Examining The Explanations Of Social Disorder In Society Criminology Essay

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Social order seems to exist when people and society operate harmoniously according to a set of determined and established rules. These can be explicit and official, for example by way of laws, or unofficial and implicit, dictated by culture or the wider community. The disruption of lawful or acceptable patterns of behaviour to the detriment of society or individuals, therefore, is one possible interpretation of social disorder.

This essay will examine two studies that have attempted to explain social disorder, Stanley Cohen's theory of 'Moral Panic' and Huesmann et al. and their 'media effects' research. It will offer an outline of each study and suggest areas of similarity and difference between them.

Who or what determines the rules of social order, how it is constructed and for whose benefit are questions that fall outside the scope of this essay but it is probably enough to say that social scientists disagree on the answers. Erving Goffman believed that social order is the result of the minute actions of individuals living their normal everyday lives. In comparison, Michel Foucault believed that individuals have little control in this respect and that the knowledge and power held by certain authority figures imposes social order upon them. The debate regarding social disorder is no less contentious.

Questions regarding social disorder are not new. A remark attributed to Aristotle in about 350BCE states "the young people of today … have bad manners, they scoff at authority and lack respect for their elders. Children nowadays are real tyrants … they contradict their parents … and tyrannise their teachers" (Brake, 1980, p 1, cited in Kelly & Toynbee, 2009, p. 362). Seemingly, not much has changed in the intervening couple of millennia and what constitutes unacceptable behaviour is as much a subject for debate in the contemporary UK as it appears to have been in ancient Greece.

Stanley Cohen's 'Moral Panic' theory (Cohen, 1973, cited in Kelly & Toynbee, 2009, p. 370) began life as a case study for his PhD thesis. First published in 1972, it focused on the clashes between 'mods' and 'rockers' during the mid 1960s. Cohen's study questioned the role of the media and suggested that exaggerated and sensationalistic reporting had helped to create what he called 'folk devils' in the minds of the public. He sought to investigate how media outrage following what was essentially a couple of minor skirmishes in Clacton and Brighton was able to escalate public perception of the crisis to that of a threat to society itself, a reaction wholly disproportionate to the scale of the original problem. Cohen named the resulting over-reaction a 'Moral Panic'.

The 'mods' and 'rockers' were groups of young people characterised by the clothes they wore, the motorbikes they rode and their musical tastes. It is interesting to note that in the years since Cohen's study, several other 'Moral Panics' have been prompted by musical genres. The 'hippie' movement in the late 1960s with its 'flower power' and 'free love' ethos; 1970s punk rock, more anarchic than musical; and the 'gangsta-rappers' of the 1990s with their explicit lyrics and glamorisation of gun crime. All have provided a source of outrage for overzealous sub-editors.

Punk rock and The Sex Pistols, for example, were almost unknown until Bill Grundy famously encouraged the use of four letter words on pre-watershed primetime television. The BBC archive reports that "The resulting media frenzy and public outrage … turned the Sex Pistols into a household name overnight" (BBC, 2007). This example illustrates the point Cohen was trying to make; his claim was that the media actually helps to construct problems of social disorder by demonizing certain groups or individuals and thereby creating the so called 'folk devils' who will allegedly wreck the balance of social order.

The second explanation of social disorder selected for consideration is one suggested by Huesmann et al. in a study that questioned whether there was a link between exposure to violent media in childhood and the development of aggressive and violent behaviour in later life (Huesmann et al., 2003, cited in Kelly & Toynbee, 2009, pp. 373-374).

In 1977, Huesmann and his team selected 557 children aged 6-10 to take part in a 15-year longitudinal study. The children were asked about their television viewing habits, which programmes they liked to watch, whether they identified with aggressive characters and whether the violence they saw on screen seemed realistic.

Follow-up research began in 1991, and over the next 4 years just over 70% of the original group was re-interviewed. Now young adults, each subject was again asked to describe their television viewing preferences but this time they were also asked about their own aggressive behaviour. In addition, Huesmann and his colleagues interviewed relatives and friends and consulted official data collected from police records. Their conclusion, and ultimately the claim for their theory, was that there was indeed a link between programmes that glorify violence and the development of violent tendencies (American Psychological Association, 2003).

Exposure to violent media has been suggested as a contributing factor in a number of recent, high-profile crimes, most notable being the Jamie Bulger case cited by Jovan Byford (2009, pp. 271-274). At the conclusion of the trial of Jon Venebles and Robert Thomson for the murder of two year old Jamie, the judge, Mr. Justice Morland, is reported to have said "I suspect that exposure to violent video films may, in part, be an explanation" (Foster, 1993).

More recently, the case of two young brothers accused and convicted of torturing two other boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire featured references to violent horror films. Peter Kelson QC, the barrister acting on behalf of one of the accused boys, claimed during the trial that the films his client had watched were "extremely violent" and "gruesome movies in the extreme" (BBC, 2010).

These two examples help to illustrate the claims made by Huesmann et al. that media itself creates social disorder by corrupting and influencing young and impressionable minds. It is important to point out, however, that in both cases there were many other contributory factors and it was never suggested that exposure to media violence alone caused the crimes in question. Moreover, a weakness in media effects theory is that it fails to take into account the possible pre-existing violent tendencies in individuals who may simply enjoy watching violent media for its own sake, nor does it address the relevance of a chaotic and "toxic" home life, which was so much a factor in the Edlington case.

The similarities between Cohen's theory of 'Moral Panic' and Huesmann et al.'s media effects research is that they both focus on the role the media plays in the creation of social disorder, albeit from a slightly different perspective. Cohen's study acknowledges that disorder pre-exists but suggests that media exaggeration exacerbates the problem. In contrast, Huesmann and his colleagues claim that media actually causes the problem in the first instance. Nevertheless, each theory recognises the importance of the media's contribution to the cause of social problems.

Cohen's study alludes to the power of the media and its ability to influence public opinion, the 'media' he refers to is the press. In the case of the 'mods' and 'rockers', these groups were treated as a special case by the police and authorities. According to Bill Osgerby, "government even considered special legislation to deal with the … 'problem'" (2005). Huesmann, in contrast, makes no such suggestion that the press or press reporting is the cause of the problem. It is fictional media, television programmes and films, which are the focus of the media effects research. However, it is important to state that according to a report by the American Psychological Association, "Some examples of shows rated as very violent were Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man and Roadrunner cartoons", hardly the 'under-the-counter' hard-core material one would expect to produce such an emphatic conclusion.

One major difference between the studies is the research method employed. Cohen's case study focused on certain specific events. Using the benefit of hindsight, evidence came mainly from discourse analysis and was qualitative in nature. Huesmann and his colleagues, by comparison, conducted a longitudinal study that took many years to complete and whilst most of their evidence came from interviews and review of police records, their conclusion was only possible because of statistics, in other words, by quantitative means.

The two explanations offered for comparison in this essay share some similarities and some differences. Differences include the method of data collection and the position media inhabits in the cycle of social disorder. Similarities include a focus on the media as a catalyst for social disorder and the most obvious similarity of all, the desire to explore the "causes and consequences" of social disorder (Open University, Online activity 25, 2009). In conclusion, however, one thing is certain, social scientists seem as uncertain regarding explanations of social disorder as they are for social order. No single explanation offers a definitive answer and the debate will undoubtedly continue.

(1500 words)