Moral Panics – Subcultures and Sociology


Moral panics are situations in which the general public experiences an unjustified panic about a specific social issue; politicians and other interested parties create moral panics to direct what the public worries about and focuses on. In his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen set the stage for the sociological study of moral panics by examining the classic moral panic in 1960s Britain of violence between two subcultural groups: Mods and Rockers. Cohen expressed that the major issue was the “fundamentally inappropriate” reaction to social figures in society to the minor events that occurred (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Cohen defined a moral panic as the following:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough but suddenly appears in the limelight (Cohen 1972:9).

Since Cohen’s book on moral panics, more scholars continue to expand on this work. For example, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) claim that creating moral panics has become the way in which the media presents the public with everyday events.  They state that politicians and businesses alike use faulty logic to appeal to the public’s emotions which, in turn, serves their political and corporate agendas. This manipulation of moral panics leads to moral entrepreneurship: When a group claims that it knows the cause of and best solution for a societal issue (Critcher 2003).  The media also play a role in such manipulation.  They create a signification spiral in which they associate different social problems and raise alarm in the public (Hall et al. 1978). In a signification spiral, the media reduce deviant people to an easily recognizable–and often disturbing–image to create a scapegoat for a social issue. The link between moral panics and deviant subcultures is strong because many moral panics center around the creation of a caricature of a given subculture; a caricature that is often misinformed and that instills fear of the subculture into the public consciousness (Ben-Yehuda 1986). Some examples of subcultures that the media creates moral panics are goths, satanic worship, gamers, rave, heavy metal, and hip-hop. In order to put the idea of moral panics into context, a few examples from each time period, as well as a timeline, can be found throughout the page.


1950s: Comic Books 

1960s: Mods and Rockers

1970s: War on Drugs, Increase in Crime, Video Games and Violence, Crack Babies,

1980s: Dungeons and Dragons, Satanic Ritual Abuse, Super-Predators, Rock and Roll

1990s: Sex offenders

2000s: Human trafficking

Source: Moral Panics – Subcultures and Sociology