chapter  1
Introduction: Bringing moral panic studies into focus
BySean P. Hier
Pages 16

Moral panic studies traces back to Jock Young’s (1971) analysis of the social meaning of drug taking and to Stanley Cohen’s (1972) canonical investigation of the construction of the Mods and Rockers. Significant developments took place through the 1970s and 1980s, focusing primarily on the role that claims makers, moral guardians, and the media play in the construction, amplification, and exaggeration of deviance. Critical revisions invigorated moral panic studies in the 1990s, and some of the most recent contributions have widened the conventional focus of research by incorporating advances in risk communications, discourse studies, cultural sociology, and moral regulation. Despite consistent interest in the concept of moral panic, debate about the purpose,

application, and scope of moral panic studies persists. For instance, scholars within and beyond the panic literature commonly conceptualize moral panics as exceptional rather than ordinary phenomena to explain seemingly irrational reactions to putative threats. Conceived of in this way, critics charge that panic researchers deploy vague explanatory criteria to speculate disapprovingly about the underlying causes of random (even trivial) claims-making episodes. A small number of critical assessments of moral panic studies has started to demonstrate how moral panics are properly conceptualized as rational and routine forms of social action and how moral panic studies can contribute to and benefit from broader scholarship concerned with regulation, deviance, civilizing processes, and social control (e.g., Rohloff and Wright 2010; Hier 2008; Critcher 2009; Rohloff 2008; and see Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009). Efforts to widen the conventional focus of research are gaining momentum, but moral panic studies remains divided among varying analytical orientations. With some simplification, three analytical orientations characterize the moral panic

literature: conventional, skeptical, and revisionist. Conventional analyses (the primary source of criticism for external observers) are based on selective readings of Cohen’s original work and Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s (1994, 2009) summary statement.

Regardless of the complexity of argumentation found in these studies (see below), the aim of empirically informed conventional analyses is to show how various social problems frames qualify as moral panics by applying Cohen’s stages or testing Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s five crucial indicators of panic (e.g., Rothe and Muzzatti 2004; Welch, Price, and Yankey 2002; Doyle and LaCombe 2000; Victor 1998). By contrast, skeptical analyses tend to rely on selective readings of conventional

models as a source of criticism to dismiss the explanatory power of moral panic. They do so by pointing to so-called amoral phenomena (e.g., assumed real-world, tangible threats) to qualify the explanatory power of moral panic or by arguing that specific responses to putative concerns are proportional and rational responses to empirically verifiable threats (e.g., Waiton 2008; Cornwell and Linders 2002; and see Ungar 2001 and Waddington 1986). Both skeptical and conventional orientations focus on a more or less agreed upon set of theoretical, methodological, and conceptual parameters that were institutionalized between 1972 and 1994; they rarely engage analytically with (or even acknowledge) studies that fall outside the conventional scope of analysis. Revisionists approach moral panic studies in a different manner. Although revisionists

recognize the continuing significance of conventional approaches (and endorse some of the insights offered by skeptics), they nevertheless seek to rethink (McRobbie and Thornton 1995; Hier 2003), reappraise (deYoung 1998; Thompson 1998; Critcher 2003), think beyond (Hier 2002a, 2002b, 2008), or widen the focus (Rohloff and Wright 2010; Critcher 2009) of conventional analyses. Revisionists simultaneously retain many of the defining components of conventional analyses and strive to link panic episodes to broader explanatory models in the sociologies of deviance, regulation, culture, and control. They do so to address persistent limitations with applications of conventional approaches and to enhance the analytical purchase of moral panic studies beyond a relatively narrow range of concerns in the sociology of culture. The project of revising moral panic studies by widening the focus of research traces to the 1980s (e.g., Ben-Yehuda 1986, 1985), yet what is unique about the resurgence of revisionist efforts is the cumulative and interactive debate that is starting to take hold. As a contribution to the ongoing project of revising moral panic studies, the aim of

this collection is twofold. The first aim is to critically assess theoretical, conceptual, and methodological debates among panic scholars, past and present, to bring the purpose and scope of moral panic studies into focus. Although revisionists are beginning to move beyond the limitations of conventional analyses, disagreement remains about the substantive scope and conceptual parameters of moral panic studies (see, for example, Rohloff and Wright 2010; Critcher 2009; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009; Rohloff 2008). One reason why moral panic studies lacks clear focus concerns the popular use of

the moral panic concept among journalists and politicians (Altheide 2008; McRobbie and Thornton 1995; Hunt 1997). Sociologists no longer enjoy exclusive control over how moral panic is applied and the concept is indiscriminately used for a broad range of purposes (far beyond social control processes). A second, related reason concerns

expanding applications of moral panic to phenomena not traditionally associated with moral panic studies (Critcher 2009). As moral panic is applied to an expanding number of unfamiliar issues (inside and outside moral panic studies), problems with the analytical boundaries and political underpinnings of moral panic studies emerge. The chapters in the volume critically assess the strengths and limitations of conventional, skeptical, and revisionist approaches across a range of theoretical and empirical fields in a collective effort to bring the politics and analytical parameters of moral panic studies into focus. An integral part of bringing moral panic studies into focus involves widening the

focus by examining how moral panic contributes to and benefits from analytical advances in broader areas of inquiry – the second aim. Moral panics do not take place in a cultural vacuum. One of the main limitations of moral panic studies has been narrowing the focus of research to examine the short-term dynamics involved in episodes of ‘deviance amplification.’ This narrowing trend lends itself to conceptualization of moral panic as a heuristic device (Rohloff and Wright 2010) to rhetorically explain phenomena ranging from Satanism (Best 2003) and tabloid journalism (Eide and Knight 1999) to crime control (Innes 2004) and contemporary surveillance practices (Lyon 2003). The volume brings panic researchers into dialogue with scholars not commonly associated with moral panic studies to examine possibilities for how moral panic can benefit from and contribute to the sociologies of social problems, moral regulation, culture, and law, as well as the sociologies of emotion, health, fear, and environment. The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the shifting focus of moral

panic studies. The purpose of the overview is to flesh out general trends in moral panic studies and to clarify the status of past and present research. I explain how the focus of moral panic studies increasingly narrowed between 1972 and 1994 and how recent efforts to widen the focus of research are simultaneously reconnecting with many of the original intentions of moral panic studies and drawing from broader trends in social and cultural theory.