Every Rule is Somebody's Rule

Claim 6. Every rule is somebody's rule: moral panics, moral crusades, and status politics


  1. H Becker "Moral Entrepreneurs," pp. 147-164 in Outsiders (DRL or GoogleBooks).
  2. Mary deYoung The devil goes to day care: McMartin and the making of a moral panic. Journal of American Culture Spring 1997; 20, 1 (Proquest or DRL)
  3. Roberto Hugh Potter and Lyndy A. Potter. 2001. "The internet, cyberporn, and sexual exploitation of children: Media moral panics and urban myths for middle-class parents?." Sexuality and Culture 5, Number 3, 31-48, DOI: 10.1007/s12119-001-1029-9 (ebscohost) (alternative path)
  4. Craig Reinarman "The Social Construction of Drug Scares" (DRL)
  5. Gusfield, J. 1986. (1963) "Introduction" pp. 1-12 in Symbolic Crusade. Urbana: Univ Illinois Press. (DRL) (annotation
  6. Best, J. 1997. "Rhetoric in Claims-Making: Constructing the Missing Children Problem." Social Problems 34,2:101-21 (JSTOR) (annotation)


Our model of society, deviance, and control thus far is the metaphorical donut. Behavior varies and boundaries are drawn. Most behaviors are inside the boundary and acceptable, some are outside and unacceptable. One thing that societies (and groups) do is boundary maintenance (protection, patrol, etc.). But to survive, societies and groups sometimes need to adjust to their surroundings: conditions change and rules can outlive their usefulness. And so society actually depends on some of its members testing and even breaking the boundaries. Our last set of readings explicitly showed how some of what we think of as trouble or delinquent can be seen as actors responding to stress/tensions caused by rule/practices that perhaps ought to change. Both juvenile "badasses" and rude comedians can more or less explicitly call into question taken for granted rules that the rest of us would go on dutifully (as members in good standing of the social order) vicariously defend.

The cases we talked about last time had in common a rejection of society (or some part of it). In Merton's terms there was a sense in which they rejected the goals and the means. Emblematic of this was Lafer's description of Occupy as being political action that had given up on the standard approach of trying to influence legislators. But an analogous move was made by the "obnoxious" behavior of "the lads" and the "badasses" who refused to even play along with everyday social interaction rules because that meant giving in and going along.

Implied in the above is the idea that "obnoxious" is in the eye of the beholder. Now that could just be an expression of "deviance is relative" but something more is going on here. In the Katz, Willis, and Lafer articles we explicitly confront the idea that there are subgroups in society who may not be well served by some socially accepted rules or practices. Willis' lads are not acting out as disgruntled individuals but as co-members of a social location. But note that it's the social science observer who is "getting" this (cf. Marx's class in itself („Klasse an sich“)).

Kitsuse's article takes us on the next step — members of the group themselves "get it" and fight back against the rule that "makes" them deviant to begin with (cf. Marx's class-for-itself („Klasse für sich“)).

Today we start looking at social conflict over rules — arguments that there "oughta be a law," that something is something about which a group should mark a boundary, or that an existing rule should be changed, scrapped, or replaced by another. We will develop conceptual tools for recognizing when that's what is happening, for identifying the roles involved in and the dynamics of the process, and we'll look closely at the social functions of rhetoric — how text and talk become social forces.

Where the Readings Fit In

Gusfield (temperance) is an historical study that characterizes the temperance movement as a "symbolic crusade." From it we get concepts such as symbolic politics (arguments about ideas rather than material goods) and the way rule contests are embedded in class/culture conflict.
deYoung (daycare), Potter and Potter (cyberporn), and Reinarman (drugs) describe concrete instances of "moral panics" and "issue scares." From these we get a sense of what kind of social fires can be started, how it happens, and with what consequences. We also start to build up a catalog of the types of issues (sex, drugs, and children) most susceptible to these phenomena.
Becker's classic chapter coins terms like moral entrepreneur and further distinguishes roles and process.
Best's article (rhetoric and missing children) shows us how to analyze language as a tool in moral crusades introducing us to the concept "claimsmaking."

Rhetoric of Claims-making.

What is rhetoric? Language used to persuade, convince, cause listener to reach conclusion.
Rhetorical work — in physics, a force acting over a distance; in EDL, activity in pursuit of a purpose or result — and so we mean the use of language to get something done.
I want to proffer an excuse that will cause you to evaluate my behavior as not morally inferior
I want to seduce you
I want to bargain you down to a lower price
I want you to vote for me
I want you to agree that I have made the correct decision
I want you to reach the same ethical judgment I have reached (see that this is wrong)
I want you to condemn someone or something

Step 1: distinguish the CLAIM from the DATA. The claim is what you want me to believe. The data is what you can get me to stipulate to (that is, both agree is true).

Utterance Data Claim
Yesterday was Sunday so I didn't answer your email. Yesterday was Sunday. It was not a breach for me to not answer your email.
Cats can't learn tricks; dogs are smart than cats1 Cats cannot learn to do tricks as well as dogs do. Cats are less intelligent than dogs.
I am a British citizen; I'm from Bermuda.2 I am a British citizen. I was born in Bermuda.

Warrant: The ability to learn tricks is a mark of intelligence.
Warrant: A man born in Bermuda will legally be a British citizen.

Symbolic Politics

Joseph Gusfield's Symbolic Crusade first appeared in 1963 right at the start of the "labeling theory movement" in sociology. It is at once a study in social control and social movements and an example of historical sociology and the sociology of culture.

We are just reading the introduction — it lays out the motivation and logic of the study.

"disinterested reform" (2) — reform efforts that are not tied to economic interests. This is, of course, an ideal type.

In this book we will describe the relation between Temperance attitudes, the organized Temperance movement, and the conflict between divergent subcultures in American society.

Issues of moral reform are analyzed as one way through which a cultural group acts to preserve, defend, or enhance the dominance and prestige of its own style of living within the total society. In the set of religious, ethnic, and cultural cummunities that have made up American society, drinking (and abstinence) has been one of the significant consumption habits distinguishing one subculture from another (3).

Become symbols of social status.
Synedoche for upstanding hardworking honest, etc. "self-control, industriousness, and impulse renunciation"
Taken as indicator of what group one is committed to

Analysis does not exclude the ideas (religious, etc.) or try to replace them by a status politics. Question is, rather,

[what are] the social conditions which made the facts of other people's drinking especially galling to the abstainer and the need
for reformist action acutely pressing for him"? (4)

Answer: threats to the socially dominant position of the temperance adherent by those whose lifestyle is different from his
as the social honor and prestige for his way of life diminish, he seeks public acts through which he can reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his style of life.
Convert the sinner is one way. Having the law support his side is another. Doesn't matter whether it's enforced.

"The publlc support of one conception of morality at the expense of another enhances the prestige and self -esteem of the victors and degrades the culture of the losers." (5)

Cf. text of Prop 8 decision.

Age Old Question: how to distinguish between the "reputable" and the "disreputable"? Every group. Every society.

1820s/30s Federalist decline in politics
1830s/40s Temperance organizations, religious revivals, confluence of social organizational factors
1840s temperance both an indicator of middle class sensibility and a tool of mobility and self-improvement (market signalling)

layered onto native/immigrant and Protestant/Catholic divides

Late 19th century split into two forms of disinterested reform
assimilative : sympathetic to plight of poor, etc. morphs into progressive movement?

Coercive reformer sees drinker as someone who rejects and challenges his lifestyle. Turns to law and force. "He had to shore up his waning seIf-esteem by inflicting his morality on everybody." (7)

Prohibition (1920) as symbolic victory of "ceremonial deference toward old middle-class culture" Even if often broken, "Atter all. it was their law that drinkers had In avoid" (8).

The fundamentalists get more and more fundamentalist and lose the support of the more moderate assimilationists and the thing crashes and burns in 1933.

Macro story: commercial to industrial society. value of self control etc. to consumption as status marker (Veblen)

Reisman's other directed American. Neither too much nor too little is normative.
As America became more urban, more secular, and

Anticipating my work on "ghosts of social organization": Social systems and cultures dies slowly, leaving their rear guards behind to fight delaymg action. Even after they have ceased to be relevant economic groups, the old middle classes of America are still searching for some way to restore a sense of lost respect. The dishonoring of their values is a part of the process of cultural and social change. A heightened stress on the importance of tradition is a major response of such "doomed classes." A:.Jl-"ig!ltene<!

"The anger and bitterness of the "doomed class" is by no means an irrational reaction. There has been a decline in the social
status of the old middle class and in the dominance of his values." (10) Takes form

  • diffuse critique of modernity
  • defense of tradition
  • economic conservatism
  • nationalism

In the 1950s the issues were fluoridation, communism, schools, the United Nations,

One of Gusfield's conclusions is to be careful about dismissing everything as a moral panic. Things that seem irrational or inconsequential may be expressions of important forms of status fractures.

"When society experiences profound changes, the fortunes and the respect of people undergo loss or gain. ll. We have always understood the desire to defend fortune. We should also understand the desire to defend respect." (11)

Moral Panics

There are several ways we can study moral panics.
How do they tie into or reveal underlying stresses, worries, beliefs?
What social actors deliberately foment them and why?
What are the mechanisms by which they diffuse and circulate?

The term "moral panic" is associated with the work of Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist who wrote Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). It refers to a process in which an individual, group, or practice gains (sudden) notoriety as a threat to society, particular values, or interests. Cohen called the object of the panic a "folk devil."

A paradigmatic example is the witch scare described by Kai Erikson in Wayward Puritans. A moral panic can take place at levels ranging from the very macro (e.g., the "red scare" in the 1950s) to the relatively micro (as when a neighborhood panics after a series of crimes).

Although as usually employed the term implies that the object (the source of danger) in moral panic is fictional, this is not definitive. The term refers to a pattern of social response that involves rapidly spreading concern, growing hostility towards the group or practice, broad and unquestioned acceptance of the threat, disproportionality of response, and a kind of volatility whereby the issue can disappear as quickly as it surfaced.[1]

A part of the story of moral panics is to be found in Durkheim's observation that collective attention to deviance and participation in punishment can be a boon to social solidarity. A similar point is made by Coser in his "functions of deviance" article. Persecution, we might say, has a capacity to be socially addictive in groups. We can imagine modeling this as a dialectical balance process; as Coser points out, too much attention paid to identifying and dealing with deviants can deplete group resources and generate negative emotions. These can act as a break on a moral panic or be the reason that a moral panic destroys a group.


Case 1: de Young - Day care

This piece is about a series of events in the 1980s that are collectively referred to as "day care sexual abuse hysteria."

Author Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Sexual Abuse and Points of Resonance
  3. Discourse, Healing and Recruitment
  4. Panic Discourse to Restore the Image of the Child as Victim
  5. Panic Discourse to Occlude the Image of the Abuser as Male
  6. Panic Discourse to Re-Enchant the Image of the Rescuer
  7. Conclusion

This paper analyses the ideological recruitment of international child-savers into the "satanic ritual abuse" moral panic. It examines the discourse … What links these fantastic and far-flung vignettes is a moral panic about the satanic ritual
abuse of young children. This paper is about "how these interest groups recruit participants" (2) to spread panic.

It's easy to miss the subtle point made by this article - not about child abuse in particular but about moral panics more generally - that a moral panic can function to distract and redefine (we might even say "reconstruct") social attention and collective categories. The stuff of Durkheim, in other words, becomes a dependent variable subject to these rhetorical and social movement processes.

Case 2: Potter and Potter - Cyberporn

Author Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Cyberporn?: On-line Content and Access to Explicit Sexual Sites
  3. The Danger Posed by the Internet A Synopsis
  4. Evidence of the Danger
  5. Cyberporn as a Media-Induced Moral Panic
  6. Cyberporn and Children
  7. The Beginnings of the Moral Panics
  8. Cyberporn as Moral Mythology for Middle-Class Parents in the Computer Age
  9. Implications for Social Problems Research and Theory

What is Cyberporn?: On-line Content and Access to Explicit Sexual Sites
The Danger Posed by the Internet A Synopsis
Evidence of the Danger
Cyberporn as a Media-Induced Moral Panic
Cyberporn and Children Mary Douglass, children as purity and danger - that part of society that is most uncorrupted but most corruptable. Parents qua parents as responsible. Constant worry that something we've been doing will ruin them all. Music lyrics and movies and video games. Template reaction of ratings systems so "parents will know."
The Beginnings of the Moral Panics In fact pornography has been a concern in every visual communications medium since the printing press.
Cyberporn as Moral Mythology for Middle-Class Parents in the Computer AgeGary Fine: urban myths are response to tech change and strain. Warnings say parents are less familiar with the new thing than the kids. Note the parallels with the model in
"The Ways of the Badass." The worry is that parents will fall down on the job. Society's anxiety about technology preys on parents' anxiety about being good parents (which they know society depends on them for?).
Implications for Social Problems Research and Theory Concern about children as victims is a way to be concerned about private behavior that probably doesn't represent social danger.

Case 3: Reinarman Drugs

Author Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Drug scares and drug laws
  3. Toward a culturally-specific theory of drug scares

According to Reinarman, 7 components of drug scare

  1. A Kernel of Truth
  2. Media Magnification
  3. Politico-Moral Entrepreneurs
  4. Professional Interest Groups
  5. Historical Context of Conflict Linking a Form of Drug Use to a "Dangerous Class"
  6. Scapegoating a Drug for a Wide Array of Public Problems

Functions of drug scares for various stakeholders:

  1. can help elites increase the social control of groups perceived as threatening (Duster. 1970)
  2. establish one class's moral code as dominant (Gusfield. 1963)
  3. bolster a bureaucracy's sagging fiscal fortunes (Dickson. 1968)
  4. mobilize voter support (Reinarman and Levine.1989)

By why so resonant?

  1. Vocabulary of attribution that fits with cultural ideals of blaming individuals rather than situations
  2. "Temperance Culture": US history growing out of protestant/capitalist emphasis on self control makes "losing control" morally bad
  3. On foundation of temperance culture a postmodern mass consumption culture

Reinarman wants to argue that the kind of capitalism that developed in US requires a constant expansion of self-indulgence and that this interacts with the temperance culture to create a contradiction/strain which periodically breaks out in drug scares.


Urban myths (aka legends). See http://www.snopes.com/, a site devoted to debunking them.

Moral Entrepreneurship

Moral Entrepreneurs v Moral Crusader
Rule creators Rule enforcers
Living for/Living off
Values Behavior
Personal/Group Concern
This concern not === Wider group’s concern
Draw on experts
Entrepreneurs: need permanent problems. Too much success and they are no longer needed.

Social Problems === activity of groups making claims about putative conditions
Temperance movement
Domestic violence
Teen pregnancy
Childhood obesity
Sex trafficking
Rape (date, marital, etc.)




See also http://www.current.org/prog/prog711b.html

1. Wikipedia. "Moral Panic." Accessed 20120229.
2. Best, J. 1997. "Rhetoric in Claims-Making: Constructing the Missing Children Problem." Social Problems 34,2:101-21.
3. Gusfield, J. 1986 (1963). Symbolic Crusade. Urbana: Univ Illinois Press.
4. Becker, H "Moral Entrepreneurs]," pp. 147-164 in Outsiders
5. Ben-Yehuda, Nachman and Erich Goode. 1994. Moral panics: the social construction of deviance. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18905-X.
6. Jasper, James M. (2001). "Moral Panics." In Smelser, N. J.; Baltes, Paul B.. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Pergamon. pp. 10029–10033. ISBN 0080430767.
7. University of Maryland. “Warranting Claims,” in website for the course “Interpreting Strategic Discourse” (COMM 401 Spring 2009)
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