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Moral panics and social dramas

July 25, 2008

What’s the connection, if any, between moral panics and social dramas? I’m not quite sure why I’m asking this now, but the question came up during a Media Anthropology Network electronic seminar we had some time ago on a working paper by Matthew Durington about a moral panic in suburban Texas and it’s lingered in my mind ever since. More recently, in researching existing anthropological studies of grassroots leaders and their media practices, I’ve come across a number of episodes in the lives of otherwise very different leaders (a Zulu proto-nationalist in interwar Natal, a Native American leader in 1980s upstate NY, an actor-cum-politician in 1980s Tamil Nadu)  that looked to me like social dramas (or media dramas).  Are social dramas involving leaders more likely at times of moral anxieties that can escalate into full-blown moral panics? One moral panic theorist speaks of the ‘drama of moral panics’ and in a textbook – I’ll need to check both sources – we’re told that Cohen got the idea for moral panics from Turner’s concept of social drama. To be continued…

21 Oct 2008 update:
see conference announcement here

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2008 2:26 pm

    PS At any rate, both social dramas and moral panics are what Victor Turner and his Manchester School associates would call ‘processual forms’ in which the analyst can distinguish a series of stages.

    See Evens and Handelman (2005) The Manchester School. Oxford: Berghahn.

  2. Mark Allen Peterson permalink
    July 25, 2008 4:12 pm

    Turner’s notion of “social drama” was part of the Manchester school’s interest in social change and was intended to discuss large scale social and cultural transformations, real or ultimately controlled. Cohen’s concept of “moral panic”, by contrast, focuses on cultural narratives that are ephemeral and largely stay within the realm of expressive culture.

    A moral panic involves the symbolic expression of anxiety about a breach in the moral order using emotive images and language. It is usually aimed at a social group whose deviancy poses “a moral threat to societal values and interests” (this group may, as in the case of the U.S. panic over ritual child sexual abuse, turn out not to exist). The group and its activities are typically predicated on a few, very dramatic but usually unrepresentative (and sometimes wholly imagined) cases. Moral panics as originally conceived are specifically media phenomena, in that it requires media amplification to turn the event into a moral panic. Moral panics tend to be short lived, but can recur. They are usually tied to specific social pressures—economic downswings, political change, or other pressures inducing changes in social norms.

    A social drama derives from extending Victor Turner’s theory of the ritual process as productive of social persons to the processes by which society itself is produced and reproduced. The concept of the social drama extends Turner’s “ritual process” into larger social, political and economic domains. Social dramas have four phases. The first phase begins when a breach of the social order takes place, usually in the form of breaking a law or some other violation of norms. This particular breach, however, must have a deeply symbolic dimension such that it reveals underlying conflicts/contradictions in and of the social system. As a result of this breach, a crisis occurs. Overt conflict and antagonism arise as sides are taken within society and factions form, resulting in a widening of the breach to include more and more members of the social group. Redress occurs as members of the group attempt to make use of formal and informal mechanisms (informal arbitration, ritual sacrifice, etc.) to limit the contagious spread of the breach. The social drama is completed when a reintegration of the opposed social groups occurs, or, if the redressive mechanisms are ineffectual, a schism occurs as the groups come to recognize that the gulf that separates them is unbridgeable and form new groups (ala Bateson’s concept of schismogenesis).

    Unlike moral panics, social dramas were conceived as phenomena that could occur in any society, so media need not play an important role. Turner’s own examples include the murder of Thomas Beckett and the Mexican War of Independence of 1810. Although the concept originated in anthropological theory in the early 1970s, social drama did not enter into media scholars’ vocabularies until well after the concept of moral panic, when Robin Wagner-Pacific applied it (in 1986) to her account of the 1978 kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade. Here the media played a crucial part in the process.

    The two concepts are similar in that both describe situations of collective reflection and retrospection in which the values and norms of the society are suddenly on critical display. Both concepts attempt to account for cultural activities that are contingent and messy while happening but can be found to be coherent and meaningful in retrospective analysis.

    A moral panic can potentially be part of the breach that triggers a social drama—this happened in the Gulf during the moral panic over Pokemon, where the Saudi Arabian state ultimately felt it necessary to step in and ban Pokemon to demonstrate its effectiveness at guarding the public morality to prevent a widening crisis over the dangers of globalization (reintegration). In Egypt, by contrast, Pokemon induced a considerable moral panic among the middle classes but followed the usual crest and decline pattern. (Hmmm. I could get a paper out of this discussion….)

    Mark Allen Peterson
    Anthropology Department & International Studies Program
    Miami University
    Oxford OH 45056
    (513) 529-5018 (office)
    (513) 529-8396 (fax)

  3. July 28, 2008 10:02 am

    Nice one, Mark, thanks a lot. Yes, I can see an intriguing comparative paper in the making.

    One correction, if I may: if I’m not mistaken, the notion of social drama originates not in the early 70s but rather in 1957 in Turner’s Ndembu monograph, Schism and Continuity.

    The 64,000 euro question now is – what kind of a social thing, of social life form, is a process (eg a moral panic, a social drama)? What sort of ‘stuff’ are human agents processing during these so-called crises? Are they reconfiguring (transforming) sets of social relations? What else are they processing? Historical, incl micro-historical, processes seem to have a dynamic and tempo of their own, as if human agents had to ‘ride’ a fast-moving wave. Is ‘structure’ a cultural stream (Barth) meandering its way through one or more social fields at a slow pace, and is a ‘structural crisis’ analogous to a rapid? I’d better stop there before somebody reads this.


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