Meth and Moral Panics, Part Two

In my first post on the moral panic concept, I briefly described the short-lived furor over smokable crystal methamphetamine between late 1989 and early 1991.  Phil Jenkins placed the “ice” episode alongside other pharmaceutical scares-of-the-moment in a category he called “synthetic panics”—a drug-specific term derived from the basic sociological construct of the moral panic.  Synthetic panics, and moral panics generally, share the common element of disproportionate response.  Of the examples collected in his book, Synthetic Panics, Jenkins wrote: “these reactions justify the term panic, because the reactions are so wildly disproportionate to the scale of the problem and the claims made about the prevalence and effects of the substances are generally so exaggerated.”  (Synthetic Panics, 4)  And this, really, is what makes a moral panic—responses must be empirically and demonstrably wrong about their subject.

Without disproportion, you’ve still got a lot of fabulous sociological-historical analysis, but you don’t have a moral panic.  Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, in their excellent restatement of the moral panic concept in 1994, laid out five basic elements of moral panics.  The first three are essentially process/behavior elements:  the level of expressed concern rises (1); the concern is a reflection of consensus (2); and there is volatility in the levels of expressed concern (3).  There’s nothing in any of these process characteristics to distinguish a moral panic study from any other well-done study of collective behavior and the social construction of social problems.  The fourth element, for Goode and Ben-Yehuda, is that the expressions of concern emerge take the form of hostility to particular social groups.  In the drug case, this would mean the expressions of hostility toward users of a particular drug, toward a particular subset of users, or even (perhaps) to the substance itself, in the anthropomorphic role that scary drugs often assume in anti-drug rhetoric.  Here, Goode and Ben-Yehuda reach back to Stanley Cohen’s foundational 1972 text—Folk Devils and Moral Panics—to sweep the folk devils more neatly into the general sociological framework of the moral panic.  Again, I would argue that there’s not much to distinguish a good moral panic study’s examination of folk devils from the best of more general literature on deviance and the production of deviance. (4)

And so, we turn to a fifth and final element in Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s moral panic framework—disproportion.  It seems to me that what truly distinguishes studies which employ the moral panic concept from their sociological cousins is that they are, as Simon Watney put it: “always obliged in the final instance to refer and contrast ‘representation’ to the arbitration of ‘the real’” [emphasis added]. (5)

In their “arbitration of the real” moral panic scholars identifying several distinct categories of error, which I’ve sorted as follows (NOTE: This is a first pass at the problem. I’m quite happy to hear that I’ve missed more categories of error):

1) Prevalence Errors—These can be described fairly simply as instances in which social response fails to correctly characterize the extent to which the behavior in question actually occurs.

2) Novelty Errors—I credit Phil Jenkins with doing as much to develop this category as any scholar.  Novelty errors occur when we “discover” a problem that’s been there all the time; in the process, we fail to correctly perceive longer and presumably more stable patterns of behavior.  As he put it in “The Ice Age”: “claims makers usually demonstrate a certain historical amnesia, often rediscovering problems which in fact are well-established…” [p.8]. (6)

3) Harm Errors—Here, the error derives from an inaccurate comprehension of the intrinsic and extrinsic harms that are associated with a particular behavior.  (7)

4) Relative Harm Errors—Relative harm errors occur when social response ignores more serious behaviors in the process of panicking over something else.  Another way of putting it—a moral panic happens when we’re afraid of the wrong things.

5) Analytic/Classification Errors—We may correctly see epiphenomenal aspects of the problem, but we fail to employ the correct analytical frame.  Here’s Erich Goode, describing how attention to folk devils could to this sort of error: “if conditions are serious, they are likely to be structural and this difficult of solution.  On the other hand, if they are the product of deranged, brutal, or corrupt individuals, this shifts our focus of attention away from the real problems, away from social and economic structure, and away from potential solutions that are both intellectually challenging and threatening to established interests.”  (Goode, “No Need to Panic,” 550; see Note 5)

I would argue (more on this in Part Three) that many scholarly invocations of the moral panic concept are profoundly sloppy or disinterested when it comes to properly attending to the disproportion element; a fair number would be improved by simply dropping their invocation of the moral panic concept, and simply sticking with the historical-sociological work they are doing.  What I am not quite ready to argue, however, is that the concept itself needs to be discarded.  Is it still desirable—indeed, even possible—to measure the distance between objective reality and social response in the manner that moral panic research demands?  In Part Three, I’ll work on this question, by turning my attention to the arbitration of the real with respect to the contemporary response to methamphetamine use in the United States.


(1) This first measure tends to chart the “rise” over time in concern vis-à-vis some sort of baseline level of social concern or interest.  Goode and Ben-Yehuda are careful to insist on the use of empirically sound measures of concern (or expressed concern, in any event), an insistence that makes very good sense.

(2) It should be noted here that Goode and Ben-Yehuda are careful to point out that this consensus can be at the more general level of “society” or specific to social sub-groups.

(3) Volatility includes both the “rise” and “fall” dimensions of moral panics; generally speaking, volatility refers to the rapidity with which measured expressions of concern change (either in content or scale, or both).

(4) Stanley Cohen presents a marvelous review of the moral panic concept in “Moral Panics as Cultural Politics,” the Introduction to the Third Edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002).  This is must reading for anyone seriously interested in the moral panic concept.

(5) I’ve omitted just a bit from the lead-in to this quote from Watney, in which he refers not to moral panic studies, but to moral panic theory.   Erich Goode, correctly in my view, protests that there really is no such thing as moral panic theory.  Instead, he has written, “the moral panic is a sociological phenomenon, an analytic concept much like stratification, interaction, deviance, and social movements.”  See Erich Goode, “No Need to Panic?  A Bumper Crop of Books on Moral Panics,” Sociological Forum 15 (2000), 543-552 [quote on 551].

(6) Since I probably won’t get to this in Part Three, I should point out that lazy invocations of “it ain’t nothing new” can really drive one batty.  No one ever did a better job of swinging back than historian Eric Schneider, writing about postwar youth gangs in Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings, in which he argued that invocations of moral panic set against presumably more static youth and gang cultures “abstract youth gangs from their social and economic context and deny their historicity.  They also rob working-class adolescents of their one token of agency: their ability to cause trouble.” (p. 51)

(7) This isn’t the time or place to develop the point, but even the categories of “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” don’t begin to capture the complexity of defining and measuring harm.  For a fascinating 2010 effort to do just this, see

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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