Moral panic

Preparing to burn a witch in 1544. Witch-hunts are an example of mass behavior fueled by moral panic.

A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.[1][2] A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media."[3] The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic.[4] Stanley Cohen states that moral panic is “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Examples of Moral Panic include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory hebephiles or paedophiles,[5][6][7] belief in ritual abuse by satanic cults of women and children,[8] the War on Drugs,[9] and other Public Health Issues.

Use as a social science term

Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964.[10] According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),[11] a moral panic occurs when "...[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".[4] Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as 'folk devils'.

British vs American

Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray moral panics as crises of capitalism.[12][13]

British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969.[14] In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of moral panic, Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis." [15]

Stages of moral panics

According to Stanley Cohen,[16] often considered the researcher that first coined the term "moral panic", there are five key stages in the construction of a moral panic, the key elements or stages in a moral panic are:

  1. Someone or a group are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests;
  2. The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media;
  3. The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern;
  4. There is a response from authorities and policy makers;
  5. The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community.

An example of the five stages of moral panics is the conflict of Mods and Rockers of the early to mid-1960s and 1970s.

In 1971 Stanley Cohen investigated a series of "moral panics." Cohen (1980) used the term "moral panic" to characterize the reactions of the media, the public, and agents of social control to youth disturbances. This work, involving the Mods and Rockers, demonstrated how agents of social control amplified deviance. According to Cohen (1980), these groups were labeled as being outside the central core values of consensual society and as posing a threat to both the values of society and society itself, hence the term "folk devils."[17]

Mass media and the Moral panic

According to Folk Devils and Moral Panics, the concept of ‘moral panic’ were linked to certain assumption about the mass media. Stanley Cohen illustrate that the mass media are the primary source of the public’s knowledge about deviance and social problems. In addition, Stanley Cohen claimed that moral panic ‘cause’ folk devil by labeling more actions and people.[18]

The media appear in any or all three roles in moral panic dramas:


Moral panics have several distinct features (many of which are discredited in the sociological literature). According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:[8]


2000s: Human trafficking

Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the Mann Act.[19][20][21][22][23]

1990s–present: Sex offenders

The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender, and media distorting the facts of some cases,[24] has led legislators to attack judicial discretion,[24] making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.

1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse

Main article: Satanic ritual abuse

A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse originated in the US and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s.[8][25][26][27] In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.[25]

1980s–1990s: Dungeons & Dragons

At various times Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games have been accused of promoting such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s and later, some groups, especially fundamentalist Christian ones, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons.[28] Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.

1970s–present: Video games and violence

There have been calls to regulate violence in video games for nearly as long as the video game industry has existed, with Death Race a notable early example.[29][30] In the 1990s, however, improvements in video game technology allowed for more lifelike depictions of violence in games like Mortal Kombat and Doom. The industry attracted controversy over violent content and concerns about effects they might have on players, generating frequent media stories drawing connections between video games and violent behavior as well as a number of academic studies reporting conflicting findings about the strength of correlations.[29] According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games".[31] Concerns from parts of the public about violent games led to cautionary, often exaggerated news stories, warnings from politicians and other public figures, and calls for research to prove the connection, which in turn led to studies "speaking beyond the available data and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism."[31]

Since the 1990s there have been attempts to regulate violent video games in the United States through congressional bills as well as within the industry.[29] Public concern and media coverage of violent video games reached a high point following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, after which videos were found of the perpetrators talking about violent games like Doom and making comparisons between the acts they intended to carry out and aspects of games.[29][31]

Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through.[31][32][33] In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legally restricting sales of video games to minors would be unconstitutional and called the research presented in favor of regulation "unpersuasive."[31]

1970s–present: Crime increase

Research shows that fears of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a populations' "herd mentality," continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate is rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.[34]

1970s–present: War on drugs

Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example, a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."[9]

Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 90's, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs.[35][36][37] News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998", for overstating the threat, and for excessively raising it in women's minds for the rest of their lives.[36] For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.[38]

20th-21st Century: Public Health

Throughout history, disease has been proven to cause panic in societies when individuals are faced with something they cannot explain. This fear of disease and spread of panic dates back to many centuries ago, and continues into the 21st century with diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, H1N1, Zika and SARS. Comparing Cohan’s idea of the ‘folk devils’ with disease as an epidemic plays the same role of spreading mass panic and fear concerning the spread of an infectious illness. This intense concentration on hygiene emerged, before the 20th century, with a medical belief referred to as miasma. The miasma theory, states that disease was the direct result of the polluting emanations of filth: sewer gas, garbage fumes, and stenches that polluted air and water, which results in an epidemic. The idea of cleanliness was a socially constructed belief that linked race, gender, and sexuality with ideas that made people feel uncomfortable. It is argued that a moral panic is constructed when “patterns of behaviour, whether private or public, come to be selected by the mass media as a threat to the fabric of society.”[39]

1980’s- Present: HIV/AIDS

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), in a person may develop into other fatal health conditions such as pneumonia, fungal infections, TB, toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus. The theme of a meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study Group on 21 September 1985 was 'AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic'. This was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education, at a time when both groups were also beginning to voice an equally increasing concern with the growing media attention and attendant scare-mongering that AIDS was attracting.[40] In the 1980’s a moral panic was created within the media over HIV/AIDS. The notable iceberg ad by the government clearly hinted that there were many things about HIV/AIDS that the general public did not realize due to the bulk of the information being hidden from view. On one hand, the media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the ‘gay plague’ stigmatizing a selected section of the population as being the primary cause and carriers of the disease. While on the other hand scientists gained a far better understanding of HIV/AIDS as it grew in the 1980’s and moved into the 1990’s and beyond. The illness was still negatively viewed by many as either caused by or passed on by the gay community. Once it became clear that this wasn't the case, the moral panic created by the media went in another direction blaming the overall negligence of ethical standards of the younger generation (both male and female), resulting in a moral panic. It is prevalent in the media and the way HIV/AIDS is depicted taken from this extract, “British TV and press coverage is locked into an agenda which blocks out any approach to the subject which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a profoundly homophobic culture- a culture that is which does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. No distinction obtains for the agenda between ‘quality’ and ‘tabloid’ newspapers, or between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ television.”[41]

2003-2004: SARS

Globalization increases the likelihood that an infectious disease appearing in one area of the world will spread rapidly to another. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a recent example of this. Within weeks in the beginning of 2003, SARS had quickly spread from the Guangdong province of China to infect people in over 20 countries around the world.[42] Approximately 15% of patients affected required artificial ventilation. There was also a relatively high death rate. By late March, hundreds of people were infected, with cases reported in China, Singapore, Canada, United States and Thailand. The WHO (World Health Organization) then took the rare step of issuing a worldwide alert. SARS was first reported in the United Kingdom newspapers early March of that year. Reviewing the many reports of the new infectious diseases in the newspapers, highlighted larger public anxieties, in particular anxieties about the insufficiency of technology and medicine that does not have the capacity for new threats as well as moral panic over globalization. Globalization has many definitions: It can be the spread of information, trends, technologies, culture and lifestyles but primarily it is an economic force. One of many consequences of an economic globalization is the quick, cheap access for the mobility of people of all walks of life. Another consequence is larger awareness of global threats and in particular the threat of global epidemics.

2009-2010: Swine Flu/H1N1

H1N1, properly known as swine-origin influenza A/H1N1 virus, was first recognized in 2009, in civilians in Mexico. The 2009 pandemic was a compilation of previous swine flu viruses. It is a zoonotic pathogen, a disease that normally exists in swine but can affect humans. As mentioned in Virology Journal, H1N1 could have been a cause of genetic distortion of earlier forms of swine flu viruses that affected Europe and Asia in the 90’s. From the JRSM journals, it refers to our society as ‘risk society’, the journal mentions how “Modernity creates risk by our increasingly busy and urbanized way of life, which includes working conditions, various modes of transport, pollution and infections… subsequently, the modern world is more susceptible to periods of moral panic than ever before."[43] The statement suggests that with the advancement of society and the hyper-awareness is potentially putting people at risk.

2013-2016: Ebola

The Ebola virus,clinically referred to as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a sometimes fatal diseases in humans, and usually fatal if untreated. It was first diagnosed in patients in West Africa in 2013. It was the largest outbreak of Ebola since the 1976 outbreaks in South Sudan and the Republic of Congo. The World Health Organization(WHO) states that the virus was named after the Ebola River where the illness first appeared in 1976. “The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission."[44] The epidemic and subsequent panic caused difficulties for people traveling across international borders. Ebola was seen as the ‘folk devil’ from Cohen's study on youth culture. The idea of Ebola spread mass panic in many countries, due to its wide coverage on various news outlets and talk shows. Although it was not as contagious as influenza H1N1, it caused tremendous panic and fear.

2015-Present: Zika

Zika virus (ZIKV) which originated from Uganda, “is carried by mosquitos, which includes the mosquito species responsible for spreading dengue and yellow fever."[45] The disease was first seen in patients as a dengue-like syndrome which is a mosquito-borne- tropical disease caused by dengue virus. In early 2015, several cases of patients presenting symptoms of mild fever, rash, conjunctivitis and arthralgia were reported in the northeastern Brazil.[45] The fast-paced spread of the virus was alarming, and in accordance with the idea of the moral panic by Cohan, the fear itself was stagnating an entire population and the health and wellbeing of the nation of Brazil was under scrutiny. A major issue was in pregnant women. Some Brazilian women infected with Zika gave birth to children with microcephaly, a potentially devastating condition of brain maldevelopment. Not only did the disease spread worry, the notion that babies were getting harmed led government officials to call for the regulation of pregnancy among women.


In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.[4]

Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.[4]:xxvi–xxxi Jarrett Thibodeaux (2014) further argues that the criteria of disproportionality erroneously assumes that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm. The idea that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm, but is a moral panic when it does not, is a 'constructionism of the gaps' line of explanation.[46]

In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argue "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised". Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."[47]

The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value.[48] Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.[48]

Another British criminologist, Steve Hall, goes a step further to suggest that the term 'moral panic' is a fundamental category error. Hall argues that although some crimes are sensationalized by the media, in the general structure of the crime/control narrative the ability of the existing state and criminal justice system to protect the public is also overstated. Public concern is whipped up only for the purpose of being soothed, which produces not panic but the opposite, comfort and complacency.[49]

Echoing another point Hall makes, the sociologists Thompson and Williams argue that the concept of 'moral panic' is not a rational response to the phenomenon of social reaction, but itself a product of the irrational middle-class fear of the imagined working-class 'mob'. Using as an example a peaceful and lawful protest staged by local mothers against the re-housing of sex-offenders on their estate, Thompson and Williams show how the sensationalist demonization of the protesters by moral panic theorists and the liberal press was just as irrational as the demonization of the sex offenders by the protesters and the tabloid press.[50]

Many sociologists and criminologist (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.[51]


The term was used in 1830, in a way that completely differs from its modern social science application, by a religious magazine[52] regarding a sermon.[53]:250 The phrase was used again in 1831, with an intent that is possibly closer to its modern use.[54]

See also


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  2. 1 2 see also: Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press
  3. Scott, John, ed. (2014), "M: Moral panic", A dictionary of sociology, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, p. 492, ISBN 9780199683581 Book preview.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Cohen, Stanley (1973). Folk devils and moral panics the creation of the Mods and Rockers. Paladin. p. 9.
  5. Hesselink-Louw, Anne, and Karen Olivier. "A criminological analysis of crimes against disabled children: the adult male sexual offender." CARSA 2.2 (2001): 15-20.
  6. Lancaster, Roger (2011). Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 4, 33–34, 76–79. ISBN 9780520262065.
  7. Extein, Andrew (25 October 2013). "Fear the Bogeyman: Sex Offender Panic on Halloween". Huffington Post. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  8. 1 2 3 Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) [1994]. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 9781405189347.
  9. 1 2 "Drugs Report". Royal Society of Arts Action and Research Centre. March 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2014. Pdf.
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  13. Thompson, Kenneth (1998). Moral panics. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415119771.
  14. Young, Jock (1971), "The role of the police as amplifiers of deviance", in Cohen, Stanley, Images of deviance, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ISBN 9780140212938; Young, Jock (1971). The drugtakers: the social meaning of drug use. London: MacGibbon and Kee. ISBN 9780261632400.
  15. Hall, Stuart; et al. (2013) [1978]. Policing the crisis: mugging, the state and law and order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137007186.
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  17. Killingbeck, Donna (2001). "The role of television news in the construction of school violence as a 'moral panic'". Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture. 8 (3): 186–202.
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  20. Weitzer, R. (2007). "The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade". Politics & Society. 35 (3): 447–75. doi:10.1177/0032329207304319.
  21. Cunneen, Chris; Salter, Michael (2009). "Women's bodies, moral panic and the world game: Sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond". Proceedings of the Second Australia and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference. pp. 222–42. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1333994. ISBN 978-0-646-50737-8.
  22. Milivojevic, Sanja; Pickering, Sharon (2008). "Football and sex: The 2006 FIFA World Cup and sex trafficking". Temida. 11 (2): 21–47. doi:10.2298/TEM0802021M.
  23. Davies, Nick (20 October 2009). "Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  24. 1 2 Fox, Kathryn J. (2012). "Incurable Sex Offenders, Lousy Judges & the Media: Moral Panic Sustenance in the Age of New Media". American Journal of Criminal Justice. 38: 160. doi:10.1007/s12103-012-9154-6.
  25. 1 2 Jenkins, Philip (1998). Moral panic: changing concepts of the child molester in modern America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 207–231. ISBN 9780300109634.
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  29. 1 2 3 4 Byrd, Patrick (Summer 2007). "Comment: It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: the effectiveness of proposed video-game legislation on reducing violence in children" (PDF). Houston Law Review. Houston Law Foundation.
  30. Koucurek, Carly (September 2012). "The Agony and the Exidy: A History of Video Game Violence and the Legacy of Death Race". Game Studies. 12 (1).
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  35. Jenkins, Philip (1999). Synthetic panics: the symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York, New York: New York University Press. pp. 20 and 161–182. ISBN 9780814742440.
  36. 1 2 Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) [1994]. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. p. 217. ISBN 9781405189347.
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  43. Srinivasan, R. (2010). "Swine flu: Is panic the key to successful modern health policy?". JRSM. 103 (8): 340. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2010.100118.
  44. Ebola virus disease. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2016, from
  45. 1 2 Kruskal, Joshua (February 19, 2016). "Zika Virus: How Poverty and Politics Will Determine its Social Costs". International Policy Digest.
  46. Thibodeaux, J. (2014). "Three Versions of Constructionism and their Reliance on Social Conditions in Social Problems Research". Sociology. 48 (4): 829. doi:10.1177/0038038513511560.
  47. McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (1995). "Rethinking 'Moral Panic' for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds". The British Journal of Sociology. 46 (4): 559. doi:10.2307/591571. JSTOR 591571.
  48. 1 2 Jewkes, Yvonne (2011) [2004], "Media and moral panics", in Jewkes, Yvonne, Media & crime (2nd ed.), London Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, pp. 76–77, ISBN 9781848607033
  49. Hall, S. (2012). Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage. pp. 132–139. ISBN 9781848606722.
  50. Thompson, W. and Williams, A. (2013) The Myth of Moral Panics: Sex, Snuff, and Satan (Routledge Advances in Criminology)London: Routledge ISBN 9780415812665
  51. Hier, Sean P. (2011). "Tightening the focus: Moral panic, moral regulation and liberal government1". The British Journal of Sociology. 62 (3): 523–41. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2011.01377.x. PMID 21899526.
  52. "Dr. Cox on regeneration". Millennial Harbinger. Bethany, West Virginia: W. K. Pendleton. 1: 546–550. 1830. OCLC 1695161. Preview. Cox asserted that regeneration of the soul should be an active process, and stated: "...if it be a fact that the soul is just as active in regeneration as in any other thing ... then, what shall we call that kind of orthodoxy that proposes to make men better by teaching them the reverse? To paralyze the soul, or to strike it through with a moral panic is not regeneration." (page 546) and "After quoting such scriptures as these, "Seek and you shall find," "Come unto me, and I will give you rest," they ask, it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic? (page 548)
  53. "Review: Regeneration and the manner of its occurrence". The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review. Philidephia / Pittsburgh: James Kay, Jun. & Co. / John I. Kay & Co. 2: 250–297. 1830. OCLC 8841951. Preview.
  54. The Journal of Health Conducted by an Association of Physicians (1831) p. 180 "Magendie, a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland, where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging, praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops, which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is".

Further reading

Also available as: McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (1995). "Rethinking 'Moral Panic' for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds". The British Journal of Sociology. 46 (4): 559. doi:10.2307/591571. JSTOR 591571. 

External links

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