Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Angel Faces, Killer Kids, and Appetites for Excess: Reapproaching Moral Panic

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posted on 2021-11-12, 19:46 authored by Wright, Sarah Louise

It is argued that the contemporary era is one proliferated with moral panics (Thompson, 1998). This is just as the concept of moral panic, which has enjoyed nearly forty years of analytical purchase, is being ‘rethought’ with an impetus to connect its processes with developments in social theory. Underpinning this rethink is a primary question: what are moral panics extreme examples of? It is evident in the literature, however, that there is a varying degree to which a more longstanding question – why moral panics occur – is addressed as part of this rethink. I propose in this thesis that these questions are intimate with each other; that only by understanding why real episodes occur can a supposition of what the concept of moral panic is in an abstract sense begin. Another – related – proposal is that while the conjectural question remains elusive the approach to empirical cases of moral panic be in real-type/ideal-type terms. That is, that at the same time as the concept is employed to understand phenomena occurring in tangible social situations, a reflection upon the concept (the ideal-type) is undertaken in relation to how the real-type case under investigation challenges and/or supports its interpretative parameters. To demonstrate these relationships and their study, I examine in this thesis the case of ‘killer kids’, which emerged in 2002 and spanned across the sociopolitical landscape of Aotearoa/New Zealand for the next six years. At the heart of this case was a set of news images of a child, who at twelve years of age had been involved in a heinous crime resulting in the death of pizza delivery person Michael Choy. Seeking to understand how and why these images were fundamental to how this ‘real-type’ episode of moral panic unfolded in this space and time, I employ a two-component approach inspired by Norman Fairclough’s (1995a) Critical Discourse Analysis. The first component deconstructs the realtype case via a three-tiered analytical framework: content, process, and context. The second component reflects upon these tiers (in parts and as a whole) in relation to Stanley Cohen’s (1972) application of a ‘cycle of deviance amplification’ in addition to the stages of panic as described in his seminal work Folk Devils and Moral Panics. From the processual and contextual factors identified at play in the construction of ‘killer kids’ I conclude with a suggestion that moral panic can be thought of as a set of appetites that come together in an explosive discharge of excess energy.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Hutton, Fiona; Rowe, Michael