Folk Devils Rise Again

Barry Hindess

My title takes the term ‘Folk Devils’ from Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (1972), part of an influential push by a group of British sociologists and criminologists (Cohen 1972; 1980; 2002; Hall et al. 1978; Young 1971) who reacted against the tendency of public debate and far too many of their colleagues to treat deviance as a matter of readily observable characteristics of behaviours and/or individuals rather than as an ascribed social category. Public debate around ‘deviant’ behaviour or persons sometimes escalated into panics about perceived threats to social order. The Moral Panic push argued that the media, police and socially credentialed experts played prominent roles in the labelling of certain individuals and behaviours as deviant and further that ‘the societal reaction may in fact increase rather than decrease or keep in check the amount of deviance’ (Cohen 2002: 8, emphasis in original)

Cohen (2002: 1) describes moral panic as a condition, episode, a 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; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.’

It is described more concisely in Charles Krinsky’s Introduction to The Ashgate Research Companion to Moral Panics, a useful survey of the Moral Panic literature and its critics. He tells us (2013: 1) that a moral panic may be understood ‘as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order’ While the roles of the media, law and public policy are indicated here, it would be remiss in the Australian context not to bring into the mix State and Commonwealth Governments, professional politicians and academics only too willing to market themselves as specialists on the latest generation of folk devils.

Cohen’s term ‘Folk Devils’ points to the ways in which media organisations, police and other authorities focus on deviant individuals or groups seen as embodying a new or extraordinary social threat. The image of folk ‘devils’ is a powerful one but the concept appears designed to resist clear definition (Hayle, 2013). The term ‘Devil’ evokes demonic, almost super-human, capacities for evil but these capacities are attributed to particular human individuals or groups. ‘Folk’ refers to popular perceptions of these beings, and such perceptions are notoriously difficult to pin down. Partly for this reason, moral panic studies have focused on media representations and statements by public authorities, read as if they feed directly into popular perceptions. In effect, ‘folk devils’ are popular perceptions, inferred from public representations of all too human individuals who conduct themselves in ways that can be represented as deviant. The role of public representation and ascription suggests that the threat posed by Folk Devils is socially constructed, while the term itself suggests that the threat arises from demons, who are largely imaginary but somehow associated with real persons.

While the moral panic concept is not without its difficulties, some of which I register in this discussion (Thompson 1998; McRobbie & Thornton 1995; Hall 2012). I use it here, in spite of its limitations, to throw light on the recent proliferation of Australian talk about radicalisation and of policies designed to counter or at least contain it. Moral panics have been familiar features of Australian public life, focusing variously in the years since WW2 on the threats posed by communism; immigrants, first from Eastern Europe and later from Asia; bikie gangs, who were accused of trafficking drugs, guns and sex workers; refugees; sexual abuse of children and, at another level, ‘political correctness’ and ‘postmodernism’, both of which have been presented as fads that effectively undermine academic integrity. At other levels again, we might think of the, only partly successful, political panics around indigenous land rights and the threats of economic rationalism, neoliberalism, the return of work choices and Labor’s carbon tax. While some of these panics, especially the fears of communism and Eastern Europeans, have died off, others continue to bubble away in the background.

The full paper can be found at