The Canon: Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. By Stanley Cohen

March 4, 2010

If ever a work was decisive in defining the contours of a discipline and field of research for decades to come, Stanley Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral Panics certainly ranks among the most influential. It has shaped British criminology in a singular and unrivalled way, and has constituted its unique identity, in contrast to the dominating US, or other European, criminologies. It established British criminology as the most interesting, thriving and lively in the discipline, and it speaks to its "Britishness" that notwithstanding its huge impact on continental critical criminology, there has been no translation into one of the major languages. Since the book's first publication in 1972, and a third edition in 2002, there is hardly any introductory criminology course in the country without it on the list of required readings, or the theme of "media and crime" in the syllabus. Across nearly half a century, it vividly and convincingly speaks to students about the "creation" of deviance and deviant groups.


Cohen's book established the themes that made British criminology a unique intellectual endeavour. Youth subcultures (the treatment of which an early reviewer found "sympathetic"), reactions of the public and "fear of crime", and media studies, all weave into the rich texture of British criminology. It set the scene for the discipline's continuous critical engagement with politics, which as an affair of love and hatred has yet to abate. Indeed, Folk Devils and Moral Panics foreshadowed "a painful reappraisal of our traditional methods ... for coping with deviants and handling rebellious youth" (as New Society observed of the book's first edition), which British criminology has pursued ever since.

It was the term "moral panic" that had the most pronounced impact across national borders, and beyond the disciplinary remit of criminology. It is rare that a term from criminological inquiry finds its way into everyday language, and this one was paradoxically even picked up by the media. Cohen did not invent it - the credit goes to his friend and colleague Jock Young - but he turned it into common coinage through his convincing account of events in an English seaside resort in the 1950s, the reaction of the media, politicians and the public, and finally the ways in which the criminal justice system coped with this "crisis". From exposing moral panics as driven by "moral entrepreneurs", "small-mindedness" and "intolerance", in his introduction to the third edition Cohen moved on to see them as "discourses of denial", and to "encourage moral panics about mass atrocities and political suffering".

Perhaps only an author from abroad could write such a sharp-sighted account of a moment in British history, the press, youth rebellion and politics. In 1963, Cohen left his native South Africa, where his eyes had been trained to see disproportionate reactions of the criminal justice system, and where as a social worker he had been well aware in which ways folk devils were created. In 2009, the British Society of Criminology gave him its Lifetime Award in recognition of the fact that British criminology would be very different without him.

Susanne Karstedt is professor of criminology, University of Leeds.

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