3.5 ‘Society must be protected’: crises and control
One important study that drew on and extended Cohen’s work was by Stuart Hall and his colleagues (1978), which examined the construction of a moral panic about ‘mugging’ (street robbery) in Britain during the early 1970s. A term that had not been used since the nineteenth century was suddenly discussed in the mass media as a ‘frightening new strain of crime’, possibly arriving from what the British perceived as the violent, dangerous and racially divided USA. ‘Muggers’ became a new type of folk devil, identified as a threat to stability and social order, and requiring tough measures to protect society. Hall et al. argued that this invention of ‘mugging’ needed to be understood as part of wider social and political dynamics.
They explored the different sorts of disorder that shaped British society at the beginning of the 1970s: a deepening economic crisis and a stagnant economy; growing political conflict; a variety of social divisions that were becoming more severe; and a loss of public confidence in the nation’s political leaders. Describing a time in which a relatively consensual society in the 20-year period following the Second World War was becoming increasingly characterised by economic, social and political conflicts, they claimed that the figure of the ‘mugger’ was placed in the middle of this crisis. He (muggers were usually imagined as men – young, black men to be more precise) became the focus of social and political anxiety – the ‘mugger’ was seen to represent the breakdown of law and order. As a result, the mass media were full of denunciations, dire warnings and demands for tough action to be taken to save the country from this appalling threat.