Stanley Cohen’s Concept of a Moral Panic

Stanley Cohen’s Concept of a Moral Panic

Introduction
Stanley Cohen has become famous due to his brilliant works on sociology, criminology and human rights. His talent allowed him to depict human fears and concerns, conflicts between different social groups and human sufferings which resulted from these conflicts. Stanley Cohen’s career started to move in the upward direction with the publication of his first serious research in 1972. The book called “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” was devoted to the issues relevant to the British society in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Exactly in this book he introduced for the first time such a term as “moral panic”, which became rather widely used since then. The author of the book concentrated his attention on the rivalry of the two British “gangs” residing in Liverpool. Stanley Cohen analysed the ideology and behavior of both groups as well as the role of mass media in raising the conflict between them.
The main goal of the current study is to speak about the concept of “moral panic” which was introduced by Stanley Cohen in his studies. The paper will also focus on the conflict between the Mods and Rockers which occurred at the early 1960’s in Great Britain.
Stanley Cohen’s Concept of a Moral Panic
As it has been stated above it was Stanley Cohen who brought the concept of moral panic in the common usage. Before analyzing the term “moral panic” it is necessary to give a clear definition of it. A moral panic is kind of attitude or reaction of the society towards certain social groups or sub-cultures, which is based on ideas and beliefs that the given groups are very dangerous to the society. Thus, such groups are perceived as the major threat to the culture and social values, health and well-being of the people. According to Stanley Cohen, “societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic” [2], this means that a moral panic is not something extraordinary and extremely dangerous. When such a phenomenon as moral panic appears in the society, “person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people [2]. Exactly mass media and other institutions which directly deal with people, their opinions and views, which they extensively influence, create moral panics in the society. Being one of characteristic features of every society moral panics can be insignificant and have very little impact on society; however, they can also be rather serious and last during long periods of time and “might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself” [2]. The following factors characterize most fully the concept of moral panic: “a level of interest totally out of proportion to the real importance of the subject, some individuals building personal careers from the pursuit and magnification of the issue, and the replacement of reasoned debate with witchhunts and hysteria” [4]. Having exaggerated the issues mass media creates panics in the society by attracting its attention to the problems which not deserve so much attention and especially panic. Behaviour of young people is considered to be the most common theme of moral panics. However, not only groups of young people provoke moral panics in the society. A number of issues “ranging from crime and the activities of youth, to drugs and sexual freedom, each considered a threat to the moral fibre of society at that particular time- today is no exception” [3].
Speaking about the groups of youth being a subject of moral panics, it is necessary to emphasize the fact that very often young people are labelled as dangerous or deviant just because they behave differently as compared to other people. In some cases such behaviour is totally unacceptable, because it is associated with drug and alcohol usage or violence, while in other cases young people are just listening to a particular kind of music or follow special fashion in clothes. In any case they will be labelled as deviant. Stanley Cohen’s book “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” was devoted to “youthful delinquencies and vandalism” [6]. He studied the phenomenon which occurred in the English society in the 1960s which received the name of “The Mods and Rockers”. These two groups of youth were the first one to appear after the so-called “teddy boys”. However, Cohen does not accuse either Mods or Rockers or the conflict between them of being responsible for the moral panic. Instead he states that it was mass media, which assisted greatly in developing the conflict between young people. Thus, “the core idea of the book is that interventions - usually in the name of benevolence or “doing good” - can sometimes actually make situations worse not better” [6].
The peaceful life of the English society of the 1960s was struck by the clashes between the Mods and Rockers. Both Mods and Rockers were called “gangs”, which is a “structure sharing the same ideas, attachments and solidarity” [7]. Every gang usually has its own “interests, activities, membership, and status” [7]. Usually such groups appear spontaneously. Both gangs - Mods and Rockers - “represented opposite tastes with regard to a number of social conventions such as clothing, grooming, music, and so on” [7]. For example, the Mods (modernists) preferred to wear suits and pointed shoes, listen to Jazz and Rhythm & Blues style of music and ride scooters. In their turn, the Rockers used to wear back leather jackets, jeans and boots. They listened to Rock and Roll and rode motorcycles and used no drugs or alcohol. Both groups developed in Liverpool, England. Obvious the Mods and Rockers had very little in common, thus, the conflict of interests between them was inevitable. However, it was not that serious as it was made by the mass media, which developed mass hysteria in the society. The Mods and Rockers were “stylized and stereotyped” [2] by the mass media. When both gangs grew in numbers and became well-known, mass media felt the duty to report on their activities; by doing this mass media helped the Mods and Rockers develop a bad reputation, while the majority of their acts were exaggerated. However, the society did not wish to investigate the situation and preferred to believe to what was announced in the press. The moral panic began. People started to treat the Mods and Rockers as dangerous criminals, when indeed the only deviant acts of them were that they slept on the beach or rode very fast on their scooters or motorcycles. The attitude of the society and mass media towards Mods and Rockers only angered them and even worsened the conflict. Stanley Cohen made an analogy between the conflict of the Mods and Rockers and the natural disaster. He stated that the reaction toward the Mods and Rockers consisted of two elements. The first element was the “tendency for the warning system to become more complicated and formalized and to start earlier” [2]. And the second element was “the increasingly unreal and ritualistic nature of the system as evidenced by the number of false alarms and warning out of proportion to the imminent threat” [2]. All attributes of moral panic became evident. People were afraid of the members of Mods and Rockers; they though that their behaviour was dangerous and absolutely immoral; they wanted to eliminate this phenomenon and only after eliminating it people would be able to feel safe again.
Cohen’s concept of a moral panic is rather effective at describing the increase of fear of future crimes and their perpetrators in the society. Despite of the fact that very often moral panic is artificially created by the mass media, politicians or church, it has a significant impact on the society as a whole. People feel constant fear and anxiety, they are afraid to walk in the streets or have their children walking by themselves, because somewhere in the city there is a group of young people sharing common preferences in music, whose interests and beliefs may contradict the views and ideas of the society. Mass media is responsible for “selecting out deviant groups, creating folk devils and engendering moral panics” [5]. The creation of moral panics is very similar to labelling. People or groups of people are labelled to be deviant, without hardly any right for justification.
Conclusion
Having spoken about moral panic in Liverpool in the 1960s and the attitude of Stanley Cohen towards the Mods and Rockers it is necessary to make a conclusion. Groups of young people who share common interests will continue to exist, and their ideologies will continue to contradict with the ideology of the society. However, this is not a cause of extensive moral panic in the society. If somebody does something in a different way or is listening to a different kind of music, it does not necessarily mean that this person is deviant. In my opinion, moral panic is a useful term to describe an attitude of the society, however, as a phenomenon which might characterise a state of the society at a certain period of time it is absolutely useless. People don’t have to panic when there is no need to.

Bibliography
1. Barak, G. (1994). Between the Waves: Mass-Mediated Themes of Crime and Justice. Social Justice, Vol. 21.
2. Cohen, S. (2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: Routledge.
3. Sands, L. (1998). Moral Panics. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/lcs9603.html
4. Wilkins, J. (1997). Protecting Our Children from Internet Smut: Moral Duty or Moral Panic? The Humanist, Vol. 57.
5. Young, J. Breaking Windows: Situating the New Criminology. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from www.malcolmread.co.uk/JockYoung/breaking_windows.pdf
6. Degree Congregations in 2003: Orations and Responses. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from www.essex.ac.uk/vc/orate2003/stanley-cohen-oration.shtm
7. The Mods and Rockers: Introduction and History. Retrieved March 4, 2007 from http://www.stthomasu.ca/~pmccorm/modsandrockers1.ht