Moral panic

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A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.[1][page needed] It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media".[2]

In recent centuries, the mass media have become important players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in sensationalism or in muckraking. Simply reporting a subset of factual statements without contextual nuance can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic.[3][need quotation to verify] Stanley Cohen states that moral panic happens when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". Examples of moral panic include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory pedophiles,[4][5][6] belief in ritual abuse of women and children by satanic cults,[7] and concerns over the effects of music lyrics.[8]

Some moral panics can become embedded in standard political discourse, which include concepts such as "Red Scare"[9] and terrorism.[10]

Use as a social science term[edit]

Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964.[11] According to Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media titled Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),[12] a moral panic occurs when "...[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests".[3] Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as 'moral entrepreneurs', while people who supposedly threaten social order have been described as 'folk devils'.

British and American differences in definition[edit]

Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic as described by American versus British sociologists.[citation needed] Kenneth Thompson claimed that American sociologists tended to emphasize psychological factors, while the British portrayed "moral panics" as crises of capitalism.[13][14]

British criminologist Jock Young used the term in his participant observation study of drug consumption in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969.[15] In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of 'moral panic', Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis".[16]

Cohen's stages of moral panic[edit]

According to Cohen,[3] there are five key stages in the construction of a moral panic:

  1. A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests;
  2. Its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media;
  3. The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people, and socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions;
  4. Ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to;
  5. The condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.

In 1971, Cohen investigated a series of "moral panics". Cohen used the term "moral panic" to characterize the reactions of the media, the public, and agents of social control to youth disturbances.[3] This work, involving the Mods and Rockers, demonstrated how agents of social control amplified deviance. According to Cohen, these groups were labelled as being outside the central core values of consensual society and as posing a threat to both the values of society and society itself, hence the term "folk devils".[17]

In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen suggested that the term "panic" in itself connotes irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintained that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.[3]

Mass media[edit]

The concept of "moral panic" has also been linked to certain assumptions about the mass media.[3] Cohen stated that the mass media is the primary source of the public's knowledge about deviance and social problems. He further argued that moral panic gives rise to the folk devil by labelling actions and people.[3] Christian Joppke, furthers the importance of media as he notes, shifts in public attention 'can trigger the decline of movements and fuel the rise of others'.[18]

According to Cohen, the media appear in any or all three roles in moral panic dramas:[3]

  • Setting the agenda – selecting deviant or socially problematic events deemed as newsworthy, then using finer filters to select which events are candidates for moral panic.
  • Transmitting the images – transmitting the claims by using the rhetoric of moral panics.
  • Breaking the silence and making the claim.

Characteristics[edit]

Moral panics have several distinct features. According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:[7]

  • Concern – There must be the belief that the behavior of the group or activity deemed deviant is likely to have a negative effect on society.
  • Hostility – Hostility toward the group in question increases, and they become "folk devils". A clear division forms between "them" and "us".
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the "moral entrepreneurs" are vocal and the "folk devils" appear weak and disorganized.
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared because public interest wanes or news reports change to another narrative.[1]

Writing about the Blue Whale Challenge and the Momo Challenge as examples of moral panics, Benjamin Radford listed themes he commonly observed in modern versions of these phenomena:

  • Hidden dangers of modern technology.
  • Evil stranger manipulating the innocent.
  • A "hidden world" of anonymous evil people.[19]

Examples[edit]

1840s–1860s: Nativist movement and the Know-Nothing Party[edit]

This example reflects the fear of immigrants which emerged in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s. A short-lived national The Know-Nothing Party embodied the Moral Panic Theory, focusing upon Catholic immigrants and labelling them as members of an "out-group". This was due to their rejection of traditional Americanism.[18] Nativist criticism of immigrants from Catholic nations centered upon the control of the Pope over the church. The widespread concern regarding the perceived social threat is exhibited by the showing of the Know-Nothing Party in the Presidential Election of 1856, where they won 21.5% of the total vote share. It is important to note the quick decline in political success for the Know Nothing-Party as a result of a decline in concern for the perceived social threat, an indicative feature of the movements situated in Moral Panic.[20]

1920s–present: "The Devil's music"[edit]

Over the years, there has been concern of various types of new music, often called "the devil's music", causing spiritual or otherwise moral corruption to younger generations. While the types of music popularly labeled "the devil's music" has changed with time, along with the intended meaning of the term, this basic factor of the moral panic has remained constant. It could thus be argued that this is really a series of smaller moral panics that fall under a larger umbrella. While most notable in the United States, other countries such as Romania[21] have seen exposure to or promotion of the idea as well.

Blues was one of the first music genres to receive this label, mainly due to a perception that it incited violence and other poor behavior.[22][full citation needed] In the early 20th century, the blues was considered disreputable, especially as white audiences began listening to the blues during the 1920s.[citation needed]

Jazz was another early receiver of the label. At the time, traditionalists considered jazz to contribute to the breakdown of morality.[23] Despite the veiled attacks on blues and jazz as "negro music" often going hand-in-hand with other attacks on the genres, urban middle-class African Americans perceived jazz as "devil's music", and agreed with the beliefs that jazz's improvised rhythms and sounds were promoting promiscuity.[24] At this stage, the idea of a link between music and Satanism as a theistic religion was not a major component in the accusations of blues, jazz, or other genres of music. (LaVeyan Satanism and other ideological variants would not be created until the mid-to-late 1960s, and "devil's music" moral panics tend to either not recognize them as different or make no distinction.)[citation needed]

The idea of backmasking as a part of this moral panic began to enter the public discussion with the Paul is Dead rumor, which popularized the idea that messages recorded backwards in music contained messages by or about the artist, the focus of the topic would change in the 1970s: then, religious leaders in the United States began to claim that backmasking in music of the time, particularly rock music, glorified and promoted Satanism through ways that could be accepted subconsciously, a rumor boosted by the film The Exorcist, in which satanic backmasking was a plot point. This was roughly the point where the notion of music explicitly associated with satanism as a theistic religion (rather than generally with rebellious and unorthodox behavior) first became widely spread. This culminated in the proposal in 1983 of bills in California and Arkansas, and later in 1985 with a hearing by the Parents Music Resource Center, of which the targeting of rock and heavy metal (often conflated together at the time and sometimes since) played a large part in bringing about.[citation needed]

Some have speculated that the rock phase of the panic in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the popularity of the satanic ritual abuse moral panic in the 1980s.[25]

Since the mid-to-late 1980s, the term has been closely associated with heavy metal music through falsifiable concepts like backmasking, as well as overt content of some major acts in the genre, and the PMRC's activities. However, in some crank communities, the aforementioned applications and meanings of the term "the devil's music" are still widely in use. There are also applications of the term to musical genres that to others would seem unusual or irrational to be labeled "the devil's music", such as country and Christian rock, but these ideas never caught on like the above examples and today tend to not be common outside the aforementioned crank communities.[citation needed]

1950s: Switchblades[edit]

In the United States, a 1950 article titled "The Toy That Kills" in the Women's Home Companion,[26] about automatic knives, or "switchblades", sparked significant controversy. It was further fuelled by highly popular films of the late 1950s, including Rebel Without a Cause, Crime in the Streets, 12 Angry Men, The Delinquents, High School Confidential, and the 1957 Broadway musical, West Side Story. Fixation on the switchblade as the symbol of youth violence, sex, and delinquency resulted in demands from the public and Congress to control the sale and possession of such knives.[27][28] State laws restricting or criminalizing switchblade possession and use were adopted by an increasing number of state legislatures, and many of the restrictive laws around them worldwide date back to this period.[citation needed]

1960s: Mods and rockers[edit]

In early 1960s Britain, the two main youth subcultures were Mods and Rockers. The "Mods and Rockers" conflict was explored as an instance of moral panic by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics,[29] which examined media coverage of the Mod and Rocker riots in the 1960s.[30] Although Cohen acknowledged that Mods and Rockers engaged in street fighting in the mid-1960s, he argued that they were no different from the evening brawls that occurred between non-Mod and non-Rocker youths throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, both at seaside resorts and after football games.[31]

1970s–present: increase in crime[edit]

Research shows that fear of increasing crime rates is often the cause of moral panics.[3][16][32][33] Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a population's "herd mentality", continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate was rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.[34]

1970s–present: violence and video games[edit]

There have been calls to regulate violence in video games for nearly as long as the video game industry has existed, with Death Race being a notable early example.[35][36] In the 1990s, improvements in video game technology allowed for more lifelike depictions of violence in games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom. The industry attracted controversy over violent content and concerns about effects they might have on players, generating frequent media stories that attempted to associate video games with violent behavior, in addition to a number of academic studies that reported conflicting findings about the strength of correlations.[35] According to Christopher Ferguson, sensationalist media reports and the scientific community unintentionally worked together in "promoting an unreasonable fear of violent video games".[37] Concerns from parts of the public about violent games led to cautionary, often exaggerated news stories, warnings from politicians and other public figures, and calls for research to prove the connection, which in turn led to studies "speaking beyond the available data and allowing the promulgation of extreme claims without the usual scientific caution and skepticism."[37]

Since the 1990s, there have been attempts to regulate violent video games in the United States through congressional bills as well as within the industry.[35] Public concern and media coverage of violent video games reached a high point following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, after which videos were found of the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, talking about violent games like Doom and making comparisons between the acts they intended to carry out and aspects of games.[35][37]

Ferguson and others have explained the video game moral panic as part of a cycle that all new media go through.[37][38][39] In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legally restricting sales of video games to minors would be unconstitutional and deemed the research presented in favour of regulation, as "unpersuasive".[37]

1970s–present: war on drugs[edit]

Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example, a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."[40]

Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the War on Drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 1990s, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs.[41][32][42] News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998," for overstating the threat and for excessively dwelling on the topic.[32] For example, a 2009 Australian study found that drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked.[43]

1970s–present: sex offenders, child sexual abuse, and pedophilia[edit]

The media narrative of a sex offender, highlighting egregious offenses as typical behaviour of any sex offender, and media distorting the facts of some cases,[44] has led legislators to attack judicial discretion,[44] making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws. In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the United Kingdom and the United States, related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.[45]

The moral panic over pedophilia began in the 1970s after the sexual revolution. While homosexuality was becoming more socially accepted after the sexual revolution, pro-contact pedophiles believed that the sexual revolution never helped pro-contact pedophiles.[46] In the 1970s, pro-contact pedophile activist organizations such as Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) were formed in October 1974 and December 1978, respectively. Despite receiving some support, PIE received much backlash when they advocated for abolishing or lowering age of consent laws. As a result, people protested against PIE.[47] Until the first half of the 1970s, sex was not yet part of the concept of domestic child abuse, which used to be limited to physical abuse and neglect.[48] The sexual part of child abuse became prominent in the United States due to the encounter of two political agendas: the fight against battered child syndrome by pediatricians during the 1960s and the feminist anti-rape movement, in particular the denunciation of domestic sexual violence.[48] These two movements overlapped in 1975, creating a new political agenda about child sexual abuse. Laura Lowenkron wrote: "The strong political and emotional appeal of the theme of 'child sexual abuse' strengthened the feminist criticism of the patriarchal family structure, according to which domestic violence is linked to the unequal power between men and women and between adults and children."[48] Although the concern over child sexual abuse was caused by feminists, the concern over child sexual abuse also attracted traditional groups and conservative groups. Lowenkron wrote: "Concerned about the increasing expansion and acceptance of so-called 'sexual deviations' during what was called the libertarian age from the 1960s to the early 1970s," conservative groups and traditional groups "saw in the fight against 'child sexual abuse' the chance" to "revive fears about crime and sexual dangers".[48]

The moral panic over sex offenders and pedophiles became very intense in the early 1980s. In the 1980s, the media began to report more frequently on cases of children being raped, kidnapped or murdered. In 1981, a 6-year-old boy named Adam Walsh was abducted, murdered, and beheaded. Investigators believe the murderer was serial killer Ottis Toole. The murder of Adam Walsh took over nationwide news and led to a moral panic over child abduction. After Adam Walsh was killed, new laws for missing children were created.[49] According to criminologist Richard Moran, "[The Adam Walsh case] created a nation of petrified kids and paranoid parents. [...] Kids used to be able to go out and organize a stickball game, and now all playdates and the social lives of children are arranged and controlled by the parents."[49] During the 1980s, inaccurate and heavily flawed data about sex offenders and their recidivism rates was published. This data led to society believing that sex offenders have a particularly high recidivism rate, which led to the creation of sex offender registries.[50] Later information revealed that sex offenders, including child sex offenders, have a low recidivism rate.[50][51][52][53][54] Other highly publicized cases, similar to the murder of Adam Walsh, include the abduction and murder of eleven-year-old boy Jacob Wetterling in 1989, the rape and murder of seven-year-old girl Megan Kanka in 1994, and the rape and murder of nine-year-old girl Jessica Lunsford in 2005. These cases of children being killed, raped and/or abducted led to a creation of sex offender registries and sex offender laws.[50] Another contributing factor in the moral panic over pedophiles and sex offenders was the day-care sex-abuse hysteria in the 1980s and early 1990s, including the McMartin preschool trial. This led to a moral panic where parents became hypervigilant with concerns of predatory child sex offenders seeking to abduct children in public spaces, such as playgrounds.[55]

Society's opinion on sex offenders is generally extremely negative, with sex offenders being one of the most hated types of people in society.[56] Daniel J. Wood wrote, "Many studies have been conducted to evaluate the public's attitude toward sex offenders and most, to put it bluntly, would like to torture them before they are sentenced to death".[50] Pedophiles and child molesters are also some of the most hated types of people in society.[57][58] Pedophilia in particular is extremely despised, which some have referred to as a social stigma.[59] One study reported high levels of anger, fear and social rejection towards pedophiles who have not committed a crime.[60] Society's attitude towards child sexual abuse is extremely negative, with some surveys ranking child sexual abuse as morally worse than murder.[61]

1980s–1990s: Dungeons & Dragons[edit]

At various times, Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games have been accused of promoting such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s and later, some groups, especially fundamentalist Christian groups, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons.[62]

1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse[edit]

Also known as the "satanic panic", this was a series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse that originated in the United States and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to a string of wrongful convictions.[7][45][63][64]

1980s: HIV/AIDS[edit]

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) may lead to or exacerbate other health conditions such as pneumonia, fungal infections, tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and cytomegalovirus. A meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study entitled "AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic" was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education. It took place at a time when both groups were beginning to voice an increased concern with the growing media attention and fear-mongering that AIDS was attracting.[65] In the 1980s, a moral panic was created within the media over HIV/AIDS. For example, in Britain, a prominent advertisement by the government[66] suggested that the public was uninformed about HIV/AIDS due to a lack of publicly accessible and accurate information.[citation needed]

The media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the "gay plague", which further stigmatized the disease. However, scientists gained a far better understanding of HIV/AIDS as it grew in the 1980s and moved into the 1990s and beyond. The illness was still negatively viewed by many as either being caused by or passed on through the gay community. Once it became clear that this was not the case, the moral panic created by the media changed to blaming the overall negligence of ethical standards by the younger generation (both male and female), resulting in another moral panic. Authors behind AIDS: Rights, Risk, and Reason argued that "British TV and press coverage is locked into an agenda which blocks out any approach to the subject which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a profoundly homophobic culture—a culture that does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. No distinction obtains for the agenda between 'quality' and 'tabloid' newspapers, or between 'popular' and 'serious' television."[67]

In the 1990s, blame shifted to "uncivilized Africans" as the new "folk devils", with a popular theory alleging that HIV originated from humans having sex with simians. This theory was debunked by numerous experts.[68]

Late 1980s and early 1990s: Dangerous Dogs (UK)[edit]

After a series of high-profile dog attacks on children in the United Kingdom, the British press began to engage in a campaign against so-called dangerous dog breeds, especially Pit Bull Terriers and Rottweilers, which bore all the hallmarks of a moral panic.[69][70][71] This media pressure led the government to hastily introduce the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which has been criticised as "among the worst pieces of legislation ever seen, a poorly thought-out knee-jerk reaction to tabloid headlines that was rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny".[72] The act specifically focused on Pit Bulls, which were associated with the lower social strata of British society, rather than the Rottweilers and Dobermann-pinschers generally owned by richer social groups. Critics have identified the presence of social class as a factor in the dangerous dogs moral panic, with establishment anxieties about the "sub-proletarian" sector of British society displaced onto the folk devil of the "Dangerous dog".[70][71]


2000–present: human trafficking[edit]

Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have hallmarks of moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier, which prompted passage of the 1910 Mann Act.[73][74][75][76][77]

2012–present: anti-gender movement[edit]

The anti-gender movement in Latin America, Caribbean, Central America, Sub-saharan Africa, East Europe, Poland, part of Balkans, part of Caucasus and parts of the United States and Islamic world has been described as a moral panic.[78][79]

2020s: QAnon conspiracy theories[edit]

QAnon, a late-2010s to early 2020s far-right conspiracy theory that began on 4chan and which alleged that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring, has been described as a moral panic and compared to the 1980s panic over satanic ritual abuse.[80]

Criticism[edit]

Paul Joosse has argued that while classic moral panic theory styled itself as being part of the "sceptical revolution" that sought to critique structural functionalism, it is actually very similar to Émile Durkheim's depiction of how the collective conscience is strengthened through its reactions to deviance (in Cohen's case, for example, 'right-thinkers' use folk devils to strengthen societal orthodoxies). In his analysis of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 United States presidential election, Joosse reimagined moral panic in Weberian terms, showing how charismatic moral entrepreneurs can at once deride folk devils in the traditional sense while avoiding the conservative moral recapitulation that classic moral panic theory predicts.[81] Another criticism is that of disproportionality: there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action.[3]:xxvi–xxxi

Writing in 1995 about the moral panic that arose in the UK after a series of murders by juveniles, chiefly that of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys but also including that of 70-year-old Edna Phillips by two 17-year-old girls, the sociologist Colin Hay pointed out that the folk devil was ambiguous in such cases; the child perpetrators would normally be thought of as innocent.[82]

In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argued "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised." Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."[83]

The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value.[84] Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and consequently allow themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.[84]

Another British criminologist, Steve Hall, goes a step further to suggest that the term 'moral panic' is a fundamental category error. Hall argues that although some crimes are sensationalized by the media, in the general structure of the crime/control narrative the ability of the existing state and criminal justice system to protect the public is also overstated. Public concern is whipped up only for the purpose of being soothed, which produces not panic but the opposite, comfort and complacency.[85]

Echoing another point Hall makes, the sociologists Thompson and Williams argue that the concept of 'moral panic' is not a rational response to the phenomenon of social reaction, but itself a product of the irrational middle-class fear of the imagined working-class 'mob'. Using as an example a peaceful and lawful protest staged by local mothers against the re-housing of sex-offenders on their estate, Thompson and Williams show how the sensationalist demonization of the protesters by moral panic theorists and the liberal press was just as irrational as the demonization of the sex offenders by the protesters and the tabloid press.[86]

Many sociologists and criminologists (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.[87]

Other uses[edit]

The term was used in 1830, in a way that completely differs from its modern social science application, by a religious magazine[88] regarding a sermon.[89]:250 The phrase was used again in 1831, with an intent that is possibly closer to its modern use.[90]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ Scott, John (2 December 2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199683581.
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