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Cohen et al.: About media, violence and society


The sociologist Stanley Cohen and the cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall and his co-authors developed theories concerned in exploring what the media's function was in relation to anti- social …

The sociologist Stanley Cohen and the cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall and his co-authors developed theories concerned in exploring what the media's function was in relation to anti- social behaviors. Centered on the two approaches, this essay aims to explore similarities and differences between both studies looking at how social disorder is depicted in the different media’s sources.

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  • 1. THE  OPEN  UNVERSITY  UK_PHIL  VEIT  ©  ALL  RIGHTS  RESERVED                         Cohen  and  Hall  et  al.:  About  media,  violence  and  society     The  sociologist  Stanley  Cohen  and  the  cultural  studies  scholar  Stuart  Hall  and  his  co-­‐authors   developed  theories  concerned  in  exploring  what  the  media's  function  was  in  relation  to  anti-­‐ social  behaviors.  Centered  on  the  two  approaches,  this  essay  aims  to  explore  similarities  and   differences  between  both  studies  looking  at  how  social  disorder  is  depicted  in  the  different   media’s   sources.   It   starts   with   the   examination   of   the   common   grounds   between   the   theories,   exploring   their   main   concepts.   Second   part   follows   with   an   additional   similarity   between  both  works  with  the  revelation  of  the  'symbols'  used  by  the  media  when  spreading   purpose-­‐driven  messages  in  the  society.  Third  and  fourth  parts  are  about  different  methods   and  evidence  used  in  each  study  and  how  they  influenced  the  outcomes  of  the  theories.       By   the   early   1970's,   Stanley   Cohen   and   Stuart   Hall   with   his   co-­‐authors   studied   the   way   abnormal   conducts   of   certain   groups   of   individuals   were   being   explored   by   the   press.   The   concept   of   mediation   represents   the   in   which   information   was   spread   by   the   media   (the   means   of   mass   communication   like   TV,   Radio,   Magazines   and   Newspapers)   with   a   particular   way   of   communication   for   a   purpose.   In   this   sense,   the   mediation   of   violence   as   a   central   theme   was   a   similar   and   a   key   factor   in   both   theories.   Cohen   carried   out   a   case   study   suggesting   that   violent   acts   caused   by   groups   of   people   covered   in   the   media   were   often   overstated.   This   is   what   he   suggested   in   an   interview   to   the   sociologist   Laurie   Taylor   ('The   making   of   order   and   disorder',   2009,   track   1).   He   coined   the   term   'moral   panic'   in   a   clear   reference  to  the  result  of  the  way  in  which  the  media  covered  a  violent  event  that  we  will   analyze   in   the   next   session.   When   referring,   in   the   same   interview,   to   'the   way   people   reacted',   Cohen   argued   that   when   portraying   deviant   conducts   in   an   amplified   mode,   the   media  was  actually  fueling  a  sense  of  disorder  leading  to  irrational  fears.  This  helped  him  in   illustrating  what  he  believed  to  be  the  outcome  of  an  exaggerated  form  that  the  facts  were   presented  and  explored  by  the  media.  For  him,  the  media  used  dramatization  to  distinguish   'normal  people'  from  the  'deviants'.  But  the  process  of  moral  panic  did  not  end  there  –  the   media  depiction  forced  the  state  and  authorities  to  act  and,  because  they  needed  to  be  seen   to  be  doing  so,  this  was  an  over-­‐reaction.  This  then  confirmed  in  the  public  mind  that  their   initial  sense  of  panic  had  been  justified.  Similarly,  for  Hall  et  al.  the  media  played  a  crucial   role  in  creating  a  general  sense  of  crisis  in  the  UK  society  at  that  time.    The  work  'Policing  the   crisis'   (1978)   like   the   one   of   Cohen,   represented   their   view   that   violent   facts   involving   groups,  through   the  way   media  was   exploring   it   was   a   primary  cause  of  a  moral   panic,   being   1    
  • 2. THE  OPEN  UNVERSITY  UK_PHIL  VEIT  ©  ALL  RIGHTS  RESERVED       this   concept   in   the   center   of   their   theory.   Both   studies   were   developed   at   a   similar   time,   analyzing   the   influence   of   the   media   over   the   people,   concerned   with   how   violent   groups   became   defined   and   violence   amplified,   suggests   that   one   is   complementary   to   other.   But   it   can’t  be  ignored  here  the  point  that  the  media  merely  took  the  definitions  already  created   by   the   state   and   expanded   on   them.   This   actually   is   a   crucial   difference   between   the   two   approaches  as  with  Cohen’s  account,  it  is  the  media  that  defines  the  disorder  and  the  state   reacts  whereas  in  Hall  et  al’s  account  the  state  defines  the  disorder  and  the  media  amplify   and  extend  it.     A   remarkable   similarity   between   the   theories   relates   to   the   'symbols'   both   used.   In   'Folk   Devils   and   Moral   Panics'   (1973),   Cohen   presented   his   'main   actors'   who   helped   him   in   the   construction  of  the  concept  of  moral  panic:  They  were  two  rival  groups,  the  'mods'  with  their   scooters   and   the   'rockers'   with   their   motorbikes   who   had   their   images   associated   with   violence   in   the   media.   Cohen   called   'Folk   devils'   these   people   who   practiced   delinquency,   looking  at  a  specific  violent  event  in  an  UK's  seaside  towns  one  decade  early.  For  him,  the   cause   of   moral   panic   has   its   origins   in   the   high   dramatization   created   by   the   media   when   referencing  to  groups  like  these.  In  Kelly  and  Toynbee  (2009)  it  is  stated  that  when  exploring   the  image  of  the  'mods'  and  the  'rockers'  in  an  exacerbated  a  form,  the  media  was  actually   playing   the   role   of   a   fear-­‐creator   in   the   society.   One   piece   of   evidence   that   can   be   associate   with  Cohen's  concept  was  the  'Dangerous  Dogs  Act  of  1991  (Lodge  and  Hood,  cited  in  Kelly   and   Toynbee,   2009,   p.   355).   This   was   the   law   maker's   response   to   a   series   of   incidents   involving   dogs   attacking   people.   These   events   being   exhaustively   explored   by   the   media   were   an   important   driver   for   a   moral   panic   to   be   established,   as   the   text   suggests.   In   this   context,   particular   breeds   of   dogs   and   his   owners   are   recognized   as   'deviants',   or   the   folk   devils   of   Cohen's   concept.   Moreover,   this   also   works   to   reinforce   a   similar   term   used   by   Hall   et  al.  when  referring  to  a  group  involved  in  bad  conduct.  Their  folk  devils  in  cases  like  these   were  the  street  robbers,  named  as  'the  mugger's'.  The  term  marked  a  specific  group  of  black   and  young  people  (initially  identified  by  the  state)  but  regarded  in  the  media  as  dangerous   and   consequently   a   threat   to   safety   and   order   in   a   moment   of   tension   observed   in   British   society.  This  group  represented  the  view  of  Hall  and  his  colleagues  that  violence  has  its  roots   in  the  structure  of  the  society  as  we  will  observe  in  the  next  session.   Through  this  view  in  which  Hall  and  his  co-­‐authors  presented  a  new  folk  devil  -­‐  the  mugger's   -­‐   the   media   then   constructed   the   term   'mugging'   to   spot   an   established   crisis   in   the   most   powerful   sectors   of   the   society.   In   this   sense,     'Policing   the   crisis'   tries   to   put   violence   as   covered   by   the   media     in   a   wider   social   context,   looking   about   class   divisions   and   consequently   inequalities   in   society   (DD101,   Online   Activity   25).  This   suggests  that   Hall   et   al.   theory  offer  a  more  sophisticated  approach  in  analysing  the  media's  role  in  relation  to  anti-­‐ social   behaviours   than   that   from   Cohen   which   lacks   with   explanations   on   why   folk   devils   are   portrayed   in   the   media.   Having   his   theory   based   on   a   case   study   -­‐   that   one   of   the   mods   and   the   rockers   -­‐,   Cohen   did   not   offered   many   evidence   to   support   his   thoughts   about   the   2    
  • 3. THE  OPEN  UNVERSITY  UK_PHIL  VEIT  ©  ALL  RIGHTS  RESERVED       exactly  intentions  of  the  media  when  approaching  social  disorder.  On  the  other  hand,  Hall   and   his   colleagues   when   bringing   to   the   spot   the   power   of   the   state   and   its   influences,   proposes   that   the   interests   of   government   were   actually   being   attended   with   the   popularization   of   terms   presented   by   the   press.   In   this   context,   the   creation   of   a   sense   of   disorder   would   help   the   approval   of   initiatives   proposed   by   the   law   makers,   rather   than   force   them   into   action   as   Cohen   suggested   the   media   amplification   did.   One   example   of   what   could   be   the   result   of   a   game   of   interests,   which   would   work   in   benefit   of   political   spheres,   was   the   creation   of   the   ASBO.   The   Anti-­‐social   Behaviour   Orders   introduced   in   1998   to   tackle   minor   criminal   offenses   was   a   medium   used   by   the   British   state   to   change   the   population's   perception   about   the   violent   environment   presented   at   that   time.   Hall   and   colleagues  theory  would  then  be  well  supported  for  example  with  the  presentation  of  official   statistics   showing   a   considerable   decrease   on   the   level   of   crimes   years   after   the   implementation   of   the   ASBO.   And   this   was   what   happened   after   the   introduction   of   the   ASBO   with   the   British   Crime   Survey   (BCS):   the   total   number   of   crimes   reported   to   them   actually  decreased  from  19.4  million  in  1995  to  10.9  million  in  2005/6  (ONS,  2007,  cited  in   Kelly  and  Toynbee,  2009,  p.  388).  As  Hall  et  al.  theory  suggests,  such  scenario  would  then  be   used   in   favour   of   the   government   when   sending   a   message   to   the   society   that   they   successfully  attacked  the  issue  of  violence.       As  we  could  observe,  both  theories  used  different  ways  to  construct  an  argument  and  this   may   have   influenced   the   outcomes   of   their   work.   Cohen   has   failed   in   providing   a   wider   explanation   of   why   the   media   portrayed   his   'folk   devils'.   Moreover,   his   theory   did   not   consider  what  people  selected  from  the  media  when  assessing  information.  In  contrast,  the   theory   from   Hall   et   al.   offered   a   view   that   achieved   an   'extra-­‐mile'   when   adding   more   complex   social   components   to   their   work.   But   still   Hall   et   al.   theory   sounds   weaker   than   could  be:  Coincidently,  neither  did  they  pay  attention  to  the  way  means  of  information  had   been   selected   by   the   people   in   a   same   fault   seen   in   Cohen's   work.   In   a   clear   reference   to   an   OU  material  (DD101,  Online  Activity  25),  my  intention  to  include  this  point  is  not  to  criticize   this  or  that  theory  but  to  spot  that  besides  having  the  same  concern,  the  one  that  explores   the  role  of  the  media  in  relation  to  deviant  conducts,  both  theories  has  its  similarities  and   discrepancies   even   in   the   results   with   one   sounding   more   'straight   to   the   point'   but   weakening  the  arguments  with  a  limited  approach,  and  another  being  more  comprehensive   in  depth  but  not  in  width.       In  conclusion,  I  started  describing  my  view  about  the  similarities  of  both  theories  by  looking   at   what   originated   Cohen's   case   study   and   the   Hall   et   al.   analysis   of   the   media's   coverage   of   violence.  I  then  examined  what  I  called  'actors'  when  making  reference  to  the  figures  used   by   the   sociologists   and   blamed   by   the   media,   the   Cohen's   folk   devils   'mods   and   rockers'   and   Hall  et  al.  ones  called  'muggers'.  Finally,  the  third  and  fourth  parts  looked  at  similarities  of   3    
  • 4. THE  OPEN  UNVERSITY  UK_PHIL  VEIT  ©  ALL  RIGHTS  RESERVED       the   outcomes   in   each   of   the   theories   and   contrasted   the   works   by   exploring   Cohen's   limited   method   with   a   wider   exploration   of   Hall   et   al.   which   had   their   analysis   linked   to   the   government's  initiative  ASBO  and  quantitative  evidence.     References     'The  making  of  order  and  disorder'  (2009)  Making  Social  Lives  [Audio  CD  3],  Milton  Keynes,   The  Open  University.   Hall,   S.,   Critcher,   C.,   Jefferson,   T.,   Clarke,   J.   and   Roberts,   B.   (1978)   Policing   the   Crisis:   Mugging,  the  State,  and  Law  and  Order,  London  and  Basingstoke,  Macmillan.   Cohen,  S.  (1973)  Folk  Devils  and  Moral  Panics,  London,  Paladin.   Kelly,   B.   and   Toynbee,   J.   (2009)   'Making   disorder   on   the   street'   in   Taylor,   S.,   Hinchliffe,   S.,   Clarke,  J.  and  Bromley,  S.  (eds)  Making  Social  Lives,  Milton  Keynes,  The  Open  university.   Open   University   (2009)   DD101   Introducing   the   social   sciences,   'Online   Activity   25,   Constructing   a   social   science   argument:   Working   with   theories'   [online],  (Accessed  02  Feb  2013).     4