Who is afraid of sexual minorities?

Homosexuals, moral panic and the exercise of social control

Linked with Zohl de Ishtar – Australia.

Published on CCR the Centre for Criminological Research, by Iwona Zielinska, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, and Centre for Criminological Research, University of Sheffield, not dated.

In spite of over thirty years existence in the British academy and almost twenty in the American moral panic theory is hardly known in Polish social science. There may be hundreds of other concepts that Polish scholars are unfamiliar with but that specific one is, I believe, a particular loss, as moral panic theory might provide a very useful tool for analysing many of the contemporary phenomena in Polish society.

Most of the contemporary analyses of moral panics I am familiar with are limited to well established democratic countries like Britain (Critcher 2002), USA (Welch 2000), Sweden (Johansson 2000), and Australia (Gryson 2004). That situation is not, I believe, a result of the fact that ‘moral panics are a phenomenon of modern Western cultures’ (Grayson 2004) but rather that there is insufficient theoretical and empirical research among other societies. This is another reason for applying moral panic theory to a country like Poland, which in spite of fifteen years of democracy is still in transition (Sztompka 2003). It would be interesting to examine how and if economical and political situations determine moral panics. Also, the significantly unique cultural context of the country where more than 90 per cent of its people are Catholic2 may specifically affect the way the society regards some social issues, compared with other, less religious nations …

… Research questions and methods:


Given these events, occurring quite uniquely in Europe at present, I was curious as to how to make sense of them as a Polish phenomenon. Looking towards other cultures I came across ‘moral panics’ and the ensuing research focussing on media discourse and social control. It seemed to me that the anti-gay protest in 2004 in Poland would provide a perfect case-study with this theoretical and methodological paradigm.

The aim of my research is not to prove whether or not the growing visibility of homosexuals in 2004 resulted in a moral panic. As Professor Critcher claims, moral panic is not a thing, but an abstract concept, a model of a process (Critcher 2003: 2). In sociology these kinds of models are called ‘ideal types’. The concept of ideal type was introduced by Max Weber (Weber 1949), who originated a break from an earlier positivistic approach to social research by popularising this heuristic device. Although the ideal type cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality, it provides a useful tool against which the real examples can be measured and assessed. An ideal type ‘has the significance of a purely ideal limiting concept with which the real situations or action is compared and surveyed for the explication of its significant components’ (Weber 1949: 93, original emphasis). Having this in mind my first question is whether moral panic theory works in the Polish context. I will be asking to what extend moral panic theory can provide an explanation for the 2004 events and if so how useful is it to apply moral panic analysis to these particular events?

Stanley Cohen – the founder of the moral panic concept, pointed in his analysis to different stages in the process of a moral panic (1972: 12). These, later, became a base for other research (Jenkins 1992, Thompson 1999, Matthews 2002, Critcher 2003) and distinguish five main stages in the moral panic phenomena. In order to address my question I will apply the five-stage model to see how applicable it is for the Polish case.

1). The first stage deals with the emergence of the problem, when ‘there is a general apprehension that something is wrong and at this point a form of behaviour comes to be perceived as a threat (Critcher 2003:17). In this I should be able to define the threat to social and moral order. What was the nature of the threat? What was novel about the threat? Who saw the gay movements as a threat and why?

2). The second stage, called the inventory phase, is where the focus is placed on the way ‘the situation was initially interpreted and presented by mass media’ (Cohen 1972:18). In other words the media is believed to play a main role by labelling and stereotyping deviants, the ‘folk devils’, what results is more interests in the problem from pressure groups, politicians and the public16. By looking at the mainstream media and the rightwing publications I will try to see if there were any attempts to construct gay and lesbians as ‘folk devils’ in order to justify the actions taken. Also, I will establish if the media was the only source of inventory or if there were any alternative sources, like politicians, catholic organisations, and church.

3). In the third stage there is a rapid growth of concern, which should be visible in public discussions, media publications or internet debates, where particularly concerned groups or organizations – moral entrepreneurs17 try to pronounce upon the nature of the problem and its best remedies (Critcher 2003: 17). One of the indicators of social concern – easily measurable by quantitative analysis – is a sudden upsurge in the media coverage (Goody, Ben-Yehuda 1994:207). Also, I will access any opinion polls on gay rights carried out at the time and then compare the results with the ones from 2001 survey.

4). Next is the reaction stage, in which ‘current powers are exploited’ to deal with the threat, if these are ‘deemed insufficient, demands for legal reform will follow’ (Critcher 2003: 18). Moral entrepreneurs then propose solutions, and take up some action. In the Polish gay case it is clear that the most concerned sectors were the church people, catholic organisations, nationalists and right-wing politicians. By analysing the media coverage and actually interviewing some of the anti-gay activists I will trace what were the propositions of coping and if the propositions were effective or only symbolic.

5). The last phase looks at the results of a moral panic. Were there any institutional changes? Did any new organisations, on any side of the argument, appear? Have the events resulted in any law changes? (Cohen 1972: 9). Also I will assess the extent to which the status of the problem has changed, compared to the beginning of 2004 … (full text).

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