Asylum seekers in the UK: a social psychological understanding of a moral panic

Pearce, Julia Michelle (2010) Asylum seekers in the UK: a social psychological understanding of a moral panic. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This thesis critically investigated the concept of 'moral panic' in relation to the UK response to asylum seekers and considered how the explanatory value of this concept could be enhanced by using social psychological theory to understand the cause and impact of such a moral panic. A theoretical framework of social representations and social identity theory was used to explore psychological processes underpinning UK host receptivity to moral panic discourse, and the social and psychological impact on the asylum seekers labelled as 'folk devils'. The research was based on a quantitative content analysis of 415 UK national newspaper articles, a qualitative analysis of a sub-set of 120 of these articles, 8 group interviews comprising 36 members of the host community, and 25 individual interviews with people who have sought asylum in the UK. The findings established some empirical indicators for evidence of a 'moral panic', but also drew attention to the complexity of applying criteria such as disproportionality and volatility. There was clear evidence for a moral panic about asylum seekers in the tabloid media and in host community responses, but not in broadsheet coverage. Nonetheless, individuals who had sought refuge in the UK clearly experienced the host reception as a moral panic. The moral panic discourse centred on three core representations: asylum seekers as 'bad people', 'threatening', and 'illegitimate', and this discourse was widely dispersed and resistant to change. Further analysis revealed that host community responses were consistent with some, although not all, intergroup processes predicted by social identity theory. Social identity theory was also useful for identifying strategies asylum seekers used to cope with their stigmatised group membership. Overall this research points to the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach which draws on sociological and social psychological theorising to produce a model which enhances the utility and explanatory power of the 'moral panic' concept.

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