Article in Science / Social Sciences / Sociology
Despite 45 years of claims made by British criminologists that they invented both the phrase and the concept of moral panic in the late 1960s and early 1970s, new research of the literature reveals that both have in fact been in use throughout the last 183 years in the USA and Europe.


This article does not argue that the complex sociological concept of moral panic is a myth. Neither does it argue that any particular moral panics are mythical.This is an article about the provenance of both the phrase and the most basic concept of the moral panic as it is widely understood and cited. In short, this is an article about academic bragging rights. The main aim of this article is to explain the Moral Panic Creation Myth and probe the criminology mystery regarding who really is the originator of the moral panic catchphrase and most basic concept. From where and when the term moral panic originated remains unknown. However, freely available search engine technology reveals that it was published earlier by an "association of gentlemen" in the USA at least as long ago as 1830. Therefore, despite 45 years of claims made by British criminologists that we Brits invented both the term and the basic concept of moral panic, the truth is that both have been in use throughout the last 183 years in the USA and throughout Europe. Moral Panic is a phrase embodied with inherent meaning. Therefore, it is proposed in this peer-to-peer paper that there is one particular inherent meaning of the phrase – borne out in the way it has been deployed in the 19th century, and throughout the entire 20thcentury, to depict problematic event escalation, which means that neither McLuhan, Young nor Cohen invented the basic concept of moral panic in the 1960s. Finally, this paper introduces the Dysology Hypothesis, which proposes that published myths and fallacies signal that particular topic areas are less capably guarded by skeptical scholars, leading to a downward spiral of diminishing veracity.

Within weeks of the publication of this unique mythbusting article, Wikipedia changed its fallacious claim that the phrase moral panic was coined in the 1960s and plagiarized information from this article regarding the earlier publications that I uniquely discovered to bust that decades old myth without citing this paper. You can read about Wikipedia's immoral stealth plagiarism policies here, complete with a record of their plagiarism in this case.

Postscript 19th October 2016

Surprisingly, four years later, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) remains decades behind what was discovered back in 2012 regarding the earliest extant use of the term and general concept "moral panic". At the time of writing it still has it that 1877 is the earliest known use. The article are reading has it at least 47 years earlier - to 1830.

From the OED online (19th Oct. 2016)

  • 1877 Galaxy Mar. 431/1 The state of affairs in this respect is frightful; and it frightens. The financial panic has been followed by a moral panic.

Article begins

On 7th January 2013 the criminologist Stan Cohen, who is most renowned for successfully popularising the most complex sociological concept of moral panic, died at the age of 70. At the time of writing, Cohen’s book Folk Devils and Moral Panics (all editions) has been cited a total of 39,543 times. On 16th November of the same year, Jock Young died, He was aged 71. These writers may have passed-on but their work is immortal.

Defining the complex sociological concept of moral panic

Jock Young (2009, p. 13) provides a neat yet comprehensive definition of moral panic:

‘A moral panic is a moral disturbance centring on claims that direct interests have been violated – an act of othering sometimes expressed in terms of demonization, sometimes with humanitarian undertones that are grossly disproportionate to the event or activities of the individuals concerned. It is presented in stereotypical terms. In the modern period, this involves the focusing of the mass media, buttressed by scientific experts and other moral entrepreneurs, and the mobilization of police and the courts and other agencies of social control. Such a process of mass stigmatization involves a widely circulated narrative on the genesis, proclivity and nemesis of a particular deviant group that tends to amplify in intensity over time (particularly in terms of the number of supposed incidents) and then finally extinguishes. It very frequently results in a process of deviancy amplification, a translation of fantasy into reality, where, in certain aspects, the initial stereotypes are self-fulfilled.’

In the spirit of Cohen’s rigorously sharp approach to critical enquiry and his passionate and unique scholarship on states of denial the purpose of this paper is to disseminate new research findings from the published literature to reveal that the characteristic British claim (e.g. Garland 2008: p.19; ) that the phrase ‘moral panic’ emerged in the 1960s from a new generation of deviancy theorists in Britain – most notably Jock Young, Stan Cohen, Jason Ditton and Stuart Hall – is a criminological myth. In particular, the most pervasive, widely published element of this general myth is that Stanley Cohen both coined the hugely popular phrase and invented the general concept of moral panic.

The general myth, which we might call the Moral Panic Creation Myth, has been created and fuelled by many criminologists writing on the subject since Young (1971) and Cohen (1972) introduced moral panic as a sociological concept. Today, both the phrase and, in large part, the simple concept are widely adopted by the press and academia. Unsurprisingly, Cohen's part in the Moral Panic Creation Myth was perpetuated in his obituary (here). Hunt’s unwitting dissemination of this myth in an abstract to his article on moral panics is not un-typical of false belief in it:

‘This article provides a comprehensive survey of the use of the term ‘moral panic’ from its coinage in 1972…’ (Hunt, 1997 p. 629)

This simple myth is known to a number of writers, all of whom are at pains to point out that while Stan Cohen (1972; 1973) may have developed the concept that they think that they ‘know’ that it is Young (1971a) who was the first to go into print with both the phrase and concept.

To my knowledge, Young, like Cohen, has never once written that he coined the phrase moral panic. But others have. And they have done so to such an extent that is a widely believed criminological 'knowledge' that Jock Young in fact coined (invented) the phrase and/or introduced the concept of moral panic. Ben-Yehuda’s unknowing dissemination of this 'knowledge' belief is not untypical:

‘…while Young was the first to introduce the concept into the literature, it was Cohen’s research on Mods and Rockers that launched it to its present status as a still central tool of sociological and media analysis, as well as a common phrase in popular discourse.’ (Ben-Yehuda 2009: p.1.)


Dr Mike Sutton. Dysology.orgAttribution

Ben-Yehuda is wrong, as are the many others who believe that Young introduced the academic concept of moral panic. Indeed, because Welsh and Schuster bust this particular myth back in 2008:

‘Young and Cohen both concede, however, that they probably picked up the idea of moral panic from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media …” (Welsh and Schuster 2008. P. 153).

The truth of the matter is that McLuhan went into print with the phrase four years prior to the National Deviancy Conference of 1968, but he certainly did not deploy it with much depth of academic meaning beyond the level of an individual’s personal feelings:

‘…telephone, radio, and TV. Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic. There is the further circumstance that…’ (McLuhan 1964, p. 42)

Both Cohen (2002) and Young (2011) have written much on what influenced them to use the phrase. Cohen (2002) insisted it came either directly from "the voice" of the 1968 National Deviancy Conference or else the general voice of the 1960s, while Young (2011) wrote more recently on the published sources that influenced him to use it. Notably, (Young, 2011 p.249) mentions the work of McLuhan (1964) but Young mistakenly puts the date as: "...published in 1967 during the time of my research." This is a careless mistake since the work Young cites - Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was published three years before the date Young gives for when his own research was underway (see here). Moreover, Young (2011) fails to mention McLuhan's (1964) use of the exact phrase moral panic. We must assume therefore that Young knew nothing of it - even in 2011. And presumably he knew nothing either of the dozens of earlier writers who used the moral panic phrase. Why Young (2011) failed to know this - given his renowned expertise on the issue - is an area for further research beyond the simple myth busting aims of this article. Stan Cohen, for his part, despite what he writes about the complex concept of moral panics generally arising from "the voice" of the National Deviancy Conference or else the general voice of the 1960's does, as identified by by Welsh and Shuster (2008) and pointed out above, in a newly penned introduction to the 2002 edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, (Cohen 2002 xxxv) at last acknowledge that both he and Young probably picked up the phrase from McLuhan (see McNally 2002 for an interesting discussion).

Unfortunately, the extent of the Moral Panic Creation Myth is much greater than I have revealed so far. Consequently, a major revision of “knowledge” taught and published in new student textbooks and in other sources of criminology “knowledge” is going to be required.

The Moral Panic Creation Myth-Bust

My own research, for a book on myths and fallacies, reveals that neither anyone attending the National Deviancy Conference of 1968 in York England, nor Young nor Cohen nor McLuhan coined the phrase (term) moral panic. As the texts below reveal, this phrase has been in published literature for at least 183 years.

Below, I disclose from my research findings just five from dozens of previously “undiscovered” texts that used the phrase moral panic throughout the nineteenth and 20th centuries. The first of these, dated 1830, is the earliest example that I have found to date. Quite typically of a few of the publications I have found, it uses the phrase moral panic in a dissimilar way to the ironic problem escalation model that is central to the modern criminological notion of moral panic. In this first case it is used quite simply to describe any individual person’s abandonment of morality. Perhaps it is meant to be understood in the same way that a soldier might drop his weapon and flee in blind panic.

1. The Quarterly Christian Spectator: Conducted by an Association of Gentlemen (1830) Vol. II. A. H. Maltby. New Haven/ New York:

‘Do they not speak as men do on other subjects, when they express activity? And is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic?’

Only a year later the phrase appears again in the American literature - this time in the work of physicians. Perhaps future research will reveal that the use of the term moral panic by two anonymous groups of men is something more than a simple coincidence? I suspect that the authors of the 1830 and 1831 publications may have been independently influenced by another publication, or perhaps a powerful but now forgotten oration where the phrase was used in the USA sometime around 1899-1830. Whatever the answer, in this next publication from 1831 the meaning of moral panic is perhaps more familiar to readers of Young's and Cohen's seminal works.


‘ Megandie 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”

In the above source the author’s spell Magendie wrongly. And readers may be further interested to know that in a published English translation of a letter, which I believe to be possibly the source of this quote, Magendie never actually uses the phrase 'moral panic'. Magendie, who is indeed a physician of note – not least for his incredible cruelty to animals – believed, wrongly as it turned out, that Cholera was not contagious. Therefore, he most likely saw what he perceived to be any official over-reaction to it by the state as deviancy amplification of a kind that made the original problem worse. At the time when Magendie was studying the disease, whole cities such as Paris had been blockaded by armed troops during epidemics to prevent the spread of cholera, which led to dreadful riots and widespread economic hardship. See

3. Quinet, E. (1865) La révolution, Volume 2. P. 513:


Mike Sutton Dysology.orgAttribution

Moral Panic Mythbusted

4. Rainsford W. S. (1893) Reform of the Drink Traffic:

‘The liquor question is far from settled - the lines along which we are to seek its solution are not even laid down as yet. On all hands men recognize its importance and recognize also the futility of those means that so far have been employed for grappling with it. For myself, I cannot feel any great enthusiasm for immediate legislation. Whether it take the shape suggested in Mr. C. F. Dole's Massachusetts Bill, or attempt a State monopoly, as under the lead of Governor Tillman the South Carolinians seem bent on doing, we can gain little permanent good by enacting laws so long as we know so little and are so divided in opinion. Laws that are the result of moral panic or that do not represent the mature convictions of the bulk of the people simply serve as an excuse for personal effort in the direction of reform, and soon fail of their purpose..’

Even the notable author George Bernard Shaw deploys the term, as can be seen next, in his apology for upsetting moral sensibilities with his 19th Century play about a female brothel keeper:

5. Shaw, G. B. (1902) MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION. The Author's Apology:

‘ Do not suppose, however, that the consternation of the Press reflects any consternation among the general public. Anybody can upset the theatre critics, in a turn of the wrist, by substituting for the romantic commonplaces of the stage the moral commonplaces of the pulpit, platform, or the library. Play Mrs Warren's Profession to an audience of clerical members of the Christian Social Union and of women well experienced in Rescue, Temperance, and Girls' Club work, and no moral panic will arise; every man and woman present will know that as long as poverty makes virtue hideous and the spare pocket-money of rich bachelordom makes vice dazzling, their daily hand-to-hand fight against prostitution with prayer and persuasion, shelters and scanty alms, will be a losing one.’

The Importance of Veracity in Criminology: Introducing the Dysology Hypothesis

Veracity with regard to all claims made within the discipline is no less important an issue for criminology than it is, for example, for scholars writing about the history of ideas and the origin of discoveries in the natural sciences.

Related to the above argument, a popular criminology ‘theory,’ which is arguably little more than a controversial hypothesis, is known as Broken Windows Theory In essence, it claims that areas with visible signs of disorder such as litter, anti social behaviour, graffiti and broken windows signal to potential offenders that in such neighbourhoods guardianship is less capable than offenders and so an escalating spiral of decline occurs leading to more serious offending such as kerb crawling, on street prostitution, drug dealing, theft, and serious violence.

Criminologists and other scholars who find this hypothesis compellingly plausible might wish to consider the Dysology Hypothesis (Sutton 2013a), which is that:

Letting scholars get away with publishing fallacies and myths signals to others the existence of topics where guardians of good scholarship might be less capable than elsewhere. Such dysology then serves as an allurement to poor scholars to disseminate existing myths and fallacies and to create and publish their own in these topic areas, which leads to a downward spiral of diminishing veracity on particular topics.

Of course, more research is required to see if this is a worthy hypothesis, but I suspect it might be worth further consideration. By way of just one small example of confirming evidence, the case study I have in mind is one where prolific fallacy and myth allurement occurred for over 30 years in the notorious on-going story of the iron content and nutritional value of spinach: see Sutton: 2010 here, 2011 here and 2013b here.

Discussion, Conclusion and Way Forward

This article does not argue that moral panics are a myth, nor does it argue that the concept of moral panic is a myth. The busted myth is about who coined the phrase and most basic concept.

Is the Phrase the Basic Concept?

The usage of the phrase and concept of moral panic may have evolved separately in the rest of Europe and the wider world to the way it has in the UK. Initially, further in-depth research of the literature is required in order to know how the French notion of 'panique morale' developed in comparison to the English moral panic. One thing that is seemingly obvious is that the term moral panic has two particular instances of semantic use affordance (1) an individual’s blind abandonment of morality and (2) problem escalation as a result of official intervention in a problem. In the second case, we would, arguably, expect those who deploy the phrase to use it to signal how a publicly concerned panic about something would make the situation they that are concerned about worse than it was before the heightened concern. Such a more complex academic notion of deviancy amplification and initial problem escalation is therefore inherent within its meaning as a type of self-fulfilling prophesy. In this particular case (with apologies to Marshal McLuhan) perhaps the phrase is the most basic as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree. the more complex concept? I think more thought and research, beyond this peer-to-peer- article is required to answer this most imporatant question.

In light of this new proof that neither McLuhan, Young, nor Cohen, invented the term or general concept of moral panic, academic debate will no doubt, and quite rightfully, develop as to the extent to which Cohen uniquely developed the complex academic sociaological concept. However, before that can be started criminologists and sociologists will need now to engage for the very first time with the previously undiscovered literature. References for and content of some of this essential newly unearthed US and European literature is revealed in this brief peer-to-peer article. More references to it will follow in future papers and one day in a book I may write on scientific and social science myths and fallacies.

Since the main aim of this article is to bust the Moral Panic Creation Myth, it is not my intention to engage in speculation and rhetoric as to why this criminology myth occurred and survived for the past 42 years. That, along with an etymological analysis of the phrase moral panic, is a task for future research.

To be absolutely clear about, and therefore to repeat the point made above, there are two etymological issues highlighted in this paper: (1) the moral panic as a phrase coinage issue and (2) the originator and also developer of the concept issue. The coinage myth is now bust. In relation to academic “bragging rights” to the concept, I argue in this paper that by virtue of the way it was used by physicians in 1831, in relation to a cholera epidemic, that current widely published academic 'knowledge' that McLuhan, Young or Cohen created and developed the original and most basic moral panic concept of initial problem escalation and deviancy amplification that as we recognise as moral panic today is also fallacious. Hence, it is a myth that the moral panic phrase and the most basic moral panic concept were respectively coined and created in the 1960's and 1970's. The remaining question, therefore, is: “How far did (1) Young and (2) Cohen uniquely develop that basic moral panic concept?” This question can only be addressed by examining the “lost” literature - an unknown percentage of which I currently have in my possession.

Finally, if anyone can trace the origins of the exact phrase moral panic (in any language) to another source in 1830 or earlier, I would be most grateful if you could post a public comment in the comments section of this article. If the finding is sound I will publish the details and the name of its discoverer here by way of a postscript update.

Mike Sutton 2012


Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London: MacGibbon and Kee

Cohen S.(1973). Folk devils and moral panics. St. Albans, England: Paladin

Cohen, S. (2002) Folk devils and moral panics. (third edition) Oxon. Routledge.

Garland, D. (2008) On the concept of moral panic. Crime Media Culture 4; 9.

Hunt, A. (1997) ‘Moral panic’ and moral language in media. The British Journal of Sociology. Vol. 48. No. 4. December. pp. 629-64.

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London Routledge.

McNally, M. (2002) Trial by Circumstance: Is identity theft a modern day moral panic? . Doctoral thesis. Rutgers.

Quinet, E. (1865) La révolution, Volume 2. A. Lacroix. P. 513

Shaw, G. B. (1894), With The Author's Apology (1902), MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION: Available :

Rainsford ,W. S. (1893) Reform of the Drink Traffic. The North American Review. Vol. 156, No. 439. Jun. pp. 728-738.

Sutton, M. (2010) The Spinach, Popeye, Iron, Decimal Error Myth is Finally Busted. Best Thinking.Com:

Sutton, M. (2011) SPIN@GE USA Beware of the Bull: The United States Department of Agriculture is Spreading Bull about Spinach, Iron and Vitamin C on the Internet. Best

Sutton, M. (2013a) The Dysology Hypothesis.

Sutton, M. (2013b) CHANNEL 5's '25-A-DAY FALLACY': Nutritional Degradation of Vegetables is Busted Bullony. Best

The Quarterly Christian Spectator: Conducted by an Association of Gentlemen (1830) Vol. II. A. H. Maltby. New Haven/ New York

THE JOURNAL OF HEALTH CONDUCTED BY AN ASSOCIATION OP PHYSICIANS (1831) Health the poor man a riches the rich man's bliss Vol. III Philadelphia September 14 1831 No 1. P. 180:

Weisburd, D. and Braga, A. (2006) Police Innovation: Contrasting perspectives. New York. Cambridge University Press.

Welch, and Schuster, L. (2008) in Brotherton, D. C. and Kretsedemas, P. (eds) Keeping out the other: A critical introduction to immigration enforcement today. Columbia University Press.

Young, J. (1971a) The Drugtakers. MacGibbon and Kee and Paladin.

Young, J. (1971b) The role of the police as amplifiers of deviancy, negotiations of reality and the translators of fantasy: Some consequences of our present system of drug control as seen in Notting Hill. In Cohen S. (Ed.), Images of deviance (pp. 27-61). Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican.

Young, J. (2009) Moral Panic Its Origins in Resistance, Ressentiment and the Translation of Fantasy into Reality. British Journal of Criminology. 49 (1) p. 4-16.

Young, J. (2011) Moral panics and the transgressive other. Crime Media Culture. 7 (3) 245-258.

Mike Sutton Identity Verified

About the Author 

Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.

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