Stanley Cohen, 1942-2013

January 24, 2013

The sociologist who pioneered the hugely influential notion of “moral panics” has died.

Stanley Cohen was born on 23 February 1942 and grew up in Johannesburg. His first “political” memory, he later recalled, was looking out from his comfortable bedroom and seeing the “night watch boy” - an adult black man - “huddled over a charcoal fire, rubbing his hands to keep warm, the collar of his khaki overcoat turned up”.

After studying sociology at the University of Witwatersrand, he went on to take a PhD at the London School of Economics while working as a psychiatric social worker. He began his academic career as a lecturer in sociology at Enfield College (1965-67) and held a similar position in the University of Durham’s newly created sociology department (1967-72) before moving to the University of Essex as senior lecturer (1972-74) and then professor of sociology (1974-81).

Professor Cohen left the UK to serve, from 1981 to 1985, as director of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While there, he co-authored the first report, for the organisation B’Tselem, on the Israeli use of torture. He returned to the LSE as Martin White professor of sociology in 1996, with emeritus status from 2005. He played a key role in establishing the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights in 2000.

Several of Professor Cohen’s books are widely regarded as classics. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Making of the Mods and Rockers (1972) forged a crucial analytic tool that he and others went on to apply to the “panics” around “video nasties”, satanic abuse and asylum seekers said to be “flooding the country”.

His final book, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001), which won the 2002 British Academy Book Prize, explores the psychological mechanisms through which we refuse to acknowledge terrible violations of human rights.

Laurie Taylor, who co-authored both Psychological Survival: The Experience of Long-term Imprisonment (1972) and Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Everyday Resistance (1976) with Professor Cohen, paid tribute to “his major contribution to academic scholarship and his lifelong commitment to exposing injustice”.

Yet he was also “a wonderfully satirical commentator on the ways of the world. He relished the writings of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Howard Jacobson, revelled in his huge collection of Jewish jokes, and enjoyed nothing more than mocking some of the more absurd aspects of contemporary academic life.”

Professor Cohen died of Parkinson’s disease compounded by a stroke on 7 January. He is survived by his daughters Judith and Jessica.

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