to an ideal, as in the attempt to derive law from custom. Ideal persons, societies, or entities can be used for comparison purposes. When persons are used, this is called moral subjectivism. When societies are used, this is called moral absolutism. When some godlike entity or fundamental principle is used, this is called moral objectivism.|
So, indeed, moral panics are about morality. But, there are many different forms of moralities, or at least there are several different points of reference for the public to rationally justify their moral outrage. The fact that people do this -- try to rationally justify their moral outrage -- means that someone (or something) is going to be perceived as the "ideal" and someone (or something) is going to be perceived as "less than ideal" (or the scapegoat). The human desire to always have rational grounds for one's beliefs forces people into "shopping" mode for quick-and-easy rationalizations or justifications. Thus, to study the "morality" of a moral panic is NOT to study some fixed, sanctimonious belief system, but to study the actual changes or fluctuations in morality. Nor is it necessary, in my opinion, to carry out offense-specific studies. In other words, it doesn't matter who the offender is or what the particular offense was. In today's world, any competent prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich, and the media can smear one, making it look like that innocent sandwich over there behind the counter did it.
There is some similarity to wave theory in criminology (Sacco 2005) as cyclic changes are the focus, but there is more, and that is the promise of bridging the macro-micro gap in sociology; i.e., explaining the reciprocal impact of forces at the societal level and forces at the individual level. As Erikson (1966) long ago pointed out in his study of 17th century witchcraft trials, crime waves (or control waves) are how communities and societies establish an unique moral character which tends to make individuals more homogeneous. In the social cohesion process, invidious comparisons are made between characters who are "right" and those who are "wrong." Such studies portray the central function of public deviant-creation for modal character or personality development.
There may be valid reasons for ascribing deviance to something or somebody, but validity (or veridicality) is not necessary. Rumor or gossip may suffice. Ditton (1979) provides a list of five types of crime (control) waves: (1) legal - people refer to some legal principle; (2) fantasy - citizens propagate rumor; (3) police - change the way records are kept; (4) media - stir up reporting of something or other; and (5) real - actual crime rates rise or fall. Additionally, Ditton (1977) also has a nice typology of the kind of roles in society which are essentially constructed in crime wave societies. It appears to be adapted from Klapp (1962) and is called a character typology of socially dramatic roles, as follows:
|Constantly fighting the rules||rogue||operator||rogue||nuisance|
|Thoughtful, opinionated||professional||prima donna||selfish||show-off|
|Sensitive to opinion of others||Robin Hood||do-gooder||flouter||character|
|Steals credit from others||shark||?||troublemaker||upstart|
|Acts better than they actually are||bent-straight||?||traitor||yes-man|
|Always knows what's going on||wise-guy||diehard||shirker||simpleton|
Why such characters (as the above) tend to be the subjects of moral panics makes for an interesting inquiry. It may be that such people are sought out because they represent some socially significant "threat" (at least symbolically). It may be that scapegoating is a normal part of the anthropological rituals of all societies (Nieberg 1972). The motives for hate are many, and there are many shades of hate. HATE (an intense feeling of dislike) is sometimes so deep-seeded that it triggers a bitter attitude toward someone as an enemy or mutual enemy, this notion of deep-seeded hostility or antagonism also being known as ENMITY (a state of deep-seeded ill will). A related, and more psychological, concept is ANIMUS (a prejudiced, spiteful, or malevolent ill will that informs and arouses one's actions). The concepts of enmity and animus are important elements in the conceptualization of hate crime because the kind of hate involved is required by law to be more than a feeling. It's required to be a deep-seeded kind of hate which causes irresistible impulses toward action, but not so irresistible to be deemed crazy or insane. This is one reason why hate crime is sometimes called "bias-motivated crime." On the other hand, moral panics are not the same as hate crimes, so it is likely some different kind of motivational set is involved. Jewkes (2011) suggests that RETALIATION might be the predominant motive in moral panics. Retaliation, like revenge, serves a useful function in society -- reinforcing the primitive sense of the just -- but retaliation more specifically involves a burning desire to settle some provocation or injury. Acts of retaliation (like feuds) also take the shape of spirals or cycles (like moral panics do).
THE BUBBLE PSYCHOLOGY OF MORAL PANICS
Understanding the "panic" aspect of moral panics requires an understanding of the phenomenon known as a "mania," "craze," or "bubble." There are a number of ways to describe this, but perhaps the best illustration comes from the academic field of finance, and is pictured below:
Bubble psychology in economics involves the public expectation that something (such as prices) are going to go higher. The rise and decline of bubbles are important factors in market instability. They are associated with misallocation of resources, redistribution of income, stagflation, contagion and spillover effects (into other sectors), and erosion of public confidence and trust (Bondt 2005). Behavioral finance, borrowing from psychology, holds that people engage in bubble thinking out of habit, emotion, memory, custom, and attention span. Of these, emotion is probably the most important factor, and takes the form of "wishful thinking" that now is the time to jump on the bandwagon. Rational thinking (or cognition) then becomes more irrational or delusional, as selective attention is paid to information in the media. Consumers who attend to the media tend to use heuristics (shortcuts for coping with new information) and exhibit a state of mind where their belief patterns are so hardened that nothing will change them, despite evidence to the contrary. If and when doubt starts to settle in, so does herding behavior (Shiller 2000), which manifests itself in the form of additional people jumping on board the bandwagon much like animals who group together in the face of danger.
Another important idea, drawn from the world of business, is the Elliot Wave Principle, first enunciated by investment consultant Ralph Nelson Elliott in the 1930s (Elliott 2004). Elliott wave theory holds that crowds are naturally governed by rhythmic oscillations between optimism and pessimism, and that market behavior (bulls and bears) can be predicted by technical analysis of the patterns and trends. Certain aspects of such prediction can be quite mathematical, involving Fibonacci sequences, Fractal geometry, or Golden ratios. Basically, there are three points at which investors “buy in” during an Elliott wave, and these are during retracements of 38.2%, 50%, and 61.8%. Although Elliott waves are defined by form and not duration, the typical cycle lasts a year or two. Longer business cycles exist in the following patterns:
the Kitchen cycle -- a lag in information movements which lasts 3 to 5 years
the Juglar cycle -- the depreciation/fixed capital investment cycle of 7 to 11 years
the Kuznets swing -- an infrastructure investent cycle of 15 to 25 years
the Kondratiev wave -- the capitalist boom and bust (recession) cycle of 45 to 60 years
THE SOCIOLOGY OF MORAL PANIC THEORY
Aside from the unanswered questions Jewkes (2011) raises about moral panic theory (such as the time limit of a panic; how panics are hijacked by politicians; and their role in “culture wars” between the forces of homogeneity and forces of diversity), the most noteworthy sociological question pertains to whether they contribute to consensus (functionalism) or control (left functionalism). The functionalist viewpoint is that just the right amount of deviance is filtered through the social reaction process so that the majority can mutually condemn the deviance and reinforce consensus. The left functionalist viewpoint is that moral panics involving certain deviant groups are hijacked by politicians and interest groups to attain control and power. In the functionalist view, moral panics over deviants serve the purpose of galvanizing public outrage, and further signal the emergence of new moralities. In the left functionalist view, authorities almost always amplify and manipulate moral outrage for their own purposes. The role of the media is thus questionable. Are they true champions of discourse over old and new moralities? Or, are they pawns in a game of political power?
To answer these questions requires we know the "source" of moral panics, if not the source of deviance itself. Cohen (1985) seems to believe that moral panics begin when experts and professionals on the subject matter throw up their hands and say "we don't know what causes it" or "we're not sure what to do." Disengagement by experts is, of course, a major cause of iatrogenesis. Disengagement can take many forms, from scientific jargon to psychobabble, but in the long-term, moral panics can be viewed as ideological struggles or culture wars fought at the level of common sense. Social problems are simplified via stigmatization of someone or other. Watney (1987) clearly sees them this way, and so does Garland (2008).
FEAR, RISK, AND LAW
Although fear of crime follows an irrational process generally, there are certain ways to manage it. For example, Jewkes (2011) points out the similarity between a disaster and a moral panic. Both follow a sequence of warning - impact - reaction. We can sometimes see a moral panic coming. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) attempt to predict moral panics when some social problem has long been familiar and appears to directly impinge on individuals' lives. All moral panics have a "here and now" quality to them. And, what were once distant social problems relegated to the anonymous "public" (macro) forum become a "private" (micro) affair. Everyone must take sides in a moral panic. Only the intellectuals can afford to stay detached. In a way, the forum of common sense is the best place for moral panics to play out. Wilkins (1965) said the ability to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary (via community tolerance adjustments) is what keeps us from anomie and alienation. It is also part of the pedagogical function of law, as along with adjusting to what is tolerated and what is not, ordinary citizens become quite knowledgeable about what the law prescribes and proscribes.
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Last updated: Nov. 04, 2011
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O'Connor, T. (2011). "The Criminology of Moral Panics," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4230/4230lect03.htm.