Deviancy Amplification: Some Notes

I’ve been editing and updating a piece on Media Effects and decided the section on deviancy application didn’t really fit into what I was trying to do.

Loathe to completely scrap anything at all I’ve ever written, I thought someone might be able to find some use for it as a standalone piece on deviancy amplification.

So here it is.

Make of it what you will.

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 proceeds, 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 a crucial component of this spiral is a moral panic.

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 “the concept of a moral panic”. 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:

1. By setting moral boundaries for acceptable behaviour.

2. 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, through their media connections, or the mass media itself – 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 or not 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.

Neo-Marxist approaches examine moral panics across two dimensions:

1. How and why they are created by powerful groups.

2. How they contribute to the maintenance of elite hegemony. In this respect elites in contemporary capitalist societies maintain their power through hegemonic control; the ability to co-opt the support and cooperation of other social classes in defence of both the moral order and, by extension, elite claims to moral leadership and authority.

Moral panics, in this approach are understood as political phenomena; the defence of a certain type of moral order – one defined by a ruling class but shared, to varying extents, throughout society. From this viewpoint they are an important mechanism through which elites engineer consent for control by focusing the full force of moral condemnation on some form of moral threat. While moral panics are, in some senses, manufactured, this doesn’t mean they are necessarily deliberately created by elites. At various times capitalist societies offer up opportunities for moral panics and the idea of manufacturing consent refers to how elites take advantage of these opportunities to crackdown on those who threaten the moral order.

For Hall et al (1978) opportunities for moral panics occur at times of economic, political and ideological crises in capitalist society; their function is to distract public attention from the real causes of such crises by generating panics around groups and behaviours that create easily identifiable scapegoats (folk devils like “immigrants”) who, being relatively powerless, can be subjected to physical control on a tide of “public moral indignation”.

This type of crisis is arguably rare however and a more mundane explanation for moral panics is that they represent periodic attempts to establish moral order by taking action against those who challenge it. In relation to deviancy amplification, for example, this operates on two levels:

1. The surface reality of different types of deviance.

2. The deeper reality of promoting a particular kind of moral order.

The two are, of course, deeply entwined. To protect and enhance the latter, folk devils must be identified – ideally those who are relatively powerless and are not structurally-positioned to challenge the labelling process. In situations where relatively powerful groups are exposed for their deviant behaviour – police officers or journalists being simple examples – it becomes highly-likely that such deviance is individualised in the media. That is, while deviant behaviour is exposed and condemned (and important and integral part of hegemonic control) it is presented and rationalised as the fault of “deviant individuals” rather than “deviant groups”.

The 2011 “UK media hacking scandal”, for example, in which newspapers such as The Sun and News of the World were shown to have systematically hacked the mobile phones of large numbers of prominent celebrities as a way of stealing information that could then be used as the basis for stories about them, resulted in a few individual journalists (“the scapegoats”) going to jail. The organisation that employed, encouraged and condoned this illegal behaviour were left largely untouched.

In this respect scapegoating performs two main functions:

1. It distracts attention away from “real moral issues” (such as, for Marxists, large-scale social inequalities).

2. By allowing the full force of control agencies to be directed at moral deviants the public is both co-opted and warned – behaviour that challenges the existing moral order will be met with force.

From this perspective, moral panics are a trigger for increased surveillance and control of subject populations – with the added bonus of the active and willing consent and cooperation of those being controlled. The lower classes, in other words, actively contribute to their own subjugation. Rather than being a cause of moral panics, deviancy amplification is a by-product that fits the wider picture; where the object of moral panics is conventionally seen as deviants, for neo-Marxists the real object of control is the population as a whole

Moral panics allow control agencies to control those who support action being taken against deviants; each panic ratchets control up a notch until a situation is reached where, ultimately, public surveillance and control is an integral part of everyday life that is both welcomed and accepted as part of the price to be paid for “public safety” – which, for neo-Marxists, means “the interests of powerful elites”.

This interpretation has been subject to a range of criticism, based particularly around the claim that moral panics are in some way engineered as part of the general process of control in capitalist society. Watney (1987), for example, suggests it is unclear what actually triggers moral panics – why, for example, some types of disorder seem to create panics, while others do not. Similarly, Miller and Reilly (1994) point out the problem of understanding how and why moral panics ever end.

These ideas relate to a more general methodological criticism of the type of analysis put forward by Hall et al. In common with most sociological explanations, the meaning of events can only be explained after (a priori) they have occurred. However, a major problem with moral panics is that we have no clear, consistent, definition against which to decide whether they have occurred and, more importantly, why they occurred. The problem here is that a lack of clear definition means some events can be defined as moral panics if they fit the explanatory model, while others can be ignored if they don’t.

Waiton (2008), however, suggests a more fundamental criticism; moral panics are increasingly rare because there is no-longer a clear and coherent sense of moral order to protect – something he attributes to “a collapse in the ‘faiths’ of the right and left, that cohered society in the past”. If there is no clear sense of a moral order, just a number of competing moral interpretations, there can be no sense of moral panics being engineered.

This doesn’t mean panics no-longer occur, merely that their quality is amoral “a form of moralising without any wider system of meaning”. In other words, while panics have a moral dimension – they involve ideas about what is good or bad – they are not specifically related to any sense of an overarching moral order.

And, for this reason if no other, Waiton – in common with many others – sees the concept of a moral panic as one that has largely outlived its use in late modernity.

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