VI. Crime and Deviance as Social Constructions: The Importance of Claims-Making
From the social constructionist perspective, criminal behavior is a joint human enterprise between actors and audiences. Crime and deviance are created by human agents making distinctions, perceiving differences, engaging in behaviors, interpreting their effects, and passing judgments about the desirability or unacceptability of the behaviors or people labeled as criminal, as though those behaviors and people possessed object-like qualities. Since Spector and Kitsuse’s (1977/1987) original examination of the social construction of social problems, social constructionists have tended to examine the agencies involved in the claims-making process that produces the panic rather than individuals designated as deviant or their behavior.
Most constructionist work focuses on how people in authoritative positions create moral panics around the perceived fear of certain designated behaviors, regardless of whether these behaviors exist and whether there were persons actually engaged in them. Pavarini (1994) pointed out that what becomes defined as crime depends on the power to define and the power to resist definitions. This in turn depends on who has access to the media and how skilled moral entrepreneurs are at using such access to their advantage (Pfuhl & Henry, 1993).
A. Crime as Moral Panic
The original concept of moral panic was used by British sociologist Stanley Cohen (1972) in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen described the demonization through the mass media around the 1960s “mods” and “rockers” teenage rebel groups whose behavior threatened valued British cultural norms. In Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, Erich Goode and Norman Ben-Yehuda (1994) argued that moral panics are societal reactions to perceived threat characterized by (a) volatility seen in their sudden appearance and rapid spread among large sections of the population through the mass media and other means of communications, followed by a rapid decline in further instances of the problem; (b) the growth of experts who are claimed to be authorities in discerning cases of the said feared behavior; (c) an increased identification of cases of the behavior that build into a wave; (d) hostility and persecution of the accused as enemies of society; (e) measurement of society’s concern through attitude surveys; (f) consensus about the seriousness of the threat; (g) disproportional fear relative to investigations of the actual harm; (h) a backlash against the persecution; and (i) exposure of the flaws in identifying the problem. An excellent illustration is found in JeffreyVictor’s study of satanic ritualistic child abuse in his book Satanic Panic (1993); others include Philip Jenkins’s (1998) book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America.
Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) explained the social construction of crime and deviance through moral panics by one of three models. The grassroots model proposes that displaced anxiety from societal stress among members of a population results in a spontaneous moral panic that scapegoats new categories of criminals and deviants. Here, control agencies reflect opinion rather than create it. The elite domination model holds that people in positions of power, whether government, industry, or religious leaders, are responsible for promoting moral panic as a diversion from problems whose solution would undermine their own positions of power. Finally, the interest group conflict model sees the creation of moral panics as the outcome of moral entrepreneurs seeking to gain greater influence over society by defining its moral domain.
Research conducted by Victor (1998), for example, pointed out that moral panics claiming crime or deviance need not be based in reality but in imaginary offenders whose existence gains credibility in the eyes of the public when authorities and those who claim expert knowledge (in particular, science or medicine) legitimize the accusations. These panics are likely to occur when bureaucratic interest, such as competing agencies, are vying for jurisdiction of authority; when methods of detection result in errors; and as Victor claimed, when there is a symbolic resonance with a perceived threat identified in a prevailing demonology—which serves as a master cognitive frame that organizes problems, gives meaning to them, explains them, and offers solutions. A key component of moral panics is the process of claims-making.
Social constructionists of crime, deviance, and social problems examine how interest groups, moral entrepreneurs, and social movements create claims about behavior. Claims-making involves four elements in a process: (1) assembling and diagnosing claims about behavior or conditions seen as morally problematic; (2) presenting to significant audiences, such as the news media, that the claims are legitimate; (3) providing a prognosis of how to address the problem to bring about a desired outcome by defining strategies, tactics, and policy; and (4) contesting counterclaims and mobilizing the support of key groups.