Moral Panic Versus Risk Society

In light of the current swine flu crisis, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this article that contrasts moral panic as sociological concept with that of risk society.

Sheldon Ungar, Moral Panic Versus Risk Society: The Implications of the Changing Sites of Social Anxiety, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 2001), pp. 271 – 291.

The article is a critique of the way sociologists have conceptualized and used "moral panic" as social construction. In contrast, Ungar shows the greater relevance of the concepts related to the overarching concept of "risk society" as conceptualized by Ulrich Beck. For Ungar, the sites of social anxiety have changed and therefore, the sociological concepts used to study social anxiety should also change. For Ungar, current social anxiety is more related to the risk society than to moral panics. In this sense, the article is also a call for a different sociological agenda for research on social anxiety.

Ungar cites Cohen’s classical definition of moral panic (MP):

"Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially-accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." (Cohen 1972: 9)

The individuals or groups that are seen as moral threats to society are called folk devils and they become subjected to mechanisms of social control and sanctions as a means of reestablishing the power of social institutions in maintaining moral cohesion.

But for Ungar, this concept of moral panic is not adapted to the type of social anxiety emerging as part of the risk society. Although Ungar does not get into it, let me add a reminder regarding the world risk society (my writings):

According to Beck (1992), the world risk society is a product of modernity. Since the industrial revolution, one of the major large-scale societal issues was the reduction of scarcity. The solution was to develop and use technology to produce enormous numbers of goods and increase the general level of wealth for the populations of industrial societies. This was successful: scarcity is hardly a problem in post-industrial societies (core areas). If anything, abundance is. Generally speaking, people no longer starve in developed countries, quite the contrary, obesity has become a problem.

However, this mass production of goods has been accompanied by the production of "bads" or, in other words, risks. Beck defines risk as "a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself. Risks, as opposed to older dangers, are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernization and to its globalization of doubt " (1992: 21). As such, risks have several characteristics that distinguish them from dangers in previous periods of human history.

Life has always been dangerous and hazardous for human beings. But for most of human history, the dangers came from what Beck calls natural risks , such as floods and epidemics. In preindustrial societies, such risks were attributed to supernatural forces (gods or spirits). With industrialization and scientific progress, such superstitious beliefs lost a great deal of credibility. Industrialization created obvious problems of its own: pollution and other urban poverty-related conditions, what Beck calls manufactured risks, risks that are human-made. However, such obvious risks were dismissed and it was assumed that, as more wealth was produced, living conditions would improve for all and technology would solve whatever problems would remain.

In late modernity, contemporary risks are still manufactured risks but in addition, they threaten the very existence of the human species. For instance, it is now clear that late modern societies consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. Should large countries such as India and China reach similar levels of consumption, the future of humanity would become dreadfully uncertain. And yet, the production of wealth still takes precedence and the globalist ideology encourages such a trajectory of high mass consumption. Similarly, even though the Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear catastrophes either at the hands of terrorists or as a result of civilian accidents (as in the case of Chernobyl) still looms. In other words, risks are now global in nature.

Contemporary risks are invisible and often hard to measure. We do not see or taste the toxins and antibiotics in our food. We do not really perceive dramatic climate disruption. It is hard to measure risks because many involve a latency period. How many people were really affected by the Chernobyl accident? It is impossible to know: people living in the area were certainly directly affected and the effects of radiation carry over several generations. We also know that radioactive particles did spread all over Europe. How many people’s cancers were related to Chernobyl? Do we actually feel the effects of the hole in the ozone layer? Because such risks are invisible or imperceptible, they are open to debates and scientific experts find themselves questioned by the larger public. And since the effects of risks can be felt across space (globally, away from any identifiable point of origin) and time (for several generations), it becomes difficult to determine who is responsible for any risk-related disaster and what the exact causes are.

Contemporary risks involve social inequalities. As Beck (1992:35) puts it "wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom." The global poor are exposed to more risks than the global wealthy, which include not just extremely rich individual, but the quasi-totality of the population of core areas. Additionally, the wealthy (in terms of income, power and education) have access to more information on how to avoid risks. In other words, under conditions of global uncertainty, information becomes itself a source of wealth that is unequally distributed. However, contemporary risks involve what Beck calls a boomerang effect: those who produce risks or try to avoid them always end up being affected as well because those risks have a global impact.

Contemporary risks are borderless. Borderlessness is a central characteristic of globalization. No European country could protect itself from the after-effects of Chernobyl. As a result, contemporary risks create a global community of fate by creating global problems that will require global solutions through transnational cooperation, further undermining national sovereignty.

Contemporary risks create winners. Managing risks or offering protection from risks is big business. New medications and treatments can be developed to deal with disease created by risks. New chemicals can be added to our food to counteract the effects of the present chemicals. However, such solution, because they are individual, are inherently inadequate.

Contemporary risks generate new social conflicts. These social conflicts may not be between social classes divided by levels of wealth but between categories of people with different views on how to eliminate risks: among others, the globalist solution puts its trust in capitalism and its capacity for technological innovation, the fundamentalist solution would be to turn back the clock and return to imaginary safer times, the anti-globalization movement would call for a return to the local.

It is then clear that the concept of risks will be a very useful analytical tool to examine different phenomena related to social anxiety. Risks are not simply technological or environmental in nature, they are social. They impact the social structure as a whole. For instance, economic globalization has already generated global financial crises that certainly constitute global risks. In other words, risks have become an integral part of our lives.

Ungar therefore, following Beck, defines the risk society as a catastrophic society marked by greater reflexivity (also a trademark of globalization). Another source that Ungar does not mention is Kai Erikson’s A New Species of Trouble or even Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear.

For Ungar, the question is then how risk society issues affect the emergence of moral panics. He then systematically reviews the characteristics of moral panics and examines how they fare when confronted with risk society catastrophes, as opposed to the social constructionist perspective that is often used. These traits are

  1. Concern
  2. Hostility
  3. Consensus
  4. Disproportionality
  5. Volatility

Regarding concern / consensus, Ungar argues that moral panics are usually narrowly defined and affect a limited type of behaviors, phenomena or actions (satanic rituals in daycare centers, for instance) largely associated with youth deviance (often the main target of labeling as folk devils):

"The risk society is constituted by a vast number of relatively unfamiliar threats, with new threats always lurking in the background. When occasional problems are supplanted by a burgeoning pool of contending ‘catastrophes’, all aspects of claim-making are rendered more open, variable and problematic." (276)

For instance, in MP research, concern and consensus are usually constructed at the top of society, then trickle down, generating fear in the population that then demands action against the responsible folk devils. So, research then focuses on manipulation by the powerful in the creation of MPs. The supposed concern and consensus are manufactured through processes that are the subject of research. Similarly then, the consensus on an MP may not be founded on objective reality but on perception and social construction and manipulation.

That is not so easy to do in the case of risk society issues (RSIs). In RSIs, a variety of actors are involved in claim-making, from government agencies, scientific institutions to social movement organizations. It is therefore less easy to unilaterally shape public opinion. Moreover, many RSIs, factuality, as established by the scientific community is often a strong part of the debate (rather than the variety of moral entrepreneurs in MPs). As Ungar puts it,

"Moral panic has conventionally focused on social control processes aimed at the moral failing of dispossessed groups. Risk society issues tend to involve diverse interest groups contending over  relatively intractable scientific claims. (…) Social regulation processes, in other words, have become less predictable and more fractious." (277)

Furthermore, to focus on MPs as social constructs is always an after-the-fact matter. One only focuses on the MPs that work. What are the processes for the MPs that did not take?

Regarding hostility and volatility, MPs have clear targets (folk devils, usually youth and other deviants) perceived to be threatening the core values of society. On the other hand, RSIs go through what Ungar calls a foraging process where hot potatoes are passed from one potential target to another or as potential targets fight back against potential stigmatization.

Hence, there shall be no more talk of "swine flu" because the hog industry does not like it… let’s focus on the MEXICAN [code word for "illegal immigrant"] part of it… or maybe we should focus on factory farms and the general organization of food in society or the failures of the WHO’s pandemic programs or how Susan Collins blew it by taking pandemic money out of the stimulus bill. And on and on it goes, as the hot potato is passed on through the foraging process.

Similarly, the role of social institutions as legitimate authorities shifts:

"With moral panic, authorities either play a central role in initiating panics or are likely to join ongoing proceedings and derive some benefit from legitimating and perhaps directing them. In the roulette dynamics characteristic of manufactured accidents – ‘accidents’ is used as a shorthand to cover actual mishaps, as well as claimed mishaps or claims about potential mishaps –  authorities typically forfeit their commanding role and may become the target of moral outrage. Rather than amplifying the threat, they usually try to dampen it." (282)

And because RSIs are based on uncertainty, safety precaution are not enough (as they would in MPs where the social order is ultimately restored), what is required is, as Ungar describes it, a post-market coping model based on helplessness. And as hot potatoes are passed around, the erosion of public trust in science and social institutions is the main result.

Disproportionality is at the heart of moral panics:

"It encapsulates the political agenda motivating this research domain: specifically, the power of moral entrepreneurs to exercise social control by amplifying deviance and orchestrating social reactions so that the panic becomes a consensus-generating envoy for the dominant ideology. Disproportionality is also at the core of the social constructionist approach. According to this perspective, social reactions have little relationship to the ostensible threat or condition (…) but are largely determined by claims making activities." (284)

The large-scale nature of risk society threats may be hard to measure but their seriousness is often not in dispute (except from not-very credible fringe such as climate change deniers) hence the major sites of social anxiety over a wide variety of broad issues where many actors engage in claim-making.

So, does this mean that the very concept of moral panic is useless in the context of risk society? According to Ungar, that would be throwing the baby with the bath water:

"For all its pitfalls, one cannot wish away the reality that many sociologists want a concept like moral panic as a tool to debunk particular social claims or reactions. Taking a critical posture is not inherently unscientific. Rather, it depends on whether or not observers have sufficiently rigorous evidence to support the contention that particular reactions are patently unwarranted. For most issues, the requisite evidence has been lacking, and hence sociological pronouncements have not been particularly authoritative."


This is especially the case as the emergence of the world risk society changes the nature and sites of social anxiety. What Ungar calls for then is for a research agenda more adapted to a risk-based social order where issues of trust, power and authority of social institutions, the relationship between science and society have to be re-conceptualized.

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