November 14, 2011

Prohibition, Moral Panics, and Social Control

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns recently produced a documentary on Prohibition, an American law passed in the early twentieth century banning the sale of alcohol nationwide. Not only important in the study of history, Prohibition offers a fascinating sociological study in the concepts of moral panics and social control.

Watch Prohibition Sneak Peek on PBS. See more from Ken Burns.

Moral panics are widespread fears or concerns that something—or some people—pose a grave threat to the moral fiber of a society. These fears are fanned by crusaders who work extensively to raise public awareness about the threat. Sociologist Howard S. Becker called these crusaders “moral entrepreneurs”; while crusaders may not necessarily profit from the advancement of their cause, it often consumes much of the crusader’s time and energy.

One thing differentiates moral panics from other social movements: in a moral panic, the fear is often out of proportion with the actual threat. While moral crusaders argue that the danger posed is monumental, the threats are often exaggerated.

Alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse was certainly not new when moral crusaders sought to have it outlawed, starting in the nineteenth century. As the Burns documentary explores, what had changed is the population. By century’s end, American life had changed dramatically as people moved increasingly to cities and immigrants from eastern and southern Europe arrived in large numbers.

For native-born Protestants living in rural areas, these new immigrants posed a cultural threat, as they were seen as fundamentally different. They brought with them cultural traditions from their countries of origin, which in some cases included alcohol consumption.

Crusaders argued that getting rid of alcohol would cure a long list of problems, from crime and labor disputes to family violence and poverty. They charged that alcohol made the country unsafe for children, and they insisted that a law banning alcohol was desperately needed.

Moral crusaders often seek the passage of new laws or increases in penalties, which are examples of formal social control. As I have previously blogged about, formal social control is often something activists promote to help create what they see as a better society, but many such laws are very difficult to enforce and therefore are more symbolic than realistic.

The Burns film highlights how it was nearly impossible to prevent an entire nation from creating, consuming, and selling alcohol. Ingredients for beer and wine were readily available for at-home distilling, and people were allowed to store alcohol in their homes as long as it was purchased before Prohibition went into effect.

Moral crusaders sometimes overlook the problems that new laws create. Limited government resources redirected to Prohibition enforcement, but it was impossible to control the new underground economy that sprang up in the aftermath. No longer regulated or taxed, the illegal sale of alcohol led to a boom in organized crime, making mobsters far more rich and powerful than before. Politicians and law enforcement officials were often bribed, creating a new atmosphere of political corruption and hypocrisy.

Social control also fails when the public does not view a new law as legitimate. While a large proportion of the public might have agreed in theory that alcohol caused problems, the continued presence of alcohol did not shift cultural practices enough for everyone to quit drinking entirely. In fact, drinking adulterated alcohol sometimes caused illness or death to its unsuspecting customers.

Although some counties in the United States still ban alcohol, and several states restrict its sale, Prohibition itself is generally regarded as a failure. While some data suggest that alcohol was consumed less than before, there is no evidence that rates of alcoholism declined. The expansion of organized crime and its related violence created new fears that led to the end of national Prohibition in 1933.

There are several sociological lessons we can learn this historical event. First, moral crusaders often believe deeply in their cause, thinking they can solve many social problems by passing a new law. But we need to test such claims by looking closely as social science data to see if they are accurate or not. Second, claims about a problem often stem from antipathy towards one particular, often marginalized, group. We should investigate if this group is really responsible for the problems they allegedly cause and consider whether others might also be part of a problem. And finally, moral panics often lead to laws that have unintended, problematic consequences.

What other moral panics can you think of? What types of social control do moral crusaders advocate, and what might be the unintended consequences?


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I like how she used the prohibition to to discuss moral panics and I also enjoyed how she concluded with the idea that moral panics can lead to laws that are unintentionally problematic.

I really the topics discussed here.. I was confused earlier but now it is all clear. Thanks for posting.

I like to discuss moral panics.

I like this post, Its almost like the people pushing to have guns banned. In fact prohibition and moral panic is a great parallel to the 2nd amendment and its own moral panic. The "crusaders" against the 2nd amendment believe making guns illegal to everyday civilians would make the streets safer and more secure. Prohibition actually made crime increase due to all the people illegally producing it. I would expect the same effect if guns were made illegal, thus proving your point "moral panics often lead to laws that have unintended, problematic consequences."

This makes a lot of sense. It seems like when they make a law and make something illegal, more people want to do it, just becuase it is illegal.

Wonderful article; however, I think that moral legislation (in its many forms) will continue to swing like a slow pendulum. For example, we remember the disastrous Volstead Act of 20’s but we forget that until 1914, when the Harrison Narcotic Act was passed, that cocaine was legal and could be sold in soft drinks to children.

Thanks for the Great Content. I will also share with my Friends and once again Thanks a lot for sharing valuable information with us. Please keep on sharing.
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