Deviancy Amplification and Moral Panics: Part 1

This – and two subsequent posts – looks critically at the concept of moral panic as both a component of deviance amplification and as how they are conceptualised by two different sociological perspectives.

This post (Part 1) introduces deviancy amplification and looks at interpretivist concepts of moral panic. Subsequent posts outline neo-Marxist perspectives (Part 2) and the critical concept of Amoral Panics through the work of Stuart Waiton (Part 3)

Deviancy amplification, according to Wilkins (1964), involves a positive feedback loop; initial or primary deviance is identified and condemned, in or by the media, and leads to the deviant group becoming socially isolated and resentful. This behaviour leads, through a general labelling process, to an increased social reaction by the media, politicians and formal control agencies (there is less toleration of deviant behaviour, for example) and this develops into secondary deviation involving an increased level of deviance. As a consequence the reaction from ‘the authorities’ increases, leading to new laws (the criminalisation of deviants) or increased police resources to deal with ‘the problem’. In this way each group – deviant and control – feeds off the actions of the other to create a ‘spiral of deviance’ – and moral panics are a crucial component of this spiral.

Moral panics

Cohen’s (1972) study of mods and rockers clarified the concept of a moral panic as a situation in which “A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. Interpretivist and neo-Marxist approaches, however, conceptualise this idea differently and this leads to different interpretations of the role of the media in the creation and development of such panics – a difference compounded by differences in how each approach understands media effects.

Interpretivist approaches see “societal values” as emerging from day-to-day interactions and experiences; people construct the social world in terms of a range of taken-for-granted ideas. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) argue interpretivists see moral panics arising from “anxiety in the grassroots of communities”. The role of the media, in complex modern societies, is to articulate public concerns; by representing groups that threaten social cohesion as “deviant” the media crystallises public concern as a conduit through which action can be taken by control agencies such as the police and courts.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda argue this approach sees moral panics as developing spontaneously out of a general public concern towards behaviour that threatens the moral order – and while Cohen suggests moral panics serve no particular interests, they function to reinforce generally established moral values in two ways; by setting moral boundaries for acceptable behaviour and as Thompson (1998) argues, to create “a greater sense of social and moral solidarity at a time of change and uncertainty”. The media, Kennedy (2010) suggests, “amplify public concern” rather than creating that concern in the first place.


For interpretivists, the key variable in understanding both deviancy amplification and moral panics is audience reaction. As McRobbie and Thornton (1995) argue, this approach sees audiences as “active and critical” consumers rather than passive recipients of media representations. In basic terms, if an audience, for whatever reason, chooses not to buy into a moral panic then a deviancy amplification spiral does not occur.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda, however, argue interpretivist approaches neglect the role of interest groups – such as the police – who, through their media connections, can bring particular issues to prominence to enhance their own influence and power. Hilgartner and Bosk (1988), for example, argue a range of “social problems” exist at any given time, each of which is potentially of great public concern and each of which may be ripe for moral panic. They argue those who “work in various public arenas attempt to surf on the shifting waves of social problems”. In other words, whether one form of behaviour or social group is targeted for action by the media depends on the ability of those occupying “middle levels of power” (police officers, politicians, civil servants…) to convince media outlets “a problem” exists – something they do to enhance their own power. Those associated with the resolution of a moral panic rise to prominence on the back of the issue’s rise.

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