chapter  2
Grounding and defending the sociology of moral panic
ByErich Goode, Nachman Ben-Yehuda
Pages 17

The moral panic concept is a whopping academic success. With each decade, the number of books, media stories, and academic journal articles on moral panic substantially increases. It is ‘safe to say,’ one observer declares, that moral panic ‘has been far and away the most influential sociological concept to have been generated in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Ditton 2007: 1). In fact, moral panic is so useful that if Stanley Cohen hadn’t devised the term, ‘it would have been necessary for someone else to invent it’ (Garland 2008: 9). Although the media and segments of the literate public find moral panic’s rhetoric

and irony deliciously alluring, the concept has stirred controversy among sociologists. Sociologists working outside the moral panic literature find the concept irksome when they try to situate it squarely in existing explanatory frameworks in the sociology of social problems, of deviance, and of collective behavior. Even among sociologists writing about moral panic, not all agree on appropriate analytical parameters. The uneasiness characterizing the application of moral panic consequently leads analysts to embrace only certain explanatory components in the existing literature or to dismiss it as a value-laden political attribute employed to denounce certain forms of social action. In this chapter, we ground the sociology of moral panic in the broader literature

on social problems. We argue that the conceptual terrain of moral panic is sufficiently open ended to encompass competing analytical approaches in the sociology of social problems; its utility as a key sociological concept is found in its flexible application. Moral panic represents a special kind of social problem that is empirically connected to but analytically distinct from processes of social problems construction. By grounding moral panic in the problems literature, we are able to better explain the foundations of moral panic and to defend the concept against criticism – both internal and external to the literature. We explain how panics are best situated in a contextual constructionist framework that enables us to simultaneously address conditions and

definitions, and to empirically examine the criteria of disproportional and exaggerated representations to putative moral threats. The chapter is presented in four parts. We begin by conceptualizing moral panic

and by demarcating material from moral threats. We differentiate material (i.e., physical) from moral threats and, in the second section, conceptualize moral panic in terms of ongoing debates in the sociology of social problems. We do so to ground moral panic in a broader analytical field of research to show how moral panic analyses simultaneously entail examining definitions and conditions and to better position ourselves to respond to criticisms that flow from the problems literature. The third section addresses three central criticisms of moral panic, and the final section distinguishes between two analytical models of panic. We conclude by arguing that moral panics are rational, routine features of social order and that the flexibility of the moral panic concept enables a fuller explanation of volatile episodes of claims-making activity, where real threats are exaggerated in a disproportionate manner.