Moral panic and social justice: A guide for analyzing social problems

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Professional social work has long been concerned with social justice, social policy, and the relationship between social treatment and social control. However, at times, potential threats to social cohesion become exaggerated in the service of supporting suppressive policies. British sociologist Stanley Cohen referred to such periods as moral panics, which assign unwarranted blame and stigma to sociopolitically weaker, unpopular groups. By constructing those associated with a given social problem as deviant and downplaying underlying structural causes, moral panics foster the enactment of social policies that entrench social disparity and injustice. Understanding how moral panics influence perceptions of social problems and resultant policies will enable social workers to identify whether particular societal groups are unjustly targeted. By synthesizing theoretical and empirical literature on moral panics in U.S. policy arenas relevant to social workers (such as illicit drugs, sexuality, and immigration), this article offers guidance for practitioners, policy advocates, and researchers on assessing their presence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-36
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Work (United States)
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Moral panics
  • Populations of color
  • Sexuality
  • Social policy
  • immigration


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