The mass media has long been represented as of paramount importance in controlling social norms and accepted moral behaviour. In his cornerstone text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen united both sociological and criminological discourse and provided theorists with foundational developments in the field of labelling theory. Within this text Cohen examines how the media reacts to incidents of crime, and the methods the media undertake in their reporting of crime, and how these reports effect public perceptions of crime.
While Cohen is preceded by the work of Howard Becker, and most notably Charles Cooley in regard to the introduction of labelling theory, there can be no doubt that Folk Devils and Moral Panics provide a well-structured and continuously relevant study of deviance. As mentioned in the title of his text Cohen centres his study on the occurrence of moral panics, where, ‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interest’. A moral panic can become all encompassing if a strong relationship between society and the mass media is formed.
In order for a societal concern to swell, the media must communicate these concerns, effectively transferring the issue into different areas both geographically and socially. Therefore, the media find opportunities to raise awareness, and the importance of a single issue. A crime that is relatively minor or isolated in frequency, such as a case of benefit fraud in Masterton shifts from becoming a factual small story to gripping the nation in panic as it graces the cover of a monthly magazine. The incident, that simply occurred as an isolated event in a small town has become a national issue just by the techniques applied by the media.
Cohen states that each society has a different set of morals and values relating to deviancy and that the media, aware of these differences commissions specific information, and presents in a processed state, already judging events to correlate with the viewpoint of society. The second aspect that Cohen develops within Folk Devils and Moral Panics is based on labelling theory, a theory that has been recently explored by John Braithwaite’s work into shaming processes and issues regarding the reintegration of offenders into society.
The integral stage of Cohen’s seven-part sequence to a deviant disaster is the reaction stage, an issue that was grossly ignored preceding this text. Reaction, comprising of both attitudes and opinion in a social or formal, for example, legislative, level impacts greatly in labelling theory, the focus of primary and secondary deviance events that formulated with the work of Howard Becker. Labelling theory ascertains that once an offender has become processed within the judicial system, and has become branded as a deviant, the likelihood of re-offending is great.
According to Becker this is due to the offender acting in a self-prophesising manner. If they have been labelled a deviant, why should their behaviour disprove their reputation? The media contributes to social reaction by exaggerating and distorting events, or even going as far as to predict deviant behaviour will occur ahead of an event. According to Cohen, the media also use symbolisation to create an opinion within tone and use of metaphoric language.
For example, the isolated event in Clacton, 1964 where a dispute between a group of Mods and Rockers eventuated into every youth scuffle nation-wide being termed ‘a Clacton’. This single event that was widely discussed in the media created a moral panic and turned Mods and Rockers into overnight folk devils, that is identified a group as deviant and created the illusion that anyone that fit the description of identifying with the group was deviant. In order to illustrate his theory Cohen consistently refers to a single case study based around conflict between a group of Mods and Rockers in Clacton.
The event took place in 1964, in conservative Britain, and the resulting uproar from both society and the press vindicated these groups, labelling them deviant and created the illusion of folk devil status. With the increased attention of this issue, that is youth deviancy, came a sharp increase in the targeting and policing of similar groups. In a cyclical model Cohen explains that one incident snowballed into a nation-wide focus of youth deviancy.
Youths began reacting according to the foundations of labelling theory, that is self-prophesising their own deviancy, and this behaviour was supplemented by police expecting deviancy, and therefore targeting deviant youths. Cohen describes this model as a deviancy amplification spiral. Instead of focussing on the actors of this conflict, that is analysing the psychological or social reasons for the Mods and Rockers deviancy, Cohen states that he will focus on the audience, and therefore, the reaction of society to these types of events.
In this regard Cohen structures his text into classic textbook format using theory and terminology to guide the reader as the story unfolds. Cohen uses a seven-stage sequence of events following a disaster as the themes for each chapter, delving into the reactive rescue and remedy phases with great abandon. It is within this chapter that Cohen expresses just how strong and dangerous public opinion and attitudes can be in relation to the self-image of individuals and groups.
Within this chapter Cohen details the shift from mere opinion to legislative power, where society shifted from simply expressing what they thought of the Mods and Rockers, to what they thought should happen to the Mods and Rockers. In this context Cohen utilises three categories – Sensitisation, Societal Control Culture, and Exploitation – to convey the coverage of this event and the resulting actions of formal authorities, such as the police and court systems, and how the moral panic surrounding the events at Clacton swayed these judgements.
Within the literature on Sensitisation issues, Cohen analyses his deviancy amplification model in even greater detail. He explains that through greater targeting and arrests the public began to suspect a crime wave of deviancy, this creates a sense of sensitivity and nervousness by the public. Greater fear can circumstance and eventuate into the conclusion that ‘something must be done’. This in turn amplifies the issue and creates a whole new cycle. Cohen notes that the media play an intrinsic part in this model, as it is the media that publicly label and convey morality and opinions and attitudes to society.
Societal control culture is based upon remedy techniques for control bodies, some formal and some informal, to use within their procedures. These include diffusion of issues, for example turning youths away from trouble spots so deviancy does not have a chance to formulate; Escalation, where control agents can legitimise the nature of control by creating the illusion that the problem cannot be ignored; and finally by Innovation, for example banning clothing and haircuts that resemble Mod culture, banning the assembly of large groups of youths, and implementing curfews.
It is within this chapter that Cohen truly expresses the power that moral panics can wield. Cohen has kept Folk Devils and Moral Panics fresh and relevant throughout the decades by updating his work as each new edition is printed. Where the introduction to the second edition deals with an update of the primary actors themselves, the Mods and Rockers, the deviant youths Cohen’s introduction to the third edition is far more viable and relevant as it updates the reader in the issue itself, the moral panic. Cohen offers case studies in current panics that are gripping Britain, from refugee asylums to single mothers.
Cohen offers new analyses for each situation and relates these to media reactions on each issue. It is these additions that show how truly relevant the issue of moral panics and labelling theory are. While Cohen illustrates these new social issues all of his established theory can be applied. Cohen proves that a moral panic will follow a similar formula each time a new crisis develops, the only variables are who is vindicated and how they are vindicated. But it is at this point where Cohen should begin to fully embrace the issues surrounding moral panics.
Although the text does touch on these issues briefly in Cohen’s paragraph on volatility, and again to a stronger degree in the introduction to the second edition, Cohen has the opportunity to shift focus from the audience and onto the actors themselves. Labelling theory is not simply centred on society, it is also centred on the deviant individual. Whilst this critique is not intended for Cohen to delve into the realms of sociological positivism, it would be interesting to contrast Cohen’s interpretations of labelling theory with a broader range of Marxist criminology literature.
The fact that Cohen bases the majority of his primary argument on the isolated incident in Clacton can draw simultaneous criticism and praise. By focussing on a single issue, or event, Cohen is able to provide an in depth and stable account. All the chapters naturally flow and it is this continuity that propels Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen can simply not contradict himself. Yet, in the opposite vein, if only one issue is taken into account then only one conclusion can be drawn.
Cohen rests his analysis in the incidents when surveys and media accounts prove his theory, but not a lot of attention is paid to contrary information. Despite small reservations in regard to this issue Cohen does not appear to be writing with intentional bias, although the text has obviously fallen victim to this critique in an academic sense. Cohen appears to denounce such comments with a subtle disclaimer in his introduction to the third edition. Here Cohen rebuts claims that Folk Devils and Moral Panics was drawn from left leaning philosophies, so the issue must carry some weight.
However, Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics can generate little criticism. In fact, what criticism it has garnered Cohen has successfully rebutted in the introduction to the third edition. He defends the high flung terminology of moral panics, a term that would indicate that society itself has lost a grip on reality and is gullible and easily provoked. Cohen acknowledges these points that often get raised, especially by right leaning theorists, yet appears comfortable in his own theory by reflecting on criticism while remaining true to his convictions, a trait that is refreshing to witness.
In its entirety Cohen’s text remains in the forefront of sociological theory. This fact can easily be attributed to its ongoing relevance and the straightforward structure of the text, coupled with Cohen’s ability to truly dissect and analyse his theory. Cohen has used a unique idea to convey his theory, that is the disaster-sequencing model first linked to Merton, and has provided a staple foundation for readers of moral panic and labelling theory to absorb.