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Discuss and describe a moral panic from a social science perspective Essay

Society is frequently subjected to moral panics when any crime is committed. Humanity repeatedly blows crimes and incidents out of proportion until the entire society is somewhat controlled. Stuart Hall, in his book, ‘Policing the Crisis’ explained that “the media, in conjunction with the bourgeoisie, create moral panics in order to perpetrate fear and maintain control over society, as a whole.” (Hall, 2013, s. 1) Moral panics are created as a hazard and rising threat to shock both society and culture into changing the way it thinks and acts about problems in the real world. In this essay, moral panics will be looked at in detail with a specific interest in the case of James Bulger. There will too, be a focus on the influence the media, police and politicians have on moral panics and public opinions.

Stanley Cohen derived a moral panic as “a sporadic episode which subjects society to worry about the values and principles which society upholds which may be in jeopardy. The moral panics are a means of characterising the reactions of the media, the public and agents of social control to youthful disturbances.” (Cohen, 1987: 9) The abduction and subsequent murder of the toddler James Bulger, from a shopping centre in Liverpool, was a crime which brought about a huge moral panic in Britain in the 1990’s. A murder of any sort brings about a moral panic, but when the victim, and in this case the defendants, are both children, it attracts overwhelming media attention and a vast moral panic is quickly spread. It has been previously said that it is the most monstrous of crime when a child elects to kill another child. Theories of moral panics are sparked when they are spread; the ‘Grassroots Model’ (Critcher, 2008) theory occurs when the public and media collaborate, consequently leading to fears becoming exaggerated; in the case of James Bulger; ephebiphobia, which is the fear of children and youth. The murder of Bulger made parents realise how defenceless their own children really are, and how they should fear others’ children. The theory suggests “panics are initiated and generated from the bottom up and are spread about particularly large numbers of people.” This is subsequently shown in the murder of Bulger; the moral panic was initiated from the crime but then soon spread to the media, thus advertising the story which then became public knowledge and the fear of children and youth becomes established and inflated.

Marx established the ‘Elite Engineered Model’ which encompasses the ruling elite manufacturing certain panics to instil fear in society and divert it away from the real problems they are having. In the scenario of the James Bulger murder, those with high ranking in society involved in the case, for example, police, detectives, press and politicians, created the moral panic of the murder in an attempt to divert the public’s opinion away from the shocking crime of two young boys, just 10 years old, not just abducting a toddler from a busy shopping centre in Liverpool, but also killing him in the most vicious way and dumping his body on train tracks in an attempt to cover up what had happened. This is not the behaviour of children; it is the behaviour of evil. Particularly due to the age of the killers, the ferociousness of the crime and the age of the victim, the mass media reports allowed the public to get personally and emotionally involved in the case and have severe anger and resentment towards the children who murdered James Bulger. The public outcry was huge and, the decision by the politicians and press combined to release the names of the killers publicly as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, allowed the public to finally vent their abuse against the killers. ‘Amid the hysteria in 1993, both Thompson and Venables lost the right to be seen as children, or even as human. The kids who had killed the kid had to be killed, or indeed locked up for life. The word used about them stopped all arguments; they were pure evil.’ (Morrison, 2003) These scandals make any type of child harm seem dramatic and heinous; these crimes force the attention onto those in society who are high ranked, in an attempt to aim for a change to prevent this crime being repeated. The path of any moral panic can sway in two opposing directions; either the panic dies down relatively quickly and is totally forgotten, or it has lasting repercussions for all those involved, whether press, politicians, the police or the public. (Butler, n.d.) In the case of the murder of little James Bulger, there were lasting implications; which included the introduction of the National Sex Offenders Register (Paedophile Register) in the late 1990’s as a response to the growing concern and panic over the recent child sex offences (Cohen 1972:9).

The Interest Group Theory involves panic about a given behaviour, in this instance, a child killing another child, and hence due the massive public outcry, the case is more likely to be distorted by the media and the outcome changed. The Bulger story was iconic and a rare, uncommon case; but lessons should be learnt. A similar crime had previously been committed in the form of the 1861 murder of baby George burgess in Stockport by two eight year olds. Burgess was forced to suffer a horrific attack and the two young boys inflicted shocking injuries upon his body. This crime severely angered the local community and again created a moral panic. In today’s society, thankfully due to the role that the media now plays in the viewing and promoting of crimes, we, as a whole in society, are able to successfully campaign for justice and see those who participated in the crime jailed for as long as they deserve. The concept of moral panics does have some disadvantages; they do tend to be deterministic and can be twisted by the media to blow the event out of proportion. In the case of James Bulger, the amount of media attention thrown onto the case means that this moral panic is ever lasting, and will always be remembered, preventing events like this from being repeated.


Butler, I (2013) Moral Panic and Child Protection Available form: http://www.moralpanicseminars.files.wordpress.com.2013/05/sem2-butler.pdf [Accessed 15th November 2013] Cohen, S (2011) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: Key Ideas. London: Routledge Critcher, C (2006) Moral Panics and the Media. OU Press

Critcher, C (2008) Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future Swansea University: Blackwell Publishing. Available from: http://www.penelopeironstone.com/Critcher.pdf [Accessed 28th October 2013] Eldridge, J & Kitzinger, J & Williams, K (1997) The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain (Chapter 5 – Moral Panics, Media Scares and Real Problems) Oxford University Press Goode, E & Ben-Yehuda, N (1994) Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Hall, S (2013) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Jewkes, Y (2011) Media and Crime. Sage

Kirsh, S (2010) Media and Youth. Wiley Blackwell
Marsh, I & Melville, G (2011) Moral Panics and the British Media: A look at some contemporary ‘Folk Devils’

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