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Discussion On Moral Panic, Risk And Green Crime

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A legal definition of crime is an intentional act in violation of criminal law, committed without defense or justification, and sanctioned by the state as a felony or misdemeanor (Tappan, P (2001). Within criminology, aspects of crime including construction, how it is perceived and responded to within society is considered. Criminology further explores the correlations between crime and social problems including their context. This essay will explore and evaluate three key criminological concepts of moral panic, risk and green crime. Relationships between crime, offenders and victims will also be identified and reasoned to allow further comprehension of these concepts.

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The concept of moral panic was developed by Stanley Cohen in the early 1960s, initially to analyse the definition of and social reaction to youth subcultures as a social problem. To discuss and explore fully the subject of moral panics its meaning, which is commonly misinterpreted, must be defined accurately. A moral panic is a disproportional and hostile social reaction to a condition, person or group defined as a threat to societal values, involving stereotypical media representations and leading to demands for greater social control and creating a spiral of reactions (Murji, 2006). At first the scale of some activities may remain small and the impact upon the society may be limited, but the media often reports these activities in a sensationalized form (Marsh et al, 2011), leading to an increase in publicity, which in turn had lead to the increase in public concern as well as causing anxiety, to some extent, about those activities or members involved (Cohen, 1972). However, the response by the media and representation of a particular behaviour actually defines it, communicates it and portrays it as a model for people to observe and adopt. Therefore, a moral panic within society represented in the mass media fuels further socially unacceptable behaviours.

An important term to understand when exploring moral panics, employed most famously by Cohen, is folk devils. Cohen (1972) defines folk devils as “social types” that serve as “visible reminders of what we should not be”. McLaughlin and Muncie (2001) went on to define folk devils as “a category of persons which becomes defined as a threat to societal values and interests and the embodiments of “what is wrong with society”. Folk devils are presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media”. The way in which the media portrays folk devils, they identify key symbols such as life style, hair style, dress etc., these are portrayed as in some way different to the rest of society, “the norm” (Cohen, 1972). When the term “folk- devil” is used, hostility is often indicated and the public creates a clear division between themselves and the accused group.

The key constituting elements that make up a moral panic identified and highlighted by Thompson (1998) from the work of Cohen are firstly, something or someone is defined as a threat to values or interest. The threat is then depicted in an easily recognizable form by the media which in turn causes a rapid build-up of public concern. There is a response from authorities which can lead to the panic receding or resulting in social change. Response from authorities demanded by the public can involve more police action, increase in social control stigmatization, alienation in society which in turn increases and confirms people’s fear of crime.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda also agrees with Cohen’s belief on moral panics and that from time to time within different societies moral panics can occur. They believed that moral panic occurs when a large proportion of society thinks that a particular social group poses a threat to the moral order of society and the idea of people trying to act and resolve the problem (Goode et. al., 1994; Burns et. al., 1999). In the early 1990s, Goode and Ben-Yehuda composed an “attributional” model that placed a greater emphasis on a strict definition than cultural processes. Both Cohen’s and Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s models have subsequently been applied to a range of underlined social problems which can fall into five principal clusters: street crime, drug and alcohol consumption, immigration, child abuse (including pedophilia), and media technologies.

However, many have pointed out that since the 1960s, society has undergone a lot of social change (Thornton, 1995). Thornton’s study of “Club Cultures” (1995) suggested that Cohen’s theory has its flaws, as Thornton believed that Cohen assumed that society as a whole will have a uniform response to social changes and moral panics, but in reality, that is rarely the case (Thornton, 1995). Thornton stressed that nowadays we live in a fragmented society, and it was expected and observed that people don’t always have the same reactions when it comes to the formation of a moral panic. This is differentiated by age, race, class, gender. Cohen’s theories reflect the views of people who lived in a different time and society. Since then, society and media were subjected to various degrees of change. Therefore, Cohen’s ideas of society being subjected to moral panic from time to time might not be regarded as accurate. However, the fear of increasing crime contributed to causing moral panic within society, which can defend the accuracy of Cohen’s statement because as long as the media still exists, and provides people with information on crime and cases, that fear of crime will remain.

A second key concept within criminology is risk. Risk tends to emerge as a consequence of human activity. It is in our lifestyle choices and personal relationships, as well as throughout our daily dealings with public services and social institutions. Considering risk as a concept, Beck (1992) suggested that in the risk society, the past loses the power to determine the present. Its place is taken by the future, thus something non-existent, invented, fictive as the ‘cause’ of current experience and action. We become active today in order to prevent, alleviate or take precautions against the problems and crises of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”.

Early attempts of crime management, suggested by Foucault (1977), revolved around the individual where rehabilitation was obtained from the individual through controls, such as surveillance (Denney, 2005: 114-6). Foucault (1977: 25) suggested that society had developed ‘technologies of power’ which were then used to discipline and punish those who strayed from what society felt tolerable. With a focus on individuals in prison, Foucault progresses his ideas of attempting to manage individuals into an accepted behaviour. However, Feely and Simon (1994) argued that a new ‘technology of power’ was emerging throughout the criminal justice system which differs from Foucault’s disciplinary power by shifting the focus away from the individual discipline and towards the surveillance and management of ‘at risk’ populations. It is interested in preventing potential offenders rather than rehabilitating offenders. Freeley and Simon (1992: 452) wrote the new penology is concerned with techniques to identify, classify and manage groupings sorted by dangerousness. The task is managerial not transformative. Calculations of risk or ‘actuarial analysis’ is used to calculate the statistical risk of particular events happening.

Freeley and Simon have argued that this actuarial approach is becoming a more favoured method in crime control. An example is in airports where all passengers are screened before they arrive. This uses a points system where passengers are awarded points based on their age, gender, ethnicity, criminal convictions etc. The more points, the more likely you are to be stopped at customs. Lyon (2012) argues that the purpose of sorting is to place people in categories so they can be treated differently on the basis of risk. This subjects people to ‘categorical suspicion’ where they become suspects simply because they are of a particular age or ethnicity (or a combination of factors). However, an obvious disadvantage with actuarial risk management strategies is that it may reinforce labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy emphasised by interactionists.

The focus is on calculating risk before it happens, which therefore corresponds to the management of future offenders, particularly young people who unfortunately can end up getting involved with crime or antisocial behaviour. Factors that cause young people to offend are often complex and many who experience issues such as financial hardship, behavioural problems, violence or conflict within the family, drug or alcohol abuse and trauma in childhood are more at risk of offending. Tony Blair (2006) stated that “we need far earlier intervention with some of these families, who are often socially excluded and socially dysfunctional. That may mean before they offend; and certainly before they want such intervention. But in truth, we can identify such families virtually as their children are born.”

In order to manage future offenders, the 2003 Criminal Justice Act introduced ‘Indeterminate Sentences’ for adult and youth offenders which is associated with the actuarial model. This involves prisoners serving a minimum period of imprisonment to meet the needs of retribution and deterrence and no one can expect to be released before they have served the tariff period. When they have served the tariff and the Parole Board have concluded that their risk of harm to the public is acceptable, can they leave.

Lastly the concept of green crime, which is defined as harms and crimes against the environment (White, 2008), with many threats to the environment and also to human well being, being human-made rather than from natural disaster. Beck has argued that in the current late modern society we can provide resources for everyone. The increased productivity and technology has lead to manufactured risks being created, which potentially can harm the environment and cause consequences for humanity. Beck describes society as a ‘global risk society’ due to the risk increasing on a global scale.

The consequences of green crime has lead to issues of deforestation, with over a fifth of the world’s tropical rainforests destroyed through illegal logging, and also issues of species rapidly declining with 50 species a day becoming extinct due to trafficking of animals and animal parts. In the world today over half a billion people having a lack of safe drinking water.

The risk of green crimes have short and long term effects on plants, animals and humans with the effects often being irreversible and invisible (Beck, 1992). Whilst natural hazards tend to impact locally and can structurally be limited, manufactured risks impact on a large scale. For example, atmospheric pollution from industries can cause acid raid to fall in other countries leading to the destruction of forests. To slow the rate of these effects, protection agreements are often put in place, for example the Paris Agreement which aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees celsius. The offenders of green crime are mostly the wealthy and powerful such as developed countries and large established organisations within them.

Both strengths and weaknesses can arise from green criminology. It recognises and understands the growing importance of environmental crimes and harms to plants, animals and humans, and the need to address these. However, it can be hard to define the actual boundaries of this field clearly as harm is a broad concept when looking at it without law context. Defining boundaries involves moral or political statements about which actions to take and many argue that the matter of values is of importance and that cannot be established objectively.

Relationships between crime, offenders and victims have been identified in the three key concepts of moral panic, risk and green crime. Each have been explored to develop an understanding of possible theories and management strategies, enabling an evaluation of each concept. The running seam through this essay is that the Criminal Justice System aims to protect the public and to prevent crime whether it be through matter affecting the public directly or indirectly.

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