chapter  7
How emotions matter to moral panics
ByKevin Walby, Dale Spencer
Pages 14

The conception of ‘panic’ that is integral to the moral panic literature has been highly productive for discussing the intensity of public responses to contentious events. Yet, whereas some moral panic analysts argue that the idea of ‘panic’ should be understood as a metaphor or heuristic (e.g., Young 2009; Critcher 2009), others argue that the panic concept should be abandoned because of various analytical problems (e.g., Hunt 1999). In this chapter, we draw from the sociology of emotions to assess whether ‘panic’ is the most appropriate object of analysis for scholars interested in volatile public reactions to ostensible crime and deviance. The chapter contributes to ongoing discussions about how moral panic studies

should advance by connecting moral panic scholarship to the sociology of emotions. Moral panic scholars often skip a step or two in their claims about how emotions matter to moral panic analyses. Emotion is not well defined in the moral panic literature, and panic scholars drift from discussing emotion at the individual level, to the collective level, without attention to issues of scale. Several questions remain unanswered: How are emotions generated at the individual level? How are emotions experienced and shaped at the collective level? And how do emotions contribute to action (e.g., violence) as well as a sense of community? In what follows, we argue that emotions are best conceptualized as neither cause

nor effect, but rather immanent to a set of embodied symbolic interactions in situ. We explain how moral panic scholars would be better off empirically investigating what emotions do, how emotions align certain communities against others, and how emotions move people towards certain (sometimes violent) actions against others whose actions pose alleged harms. To understand how emotions work, moral panic scholars need to develop methodological strategies (some of which are available in the sociology of emotions) to comprehend interactions. Indeed, a criticism of current

moral panic scholarship is an over-reliance on media analysis, which does not allow for the kinds of research required to understand emotions in action during moral panics. The chapter is presented in three parts. We begin by briefly discussing some of the

limitations of the moral panic literature. Next, we discuss emotions in relation to media communication, to the idea of ‘disproportionality,’ and to crowds as per previous claims by moral panic scholars. We then offer an exegesis of three prominent theorists in the sociology of emotions: Randall Collins’ concept of interaction ritual chain, Jack Katz’s work on how emotions are shaped and experienced in interaction, and Sara Ahmed’s arguments about how emotions circulate in an affective economy.

Moral panic scholars rightly indicate that emotions are integrally involved in public reactions to particular cases of so-called deviance, but they provide neither analytical nor methodological resources to explain how emotions actually work. Irvine (2007) suggests that it is important to focus on how the emotions of a moral panic emerge in a particular space and time. Discussing panics that emerge concerning sexuality, she argues that the moral panic concept is stronger when attending ‘to how emotion weaves through structural, cultural, and political processes, as well as to how public settings produce collective feelings’ (p. 4). There needs to be some kind of focused action (e.g., a crowd gathering, a public march) for analysis of emotions at the group level (the level of politics) to be valuable. In a related vein, Critcher (2003: 143) argues that a ‘peculative notion of social

anxiety’ is found throughout moral panic scholarship. One example is Cohen’s (2002: xxix) argument that ‘discrete and volatile moral panics might indeed once have existed but they have now been replaced by a generalized moral stance, a permanent moral panic resting on a seamless web of social anxieties.’ A second example is Thompson’s (1998) argument that we are seeing a more rapid succession of moral panics. These assertions mirror broader claims concerning a supposed culture of fear that has gripped Western societies on a grand scale (Furedi 2002, this volume Chapter 6; Glassner 2000). How can we accept these claims if the connection between emotions and panic is so underdeveloped? Emotions are invoked in the moral panic literature as a way to connect concerns

sparked by media reporting with the hostility oriented towards folk devils and the consensus somehow generated in a unified public response. Emotions are also invoked in the idea of ‘volatility’ (the crescendo of moral panics), and the eruption of hostility that can result in outrage and confrontation (Hier 2008; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009). But to adequately incorporate the sociology of emotions into moral panic scholarship, researchers must be concerned with how panic happens in a corporeal manner and what emotions do during the process. The workings of emotion must be mapped if we are to comprehend the nature of moral panics in their full depths occurring over time. We need to ask: How do emotions work in the interactions between those involved in any moral panic and how do these emotions align some participants together and against others?