Watch the film clip from the 1979 film Quadrophenia which tells the story of disturbances between
two subcultural groups of largely working class young people, the mods and rockers, at English
seaside resorts 1964 to 1966. As you can see the young people were divided into very clear-cut
‘we-groups’ and ‘they-groups’. Note below the distinctive characteristics of each group (clothes,
hair, transport.........). The images should help you.
We saw last lesson that the media may well generate crime themselves, for
example by transmitting knowledge of criminal techniques.
A further way they may generate crime and deviance is through labelling. As we
saw in our study of labelling theory moral entrepreneurs who disapprove of
some particular behaviour may use the media to put pressure on the authorities
to ‘do something about it’. If successful their campaign will result in the
negative labelling of the behaviour and perhaps a change in the law. And as we
have seen more laws and more labelling equals more crime.
An important element in this process is the creation of a moral panic – an
exaggerated over reaction by society to a perceived problem. This is usually
driven or inspired by the media. The social reaction amplifies the problem out
of all proportion to its real seriousness.
In a moral panic
- The media identify a groups a folk devil or threat to societal values
- The media present the group in a negative, stereotypical fashion and
exaggerate the scale of the problem
- Moral entrepreneurs, editors, politicians, police chiefs and other
‘respectable’ people condemn the group and its behaviour
This usually leads to calls for a ‘crackdown’ on the group. However it may well
create a self-fulfilling prophecy that amplifies the very problem that caused
the panic in the first place.
The most influential study of moral
panics and the role of the media in
generating crime is Stanley Cohen’s
(1972) book Folk Devils and Moral
In the spring of 1964 the ‘red top’ tabloid press featured headlines which suggested
that members of two rival youth groups (Mods and Rockers) were involved in
worrying and shocking violent disturbances at holiday resorts around the UK.
Mods were fashion-conscious youths identified by cropped hair and motor scooters,
often featuring bump bars, mirrors and lights. Rockers were long-haired, leatherjacketed motorbike gangs modelled on the American Hell's Angels.
19th May 1964: On a Margate street police stand between a group of 'Mods' on the left and 'Rockers' on the right. Battles between the two teenage gangs
had allegedly disturbed the Whitsun holiday on the south coast of England.
3rd August 1964: A group of Mods running along the beach at Hastings, Kent, during alleged violence between Mods and Rockers.
Stan Cohen wanted to dig deeper
and researched the social
reaction to the Mods versus
Rockers disturbances in 1964. In
his book Folk Devils and Moral
Panics (1972) he noted the front
page outrage in the national press
o all-day clashes
o Wild Ones
o rival gangs
o day of terror
o seaside mayhem
However Cohen in his research
could find little actual evidence that
such clashes between rival groups
of motorcycle-scooter gangs actually took place. The only violence he found witness
to involved regional rivalries not bike gangs. He argued that the press reports were
distorted, wildly exaggerated and portrayed a false picture of what actually went on.
Cohen argues identified 3 distinctive elements in the media reporting of events:
a)Exaggeration and distortion: numbers, damage caused, violence...
b)Prediction: that further conflict and violence was on the cards
c)Symbolisation: the symbols of the youth groups were all negatively labelled and
associated with deviance
However the media outrage SPARKED a series of interrelated responses:4
a)It aroused wider public concern
police increased surveillance
more arrests result
confirmed validity of initial press reports
b)The reported Mod/Rock antagonism advertised and encouraged young people to
opt for one camp or the other (created we-groups and they groups)
polarization cemented the image
more clashes elsewhere and more arrests resulted
confirmed validity of initial press reposts
c) New disturbances created even more news coverage
even more police surveillance
even more public concern
Wilkins termed this process a Deviancy Amplification Spiral
Less tolerance…………………………………leads to……….
more acts being defined as crimes…………leads to……….
more action against criminals……………….leads to……….
more alienation of deviants………………….leads to……….
more crime by deviant groups……………….leads to……….
less tolerance of deviant groups by conforming groups………
We saw in our work on LABELLING how youths can come to identify with the label
attached to them which may result in a status transformation – they may come to
believe they are actually deviant, and separate from mainstream society and act as
such (Self-Fulfilling Prophecy).
Cohen argued that groups for whatever reason could be singled out as Folk
devils (a threat to public order and social values) and as a result act out that
A02 Evaluation and Analysis
The Moral Panic Thesis is important because it helps us to explain media
exaggeration and distortion. It argues that selective reporting and police targeting
actually creates crime waves and social problems. The mass media stir or whip up
public indignation and engineer concern about certain behaviours even when there
may be nothing new about it, or when the real threat is minimal.
Cohen argued that we must always place Moral Panics in their wider sociohistorical context in order to understand them. For instance the Mods-Rockers
moral panic emerged in a time of rapid social change when young people, with
increased spending power and leisure time, had begun to use this to purchase
consumer goods (motor cycles, scooters, fashion accessories etc) and to travel.
To Cohen moral panics are the result of a boundary crisis – uncertainty of where
the boundary lay between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a time of
change. Public uncertainty about this new development was resolved by making
biker groups (real or created) scapegoats or folk devils, and who became visual
symbols of what is wrong with society.
Moral Panics may thus serve to divert and fix the public gaze on the symptoms not
cause of social unrest.
Moral panics thus reflect deep-seated public anxieties and uncertainties. They are
distinguished by 4 features:
Discrepancy of truth and depth of public perception and reaction
Focus around key social groups/themes/categories
feeds off/spirals with other concerns that are identified with it
develop into control crusades and/or law and order campaigns by moral
PERSPECTIVES – how have the perspectives understood moral panics?
See p123 for some useful small sections on Functionalist and Neo Marxist ideas:
a) Functionalists and Moral Panics
b) Neo-Marxists and Moral Panics
Criticisms of the idea of moral panics: