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date: 08 March 2021

Moral Panics and Folk Devilslocked

  • Nachman Ben-YehudaNachman Ben-YehudaProfessor Emeritus, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Summary

Moral panics refer to cultural and social situations where heightened and exaggerated attention is given to a moral issue, accompanied by inflated demands to activate and practice steps to control what is portrayed as the challenging and threatening danger to morality. The nature of the threatening challenge materializes characteristically with the emergence of increased anxiety and fear from the moral threat to the well-being and future of a culture, or part of it. Down-to-earth representatives of such threats are epitomized by folk devils. These folk devils can be drug users, those who supposedly practice witchcraft or Satanism, sex traffickers, drivers involved in hit and run car accidents, muggers, AIDS carriers, terrorists, immigrants, asylum seekers, and—obviously—criminals. The concept of moral panics left its convenient zone in sociology and criminology to become extremely popular. It has been applied to such diverse fields as global warming, child sexual abuse, trafficking in women, soccer hooliganism, 9/11, and more. Many panics are short-lived, but such panics can also linger for longer periods. Moral panics are comprised of five basic building blocks: disproportionality in portraying the moral threat and the requested responses, concern about an issue, consensus regarding the threat, and hostility towards the folk devils. Moral panics do not stand alone and need to be understood within larger cultural and social processes composed of negotiations, struggles, and conflicts focused on moral codes. Indeed, while folk devils are typically vilified, stigmatized, and deviantized, complex cultures also enable folk devils to fight back. Moral panics are thus significant and important occurrences in the social construction of moral boundaries. These panics represent reactions, counter-reactions, and moral challenges—presented by folk devils—to cultural cores, which form central symbolic structures of cultures and societies.

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