Stanley Cohen: a hero of sociology

The death of Cohen, who coined the term ‘moral panic’, deprives us of a great intellectual voice.

Frank Furedi
Sociologist and social commentator

Topics Politics

The death of Stanley Cohen, author and emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, has deprived British sociology of one of its genuine innovators.

Sociological terms rarely become part of everyday life. One exception was Cohen’s concept of moral panic. Following the publication of his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, ‘moral panic’ became a genuinely colloquial phrase. The reason for this is that Cohen’s work captured the way in which, in the late twentieth century, moral disorientation became the default response to change and uncertainty. Folk Devils and Moral Panics demonstrated that sociological investigation can still illuminate important cultural changes.

The world today is a very different place to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Cohen coined the term moral panic. Folk Devils and Moral Panics dealt with British society’s attempt to gain moral clarity through distancing itself from deviant youth sub-cultures and delinquency. When the book appeared in 1972, Cohen could assume that his study of society’s reaction to the youth sub-cultures of mods and rockers was guided by a taken-for-granted moral code. However, since the 1980s, the relative weakness of moral consensus has meant that so-called panics are now often detached from the language of morality.

One of the most striking signs that cultural anxieties and morality have been decoupled is the emergence of the language of risk. Cohen was sensitive to this development. In the 2002 edition of Folk Devils, he noted that ‘reflections on risk are now absorbed into a wider culture of insecurity, victimisation and fear’. Yet far too many studies continue to use the concept moral panic, as if we were still living in the heady days of the late 1960s.

Today, moral regulation takes an incoherent form, and is often promoted indirectly through the spheres of health, science and risk. Consequently, fearmongering is often depicted as a response to non-moral, scientifically affirmed problems and objectives. Such campaigns may indeed incite fear, but they struggle to promote any sense of moral meaning or purpose. These administratively produced anxieties – for example, this week’s political campaign against sugary foods – lack the moral depth of the panics discussed by Cohen and others in the 1970s and 1980s.

The promotion of moral and social anxieties through the language of risk speaks to societies that lack a moral consensus. Increasingly, the moral component of modern-day panics can be difficult to discern. Unlike the conventional moral panics, which were directed against clearly recognisable folk devils, twenty-first-century anxieties tend to focus on less tangible phenomena, which, we are told, could have catastrophic consequences. The current catastrophic imagination also informs us that there is a growing range of ‘conditions’ that threaten human life. Outwardly at least, fearmongering about global terrorism, superbugs or climate change appears very different to the old panics about traditional targets such as juvenile delinquents, drug addicts and single mothers. Lacking moral depth, today’s panics are depicted as responsible reactions to objective, measurable, real-world conditions. So-called scientific claims stand in for old-style moral condemnation.

There are of course still some issues – such as paedophilia or violent crime – which give rise to explicit moral outrage and panic. But generally, fear promotion tends to avoid the grammar of morality and instead issues its warnings through the idea of risk – whether it’s risks to health, personal wellbeing or the environment. That is because there is no longer an uncontested moral code whose authority can be called upon to promote panic and anxiety.

However, the disassociation of anxiety from morality doesn’t mean there isn’t still a desire among the elites to moralise about out lives. Modern-day fearmongering is still oriented towards regulating personal behaviour, and it is frequently as prescriptive as the traditional moral crusades were. Indeed, today’s fear entrepreneurs frequently assert the moral authority of their enterprise. Public-health campaigns against obesity are a good example of how modern crusades turn a physical condition into a moral threat. This is a crusade that openly boasts of its mission to alter people’s personal behaviour. Public-health professionals have no inhibitions about turning a health issue into a moral one, since, in the words of one anti-obesity campaigner, ‘the social stigma attached to obesity is one of the few forces slowing the epidemic’. Their message is: Change the way you live! Get on your bike or walk, eat less, cut out meat, and help save yourself and the planet! One environmental researcher claims that ‘given the crushing burden of obesity on individuals and society, all potential sources of motivation need to be stressed’.

Of course, the very fact that we are able to debate the relationship between morality and panics is a tribute to the powerful intellectual legacy left for us by Cohen. Sociology has lost one of its few genuine heroes. The best way of honouring his memory is to continue to develop the intellectual pursuits associated with his name, and develop a greater understanding of panic and risk and how they might be more rationally discussed.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

Topics Politics