Notes on the introduction to: Cohen, S.  (1987) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dave Harris

The CCCS approach is very similar to the old problematic which saw delinquency as a collective solution to structurally imposed problems [Merton?]—the best example is probably Willis. Most delinquency stays the same regardless of various 'conjunctures'.

CCCS work does break with structural, cultural or biographical models, but it can also display an 'over-facile historicism, understanding present [situations] by an appeal to the past' (viii).  Trends in the past [class struggle etc] are identified, and then these are projected forward, in what is really an essentialist view of history.

The work does offer an 'ingenious and more often than not plausible reading of sub cultural style', but this is seen as 'resistance', winning space, something radical and political.  We get 'symbolic' resistance even where the 'target for the attack is inappropriate, irrational, or simply wrong', as in football hooligan attacks as a magically retrieving a sense of community [P. Cohen on skinheads?].  The symbolic also comes to mean 'false consciousness'.  The analysis has added some significance to particular clothing styles, for example, but we seem to be able to decode it only in terms of opposition and resistance. This also overdoes the creative elements of rather than the borrowed ones: we can be particularly doubtful about, because there was a considerable role played by 'commercial entrepreneurs, and lumpen intellectuals from art schools and rock journals' (xii) [surely acknowledged in Hebdige's work?].  The American influence [generally?] was also underestimated, in favour of the 'experiences of 19th century Lancashire cotton weavers'!  There is also some special pleading, for example in the argument that 'Paki-bashing' is really a form of proto-politics—this is justified by arguing that the very ignorance of political gestures somehow justifies this as authentic, just as in the machines smashers of  1826 (xiii).  It is very debatable that symbols can actually be deployed where there is no knowing agent!

The concept of homology sometimes covers this dubious linkage, but not always.  For example Hebdige sees an oscillation between an obvious fabrication and some kind of unconscious semiotic guerilla warfare.  Generally, though, the meaning of activities as known to actual members is treated as if it is incidental, which renders members as cultural dopes.  Or is it that subjective meanings do not matter?  Hebdige's eloquent analysis of the examples can be seen as equally 'imaginary' as those he reports (xv).

The connections between black music and youth are better, less forced than the others.  The concept of bricolage comes to the rescue here.  The concept of new polysemy suggests that the only coherence is going to be an elliptic one [? did I mean via discourse?] .  However, some rules are needed [Cohen reviews some provided by Turner, xvi].  The dangers of abstract analysis can be found in Hebdige's example of the adoption of the swastika by punks—who says it is intended only to shock?  Punks or sociologists?  Can everyone be doing irony?  Empirical evidence is used in a very variable way.

There are clear dangers with these asymmetric method [quoting the criticism in Resistance Through Rituals?] If we start from social class, we find much more mundane examples of activity, much more accommodation rather than breaks with the existing political and social order.  We need ethnographic studies to grasp this.  One example would be Pryce's study of [black youth?] in Bristol [heavily criticized by Gilroy], which included the finding that rasta and reggae are used as compensations rather than political protest.

Policing the Crisis is a better piece of work, though [this seems to be almost a consensus about this these days—2014—I am still not convinced].  At least we see a clear role for the state as an agent that actually does the labelling.  However, even here there is a 'premature theoretical closure', provided by the arguments about the emergence of crisis.  The substantial State concerns about delinquency are actually much more diffuse and less political. There is no explanation why some groups are repressed more severely than others (xxv) [I don't understand this bit—moral panics surely develop the political threat of some groups where a number of issues coincide?].

All CCCS writing seems to agree that crime and delinquency is some sort of solution to the tensions of class society, assuming that juveniles can be admired as politicized.  There are clear dangers of romanticism.  Although the political potential of delinquency is heavily qualified, CCCS writers still have a strong commitment to defend them, sometimes with a note of regret.  The political system is criticized in terms of its moral absolutism, while hooliganism is discussed in a spirit of moral relativism, forgiving the racism of white working class groups, for example, while condemning it in the bourgeoisie.  What might be seen as undesirable elements are defended and contextualized in the subculture [Gilroy does this for the sexism of black youth?].  [I think the reverse happened in politics, leading up to and following the split with the working classes.  Here, working class racism and sexism were condemned so vigorously as to write off all the other forms of politics, while middle class sexism and racism were not even analysed: they might well have started with the university, even the Open University].  CCCS writers ran the risk of going native, or of patronising the people they were studying.  Alternatively, they simply dismissed non- revolutionary appeals, such as those for job satisfaction, fulfilment, and meaning—exactly the same as those framed by intellectuals [there are shades here of the work of Rancière on Marxists underestimating the apparently moderate demands of anarcho-syndicalists in the 1830s].

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