Understanding Moral Panic and Its Role in Social Work
Someone, somewhere is threatening our way of life. That general anxiety sometimes becomes a widespread public fear that targets a particular social group. Find out more about what moral panic is, what causes it, and how social workers can help those affected by it.
What is moral panic?
The sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen is credited with coining the phrase “moral panic.” Moral panic is a widespread fear that an evil person, group, or entity threatens a community or society. Though the fear may be based on real incidents or issues, it’s exaggerated to seem as though it’s more serious or pervasive than it actually is.1 A historic example of moral panic is the Salem witch trials, which resulted in the deaths of 20 people in the 1600s.2
Today, moral panic is often amplified and sensationalized by the media. The media coverage gives rise to public concern and anxiety. Often, policies or laws are enacted in response to the “threat.” Those laws and policies tend to target vulnerable populations. Ultimately, moral panics can reinforce or even intensify social inequalities.3 A recent example of moral panic in action occurred in 2021, when fear arose that children were being taught critical race theory in grade schools and high schools. While there was little evidence of critical race theory being taught below the university graduate-school level, some states made efforts to ban or restrict teaching it or concepts that were perceived to be related to it.
What is a folk devil?
Cohen introduced the term “folk devil” in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. A folk devil is a particular social group that is perceived as a threat in a moral panic.4 In Michael Eversman’s book Identifying Moral Panic: The Discourse of Fear in Social Policy, he notes that folk devils are often vulnerable populations: immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, people experiencing mental illness or struggling with substance use disorder, teenagers, and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities.5
Why is it important for social workers to understand moral panic?
Moral panics influence how social problems are perceived. When a social problem is seen as a threat, lawmakers often propose policies that unjustly target the folk devil, which is most often a marginalized group. The people and communities that social workers help are often members of these vulnerable populations.
As advocates for their clients, social workers must recognize moral panics and their impact. Here are three ways they can do so:
- Social workers can challenge and refute the stereotypes that moral panics often perpetuate.
- Social workers can advocate for their clients to counteract the negative effects of panic-driven policies.
- Social workers can assess the true causes of social problems and draw attention to them so that legitimate problems can be addressed effectively.
Moral panics are difficult to prevent, but they’re easy to recognize. And they often end quickly — when they’re replaced by a new moral panic. Unfortunately, the stigmatization of folk devils and the unjust policies remain long after the moral panic has ended. With a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited institution like Walden University, you can gain the knowledge you need to help create a more inclusive, equitable world.
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