Kenneth Thompson. Moral Panics. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, 157 pp. $84.00 cloth, $24.99 paper.

Moral panic promised sociologists a potentially powerful tool, as they would be able to declare that the social reactions to specific threats were overblown and unwarranted. But while the concept has remained marginal in sociology, it has found its way into the popular press. Drawing on both media research and practice, Kenneth Thompson argues that this is the age of moral panic and that the concept should take a much more central place in the discipline.

The book is clearly and logically structured. It begins with the topicality of moral panic, and makes two claims (these are addressed below): first, there is an increasing rapidity in the succession of moral panics; and second, they are now all-pervasive, with moral panics about child abuse not limited to specific targets but in fact calling the very institution of the family into question. Thompson goes on to summarize the history and definition of the concept, and then links it to both the idea of a risk society and discourse analysis. Subsequent chapters cover different types of moral panics. The first of these provides a nice summary of Cohen's classic study of Mods and Rockers. Then a chapter is devoted moral panics over each of the following topics: other youth panics (e.g., Raves and Ecstasy); mugging; sex and AIDS; family violence against children; female gangs; and sex on the screen. Chapters provide sufficient background on each topic, and Thompson offers some interesting comparisons of developments in Britain and the United States. He also analyzes the various moral panics from a number of different perspectives. Thus with the moral panic over mugging, he eschews the questions of whether this crime was increasing or whether people's fears were proportionate. Instead, he looks at the discursive practices that allowed for a "signification spiral" that could increase fear. Other moral panics are examined from a social movement perspective, from a social psychological approach, and so on.

Advanced undergraduates would find much of interest here. They would also encounter some difficulties. By the time I was reading the last third of the book, it became clear that the shifting perspectives rendered unclear a fundamental question: what does moral panic consist of? In discussing the killing of James Bulger, the author describes media reactions and then asks: "But did it amount to a moral panic?" He notes that answers to this question varied — and this is the key problem. It simply remains unclear as to what constitutes a moral panic. And here I would suggest that the extremely slippery nature of the concept underlies sociological indifference to it. (In contrast, there is sufficient controversy surrounding the idea of disproportionate reactions that journalists find plenty to write about).

Thompson's claim that moral panics are becoming more frequent and pervasive is in direct contrast with McRobbie and Thornton's (1995) assertion that they are becoming less frequent and harder to constitute as folk devils now fight back. What is puzzling to me is that Thompson missed their paper, which appears not in an obscure source, but in the most important venue for moral panic research. I am less concerned here with the validity of either position than with the fact that if Thompson had confronted their work his book would have been more topical, interesting and challenging. Indeed, the fact that researchers can reach such opposite conclusions suggests that there is a serious problem in the theoretical underpinnings of moral panic. Thompson's efforts in this instance are dated (indeed, he misses other relevant papers published from 1995 on).

A similar difficulty arises with his attempt to link moral panic with a risk society perspective. While it is important that the two concepts be compared, there is little to be learned about the relationship between them in this book. Thompson appears to argue that the risk society increases fear and that this, in turn, feeds into moral panics. But there are radical differences between the two that are simply ignored. For one, social reactions in the risk society do not focus on relatively powerless folk devils. Rather, Beck (1992) speaks of "hot potatoes" that befall different groups, including large corporations and government agencies. For another, many risk society issues are future-oriented and hence obviate the question of disproportionality. In sum, if moral panic is to join the central conceptual pantheon of sociology, this book does not show the way.


Beck, U. 1992 Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.
McRobbie, A., and Thornton, S. 1995 'Rethinking "Moral Panic" for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds', British Journal of Sociology 46: 559-74.

Sheldon Ungar
Department of Social Science
University of Toronto at Scarborough

September 1999
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