Elite-Engineered Moral Panics

Mathieu Deflem
Stephen Chicoine
University of South Carolina

This is an online copy of a publication in Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark Kleiman and James Hawdon. Sage Publications, 2011.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Stephen Chicoine. 2011. "Elite-Engineered Moral Panics" In Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark A. Kleiman and James E. Hawdon. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

The concept of moral panics was systematically developed and applied by Stanley Cohen in his 1972 study of the “mods” and rockers of 1960s Great Britain. Seeking to denote the disproportionate societal response to a relatively limited and not very harmful problem, Cohen argued that a “moral panic” occurred when “a condition, episode, person or group 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.” Since this groundbreaking formulation, many scholars have applied and theoretically extended the moral panics perspective. In the contemporary literature, three theories can be identified concerning the causal mechanisms of why moral panics take place. The elite-engineered model is one of these theories.

First, the interest-group model holds that rule creators and moral entrepreneurs can engage in moral crusades in order to establish new rules and subsequently enforce them. Since a necessary step in this process is to establish the recognition of the problem or issue, these moral crusades can become moral panics affecting society at large. The interest-group model traces the source of moral panics back to the role of the media and other specific groups that frame a particular problem. Moral panics are argued to be the result of the efforts of groups and organizations located in the middle rungs of society, independent of elites’ interests or widely shared public concerns.

Second, according to the grassroots model, moral panics originate in a pre-existing, widespread public concern, not just on the basis of issues presented by interest groups or elites. The expression of certain concerns in special sectors of society are suggested to be the result of the prevalence of these concerns among the populace at large. Grassroots moral panics only require interest groups, the media, or elites to serve as triggers for the moral panic to take hold.

Third, the elite-engineered model suggests that moral panics are orchestrated by political, economic, and other powerful elites through their control of the major institutions of society. Such moral panics are engineered to direct attention away from other societal problems as a means to protect the elites’ political and economic interests by focusing on creating fear and concern toward a behavior that the elites recognize as not being particularly harmful or threatening to society. The threat purportedly posed to society can be exaggerated from an existing minor problem or almost completely fabricated. Elites are able to create and sustain such concerns and fears through their control of major social institutions such as the media and the police. The motivation for the moral panic is typically to distract the public from a problem that is conceived to be detrimental to the interests of the elites.

The most famous analysis using the elite-engineered model was conducted by Stuart Hall and his associates in a study of mugging in Great Britain in the 1970s. According to the study, the moral panic concerning mugging was orchestrated by societal elites in order to divert attention away from the economic recession. Along with this motive, elites were also genuinely convinced of the threat posed to society by the problem of mugging. As elites had experienced a crisis in their hegemony, the moral panic surrounding mugging represented a new means of control. The moral panic was largely successful because the media predominately represented statements by authorities to frame the mugging issue. The media thus contributed to reproducing the perspective of the elites. As public opinion is largely formed and informed by the media, the public at large adopted the position of the elites.

Criticism of the Elite-Engineered Model

Among the criticisms of the elite-engineered model, it has been found to have limited power to explain all cases of moral panics. There is also evidence that elite campaigns often fail due to their inability to direct the public's attention toward certain problems.

Relating to drug policy, it has been found that drugs can be an important source of moral panics. Drugs can be a social concern that is shared among many members of the public as well as articulated by interest groups and by elites. From the perspective of the elite-engineered model, it can be argued that political rhetoric, especially by an important head of government such as the U.S. president, has helped to generate a moral panic concerning drugs. The kind of policy rhetoric that is adopted, in particular, has played a large role in the development and maintenance of a moral panic.

In the United States, the “War on Drugs” meets the requirements of being a moral panic since basic facts about drug abuse and drug trafficking have been exaggerated. As a result, public concerns on drugs have increased independently of the magnitude of the problem. In the years before the events of September 11, 2001, a majority of the U.S. population listed drugs as the number-one concern for the country as a whole. It was especially the policy rhetoric used by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan that enabled the development of a moral panic about drugs. Reagan typically resorted to punitive policy statements that emphasized the choice involved in using drugs and the urgency to take action. After a moral panic on drugs was created, it was further sustained by the adoption of rehabilitative statements and policies in order to generate signs of success and progress. Exemplifying the elite-engineered model of moral panics, policy rhetoric on drugs is able to generate a moral panic through its influence on how the media present the problem of drugs and its solution.

Further Readings
  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The Sociology of Moral Panics: Toward a New Synthesis.” Sociological Quarterly, v.27/4 (1986).
  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1972.
  • Goode, Erich and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. “Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction.” Annual Review of Sociology, v.20 (1994).
  • Goode, Erich and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994.
  • Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke, and Brian Roberts. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
  • Hawdon, James E. “The Role of Presidential Rhetoric in the Creation of a Moral Panic: Reagan, Bush, and the War on Drugs.” Deviant Behavior, v.22/5 (2001).
  • Hunt, Arnold. “‘Moral Panic’ and Moral Language in the Media.” British Journal of Sociology, v.48/4 (1997).
  • Rowe, David. “The Concept of the Moral Panic: An Historico-Sociological Positioning.” In Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England,
  • David Lemmings and, ed. Claire Walker, eds., ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.