This essay will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stanley Cohen’s ‘processual model’ of a moral panic. In addition, this text will delineate the role of the media, some peripheral influences and culminate in a conclusion as to whether his framework from 1972 is still effective when attempting to elucidate modern-day panics such as ‘binge drinking’ and ‘rave and ecstasy culture’ which will be assessed within the scaffold of Cohen’s theory.
Professor Chas Critcher, a media sociologist, defines Cohen’s framework as the ‘processual model’ of delineating a moral panic – this differing from the Americans’ Eric Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s (1994) ‘attributional model’. The so-called process of Cohen’s theory was identified by Critcher (2003, p. 9) as ‘six stages in the development of a moral panic’. These six junctures are as follows: 1) ‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’. 2) ‘Its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media’. 3) The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’. 4) ‘Socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions’. 5) Ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to’. 6) ‘The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible’ (Cohen, 1972, p. 1). These factions will be critiqued in relation to their effectiveness when describing ‘rave and ecstasy culture’ and ‘binge drinking’ as moral panics.
Firstly, Cohen’s framework considers the emergence of a new social problem. Rave and ecstasy was ‘making its public debut in this country in 1988 in the shape of acid house parties held in warehouses, fields and clubs – its illicit status quickly increased until it found its way into legal club venues in the 1990s as the rave scene’ (Critcher, 2003, p. 48). Rave and ecstasy became ubiquitous with youth subcultures of its era – a form of escapism from the monotony and drudge that adult life embodied. In this example, it is somewhat difficult to determine exactly whom the folk devil is; those that are castigated as the deviant culprit at the centre of a moral panic. Whilst rave and ecstasy were seen as a threat to the physical and moral wellbeing of young people, it became the drug dealers who eventually emerged as the folk devils in this instance. Next: whilst binge drinking is not a new issue of society, it is something that has become inextricably attached to Britain’s teenagers and young adults over the past couple of decades. Indeed, Redden (2008, p. 117) identifies that ‘images of drink-fuelled disorder take their place alongside other ways of demonising the young. Furthermore, Frost & Gardiner (2005, p. 5) argue that this issue appears ‘disproportionately located with the behaviours and activities associated with youth’. This, perhaps, has been exacerbated by the ‘Necknominate’ challenge which was popular in 2014. Described as a ‘cross between a juvenile drinking game and an online chain letter’, the competitive drinking challenge claimed the lives of ‘five people in the UK and Ireland’ (McCarthy, 2014). Here is the first issue of Cohen’s framework – the issue of defining what a new social problem is. Whilst, in the late 1980s, ecstasy certainly posed a new threat, binge drinking has long been a scourge of society and, with a moral panic being defined as ‘ostensibly about new forms of troubling behaviour which society is unable to control’ (Critcher, 2006, p. 7), it is, perhaps, inappropriate to define binge drinking as a moral panic when it is a relatively unproblematic issue that society has dealt with for centuries.
Secondly, the processual model considers media coverage; revolving around a ‘stylized and stereotypical response’ from the mainstream press. Their coverage of rave and ecstasy as a new epidemic, and the concept of rave as a cover for illicit drug activity, was fuelled by the furore surrounding the drug-related death of a teenager in 1995. At a rave in Essex, 18-year-old Leah Betts died after taking an ecstasy pill – the social reaction to follow would set a precedent for similar incidents in years to come. Miss Betts’ father quickly exclaimed whom he felt was responsible for his daughter’s death, saying ‘I would like to see you taken for accessory to murder, supplying the instrument that kills. If they want somebody to pull that rope, I’ll bloody well do it’ in the direction of the drug-dealers (Levy, 1995). The mass media seemed to concur with the accusations ledged by Mr Betts and printed headlines such as ‘Ecstasy Shock Issue’ (The Mirror), ‘Shoot these Evil Acid Barons’ (The Sun) and ‘The Evil of Ecstasy’ (The Sun). In a feature written for the Scottish Daily Record, entitled Inside the Ecstasy Culture: Ecstasy Kills so Why Do So Many Young People Take it? (McAlpine, 1995), it is proclaimed that ‘in Britain, a million people take ecstasy in a week’. This report emerged just a week after Leah Betts’ death. The article uses stylized and hyperbolic rhetoric when referring to this new epidemic. Referring to ecstasy as a ‘sin’, it describes how ‘a million souls a week now yield to this temptation, […] few repent the sin, despite the deaths’.
In regard to binge drinking – young people have been the recipients of fierce and damning mediation in recent years in relation to their drinking habits with the media’s ‘construct of Binge Britain a ritual repetition of the idea that night-time public space has been transformed into a violent vomitorium that is a no-go zone for all but the carousing youth who are lost to it’ (Redden, 2008, p. 117). In the book Pulling Newspapers Apart, Chas Critcher (2008, p. 165) discusses The Express’ coverage of the binge drinking epidemic. He refers to a number of emotive and anger-stirring phrases used by the newspaper when discussing binge drinking; such as, ‘a report from the No.10 Strategy Unit estimates the financial cost of binge drinking to employers, the NHS and the criminal justice system’. Furthermore, he refers to a story entitled ‘Ministers blame drunken yobs for half of the violent attacks in Britain and have demanded a crackdown from Police, councils and pubs’. Clearly, ‘the allure of the topic for the media is obvious – excessive drinking is a public health issue rivalled only by obesity’ (Redden, 2008, p. 117). Despite the media’s appetite, and the embellished coverage by newspapers such as The Express, ‘several government funded surveys suggest that, of the entire drinking public aged 16 or over in England and Wales, 20% of men and 8% of women would currently be classified as binge drinkers (Frost & Gardiner, 2005, p. 7). This, then, like the example of rave and ecstasy discussed previously, is evidence of embellished mediation – agenda setting, deviancy amplification and outlandish claim making – of a problem that, perhaps, is not even particularly problematic as, despite the dichotomy in the statistics, public consciousness is heightened. Here, there are three ways in which the processual model can be described as crude in relation to the way in which new social problems are mediated. Firstly, the model does not legislate for any varying level of deviance; Jewkes (2004) describes how it is ‘unfair to compare the moral panic about cannabis to child sex abuse, so a negative reaction to some issues may well be justified’. Secondly, Cohen characterizes the media as one entity rather than a collection of communicators whose stand-points are often influenced by so many social and political factors, thus altering their agenda and reporting of a story. Lastly, Cohen’s framework seems to imply that the reader will simply consume any information that a newspaper communicates and that an audience can be easily indoctrinated. This, in more recent times, is no longer the case as journalists are becoming less-and-less trustworthy and seem to have lost a lot of credibility amongst the public.
Next, Cohen’s third fourth and fifth factions, those of ‘moral barricades being manned’, ‘experts pronouncing a diagnosis’ and ‘seeking a means of coping and resolution’, are somewhat imbricated. Whilst there were no obvious experts to pronounce on the issue of rave and ecstasy, there was some moral campaign in an attempt to curtail the mortal effects of this new epidemic and, subsequently, action from the Police and Government. Once the heads of the public have turned and they have been convinced of a new social problem, it is time to seek a solution. Critcher (2003, p. 50) discusses how ‘the police were hostile but initially impotent’ to this new issue. However, he later describes a more forceful and repressive reaction – ‘In the summer of 1989, North West Kent police set up a Pay Party Unit. Within three months it had 60 staff and 30 computers […] the unit quickly came to understand the centrality of drugs to the rave scene but could not convince the authorities’. As a result, pressure was mounting on the government to show their hand and issue a quick response. This came in the form of the ‘Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990, dubbed the ‘Acid House Bill’. It increased penalties for unlicensed public entertainment to £20,000, 6 months in prison, or both’ (Critcher, 2003, p. 51). Finally, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in 1994, bringing something of an abrupt and forceful halt to regular rave and ecstasy culture. The new act bequeathed Police the ‘powers to immediately require people to disperse and to seize, remove and destroy any vehicles left behind’ (Osgerby, 1998, p. 215). Ravers were targeted by the new legislation with ‘a gathering of a hundred or more persons […] at which music is played through the night which is wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission or succession of repetitive beats’ (Henderson, 1997, p. 11) identified specifically.
Experts are somewhat absent from the binge drinking debate. This could be because it isn’t a particularly dangerous or life-threatening issue such as AIDS, but simply an inconvenience and annoyance to the fabric of society. The medical profession occasionally pervades the debate, however a study featured in the European Addiction Research Journal found that ‘medical specialists tend to indulge in more hazardous drinking compared with the general population (Joos & Glazemaker, 2013, p. 89). If the experts don’t consider excessive alcohol consumption to be a threat, then why should the general public? According to Redden, ‘the policy response to binge drinking is still evolving – measures that have been proposed to ameliorate its negative consequences include the Government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy […] and a range of proposals that have not (as yet) been adopted’. He continues with a diagnosis as to why only these passive and tokenistic measures have been implemented. ‘One of the reasons is that the social group most often represented as culpable – the young – is the one whose members experience most of the actual negative consequences, as victims of violence or as its criminalised perpetrators. Another is that the government nowhere explicitly acknowledges that binge drinking is a mode of consumption shaped by deliberate and continuing industry attempts to maximise alcohol sales’ (Redden, 2008, p. 118). Here, it is possible to consider two further criticisms of Cohen’s framework. Firstly, despite the ability to identify experts and solutions, the processual model fails to determine the cause of a moral panic and fails to explain the ignition of a new behaviour in the first place, only commenting on why said behaviour is perpetuated rather than seeking to terminate an issue at an embryonic stage. Secondly is the concept of a paradigm shift in regard to society’s morality. The moral climate is ‘not fixed’, it changes over time: ‘what wasn’t deemed a moral panic in the 1970s could now be considered threatening’ to society’s morality (Victor, 1998) – much like binge drinking. Whilst it is not a new issue, the moral yardstick of society has changed to now demonise said behaviour. Again, this is not something which is accounted for in Cohen’s framework.
The final part of Cohen’s framework refers to the condition ‘disappearing, submerging or deteriorating’. With the implementation of new laws, the rave and ecstasy scene seemed to be under control and now tightly regulated. In recent years though, fears surrounding ecstasy have once again become apparent. In a recent article written for The Guardian entitled ‘Ecstasy in comeback as new generation discovers dance drug’, statistics from the 2016 European Drug Report seem to indicate that ‘ecstasy is returning to popularity with both established drug users and a new generation, but this time powders and tablets are much more likely to contain higher doses than in previous years’ (Travis, 2016). Perhaps this could be a re-emergence of a panic that had seemingly run its course. Here, we have a final nuance of Cohen’s processual model. The framework receives some castigation for its vague conclusion – the moral panic can ‘disappear or grow and become worse’, this seems to imply that the moral panic scaffold does not indeed identify solutions but merely brings them into view without any real action being implemented surrounding the panic; an issue can ultimately continue and worsen despite the moral panic process.
To conclude, whilst Cohen’s processual model is useful in identifying new issues that threaten the fabric of social morality, the two case studies identified in this essay highlight the framework’s issues. Overall, it may be an accurate assessment to say that the processual model is, ultimately, too crude to encompass the full range of factors which influence the course and action of a new social problem, and, whilst it is helpful in recognising certain elements of a panic such as stylized mediation, it fails to grasp the cause, the volatility and, perhaps, even a solution to the issues discussed in this essay, with both epidemics still active on the streets of Britain today.
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Travis, A. (2016, May 31). Ecstasy in comeback as new generation discovers dance drug.
Victor, J. S. (1998). Moral Panics and the Social Construction of Deviant Behavior: A Theory and Application to the Case of Ritual Child Abuse. Sociological Perspectives, 541-565.