Moral Panics: Part 2

While Part 1 introduced deviancy amplification and looked at interpretivist concepts of moral panic, this post outlines an alternative, neo-Marxist, perspective on the latter. As such, it offers a corrective perspective on interpretivist approaches by focusing on the structural / hegemonic aspects of moral panics.

Neo-Marxist approaches examine moral panics across two dimensions; firstly, how and why they are created by powerful groups and, secondly, how they contribute to the maintenance of elite hegemony. As we’ve suggested, 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 or both the moral order and, by extension, elite claims to moral leadership and authority.

Moral panics, in this respect, 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 “black muggers”) 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: firstly, the surface reality of different types of deviance and secondly 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. Scapegoating performs two main functions: it distracts attention away from “real moral issues” (such as, for Marxists, large-scale social inequalities) and 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 position, 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 seems 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.

Part 3: Amoral Panics

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