Moral Panics


By Mark Smith

Date Posted: December 15th 2012 2012

Mark Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Work at the University of Edinburgh. Before that he was for many years a teacher and a residential child care worker. He is the author of ‘Re-thinking Residential Child Care : Positive perspectives’ published by Policy Press and he is a widely published author of essays, papers and articles.


Last summer two colleagues and myself, here at the University of Edinburgh, each of us with interests in different child abuse ‘scares’ got together to write about these. The collaboration resulted in three jointly authored journal articles, now published. One of these draws connections between the current day hype over child exploitation and trafficking and an earlier scare in the Victorian period, another looks at child protection more generally, and the third considers abuse in residential child care. Each of the ‘scares’ we wrote about shared the common features in that the subject matter became the focus of moral evaluation. Once a subject is so moralized, responses to it begin to lose any sense of proportion. In the right (or wrong) circumstances and given the presence of the right (or wrong) people or organisations an air of panic can ensue.

The notion of moral panic seemed to offer a useful analytic lens through which to consider our respective writing interests. The term is not a new one; it came to prominence in the 1972 with the publication of Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which analysed reactions to outbreaks of fighting among mods and rockers on Brighton Beach during the 1960s. A number of prominent academics subsequently applied the concept of moral panic to a range of social issues.

Bearing in mind the utility of applying a moral panic framework across a range of issues we set about gauging interest from other disciplines in the University and, indeed, in universities across the United Kingdom. There was obvious interest, the result of which was a bid to the Economic and Social Research Council to hold a seminar series around the theme of ‘Revisiting moral panics: a critical examination of 21st century social issues and anxieties’. The bid was led by Professor Viv Cree at the University of Edinburgh and involved six universities, nine academic disciplines and sixteen academic staff drawn from the four countries of the United Kingdom. The proposal was to hold three seminars around the themes of ‘Moral panics and the family’, ‘Moral panics with children and youth’ and ‘Moral panics and the state’ to be held in Edinburgh, Bath and Cardiff respectively.

The first seminar, attended by around 70 people, was held in Edinburgh last Friday November 23rd, 2012. Stan Cohen was too ill to attend the seminar but sent his best wishes. In his absence we attracted the next wave of moral panic scholars, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda who together wrote the book, Moral Panics: The social construction of deviance and Chas Critcher, who was one of a group of sociologists to use the concept in relation to law and order and subsequently the media. The field of international experts was completed by Angela McRobbie, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths University.

Little did we know when we applied to hold the seminar series that the first planned seminar would coincide with the United Kingdom being engulfed in its latest moral panic over the Jimmy Savile affair. This added a particular resonance and currency to the subject. The Savile affair highlights a number of features of moral panics. It would seem to have some basis in behaviour that should not have been considered acceptable at any point in time. So, it’s not that there is nothing behind the story; there invariably is a legitimate kernel of concern at the core of any panic. It is just that this gets blown out of proportion. And, the resultant moral panic distorts debate; it makes it hard to proffer alternative and perhaps more productive points of view, lest we become identified as deniers or apologists for such behaviours.

An interesting observation is that, contrary to what we might imagine, moral panics are not the preserve of the untutored mob. They are invariably initiated and stoked by the establishment and by supposedly intelligent individuals who would baulk at any suggestion that they were caught up in a web of irrationality. Witness some of the journalists who are at the centre of the Savile case. Witness the claims made about the levels of child exploitation in the recent report by the English Children’s Commissioner, on the basis of some extremely scanty evidence. The complicity of the establishment highlights another of the distortions brought about by moral panic; it leads us to take some things too seriously and others not seriously enough. So, the focus on Jimmy Savile’s alleged crimes takes our eye of the ball of what is happening to welfare benefits, the result of which will cast thousands of families and children into abject poverty. This is the big issue that we should really be concerned with on behalf of children. It may, of course, suit some powerful interests that our gaze is deflected towards the salacious behaviour of dead celebrities.

If you want to engage in the debate join us at our subsequent seminars in Bath in May 2013 and Cardiff in November 2013.

Here are the articles I mentioned above:

Clapton, G., Cree, V., and Smith, M. (2012) ‘Moral Panics and Social Work: towards a sceptical view of UK child protection’ in Critical Social Policy Issue 33 (1)

Cree, V., Clapton, G., and Smith, M. (2012) ‘The Presentation of Child Trafficking in the UK: An Old and New Moral Panic?’ in the British Journal of Social Work

Smith, M. Cree, V and Clapton, G. (2012) ‘Time to be Heard: Interrogating the Scottish Government’s response to historical child abuse’ in Scottish Affairs No 78 Winter 2011 pp 1-24