chapter  14
The unhealthy risk society: Health scares and the politics of moral panic
ByDaniel Béland
Pages 12

Moral panic studies has made strong contributions to sociological debates about the nature of fear and the politics of social problems in contemporary western societies (see, for example, Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009; Critcher 2003; Thompson 1998; Critcher 2009; Hier 2008; Ungar 2001; Furedi, Chapter 6 this volume; Best, Chapter 3 this volume). Debates regarding Ulrich Beck’s (1992) risk society thesis (i.e., a society in which technological and environmental risks are a major source of concern) have also impacted on the moral panic literature; scholars have argued over the enduring merit of the concept of moral panic in an era of acute environmental risk perceptions (Hier 2003; Ungar 2001 and Chapter 12 this volume). This chapter broadens the focus of debates about risk and panic by examining

health scares. Health scares are episodes of acute collective insecurity pertaining to health-related issues that erupt suddenly, are limited in their duration, and fade rather quickly. During health-scare episodes, alleged public health threats are constructed as major issues that require prudent individuals and responsible collective actors to manage risk. In such episodes, perceived health threats are the subject of constant media and political attention and speculation. Western citizens live longer and healthier lives, yet health scares continue to emerge from pervasive health concerns (Dalrymple 1998) and public awareness of environmental risks (Beck 2002). Although health scares are episodic in nature, some collective health anxieties last

longer than others. For instance, the fear of asbestos as a potential source of cancer has seemingly become a constant feature of popular health discourse. This does not mean that the intensity of collective insecurity pertaining to asbestos remains stable, however; media reports can continue to heighten the level of public concern. Importantly, analysing health scares does not involve any judgement about the ‘true’ or ‘false’ nature of the perceived health threats that actors both face and help to construct.

Moreover, only some health scares take the form of moralizing, sensational, exaggerated, and volatile political episodes known as moral panics. For instance, some health scares may not involve exaggerated media reports or the emergence of a moral discourse about the collective source of harm (i.e., blame assignment). Consequently, ‘health scare’ and ‘moral panic’ remain analytically distinct but empirically overlapping concepts. Still, the concept of moral panic is relevant to the study of contemporary health

scares largely because, in some cases at least, episodes of acute health anxieties directly intersect with moral regulation processes. Drawing on the work of Alan Hunt (1999, 2003), Sean Hier (2002b, 2008; for a critical discussion see Critcher 2009) has explained how moral panics are best conceptualized as amplified and volatile expressions of long-term moral regulation processes – regulation processes that entail ongoing configurations about risk and harm. Following Hier (2008), health scares are related to both moral regulation and risk perception. In fact, the frequent moralization of health scares backs Hier’s claim that moral panic remains ever present in the so-called ‘risk society’ (Hier 2003, 2008). Indeed, in some contexts health scares involve the construction of ‘folk devils’ that are deemed at least partially responsible for disease outbreaks and other prominent health problems. This is especially the case when diseases involve person-to-person contagion and when specific ethnic/social groups are targeted in media reports. The example of the Toronto 2003 SARS outbreaks will provide ground to these claims, and to the general idea that the moral panic framework can enrich the empirical study of contemporary health scares. The targeting of Chinese Canadians and other Asian minorities during this episode suggests that the concept of moral panic sheds light on the contemporary politics of health scares, which, like moral panic (Hier 2002a), often entail assigning blame in a context of acute risk awareness. Public health scares like the 2003 SARS outbreak can be classified as moral panics,

but not all health scares fit the moral panic framework. The analysis of the 1996 BSE episode provides grounds to support this claim. By reframing the BSE crisis in economic terms, British policy-makers helped direct public attention away from the ethical issues stemming from existing state regulations. Starting from the perspective that ‘blame avoidance’ (Weaver 1986) is a central aspect of moral panics (Hier 2002a), the 1996 BSE crisis shows how politicians helped to avoid a potential moral panic that could have targeted them in a sustained, moralizing way. The chapter is divided into three sections. In order to assess the relevance of the

concept of moral panic to the analysis of health scares, the first two sections explore the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 1996 BSE episode, respectively. While the first case stresses that the moral panic framework can improve our understanding of specific health-scare episodes, the second case is not about moral panic in the strict sense of the term. Thus, although the concept of moral panic is helpful for understanding some health scares, case-by-case empirical investigation is necessary to assess whether a particular health-scare episode constitutes a moral panic. Comparing these two cases directly, the final section offers general remarks about the applicability of the moral panic framework to the sociological analysis of health scares in contemporary societies.