chapter  4
Fractious rivals? Moral panics and moral regulation
ByAlan Hunt
Pages 18

An extended field of inquiry in the sociology of moralization has taken as its starting point two discernible traditions: moral panics and moral regulation. The social construction and mediation of risk has more recently become an important supplement for understanding moralization projects (e.g., Moore and Valverde 2000). The field of moralization is one in which inquiry is directed at forms of popular action involving different kinds of activists who seek to mobilize the concerns, worries, and anxieties of citizens in pursuit of objectives that involve social or moral values. The field of moralization is of continuing importance because it involves controversial claims about the connection between alleged harms, proposed remedies, and the mobilization of anxieties, which raises normative disputes among observers of such projects. The sociologies of moral panic and moral regulation grew up independently and

took little interest in each other. Stanley Cohen’s (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics initially conceptualized moral panic in terms of an episode whereby a condition, person, or group of persons is constructed and presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media, enacted as a threat to societal values and interests, and attended to by a social, legal, and/or political control culture. Following Cohen’s original argument that moral panics represent fundamentally inappropriate societal reactions to relatively minor conditions, moral panic scholars have maintained that panics are typically undesirable responses to addressing social issues that involve some combination of exaggeration and disproportional representation between the harm claimed and the remedy pursued. Panic scholars, consequently, have overwhelmingly concerned themselves with counter-posing representations to actual conditions in an effort to identify real sources of anxiety. The sociology of moral regulation has charted a different path. Rather than seeking

to explicate the underlying reason for particular moral actions, moral regulation

studies focus attention on the ways that discourses and practices are deployed to act on the conduct of self and other (with analysts trying to maintain evaluative neutrality about the contents of moralizing discourses). Moral regulation involves the deployment of distinctively moral discourses that construct a moralized subject and an object or target that is acted on by means of moralizing practices (Hunt 1999: 6-7). In any specific regulatory project, the weight of the controversy may be about the harm claimed, the remedy proposed, or the anxieties mobilized. Identified in this way, it seems immediately apparent that the two main approaches

to moralization (moral panic and moral regulation) are closely related. The perceived affinity between panics and regulatory processes raises the possibility that, rather than representing two somewhat fractious rivals, the approaches can be harmonized to make complementary contributions to the field of moral politics. Although this is the project explicitly pursued by Sean Hier (2002, 2008) and Chas Critcher (2009), their optimism needs to be tempered because each of the trajectories comes up against a considerable impediment in the form of their difficulty of dealing with the experiential intractability of anxiety. I should make clear that I am not an innocent newcomer to this debate. I have

contributed to and inspired a strand of investigation concerning moral regulation; in doing so, I have had some none-too-positive things to say about the sociology of moral panic. For instance, in Governing Morals I disapproved of moral panic because of ‘its tendency to import negative normative judgment’ (Hunt 1999:19). In this chapter, I will offer a more extended visit to the relationship between moral panic and moral regulation. I will argue that one of the disadvantages of the moral panic approach is that it imports an unwarranted preoccupation with the definition of moral panic. It is a feature of empiricist sociology that the definitional question occupies center stage by posing one or more definitions and then assessing the extent to which the case under discussion meets the definitional requirements. A significant feature of the moral panic literature is that it is preoccupied with debating either the general issue of the defining characteristics of a moral panic or whether or not the instance being examined qualifies as a moral panic. The definitional struggles, moreover, are usually framed in the broader context of explaining what the panic is really about (see, for example, Rothe and Muzzatti 2004). I do not wish to ignore the issue of definitions but, rather than pursuing the ‘best’ definition, I will argue that some of the problematic features of moral panic accounts are precisely located in definitional questions. I will argue that moral panics should be treated as a special but limited case of the moral regulation framework, and I will advance a case for a united approach that builds on the advantages of both and seeks to discard their weaknesses.