From Moral Science to Moral Regulation: Social Theory’s Encounter with the Moral Domain

Alan Hunt. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

In recent years, in both academic and popular venues, there has been considerable interest in a form of politics which has come to be styled ‘moral regulation.’ Moral regulation projects are an interesting and significant form of politics in which some agents act to problematize the conduct, values or culture of others and seek to act upon them through moralizing discourses, practices and regulation. Moralization involves imposing judgements on the rightness or wrongness of the conduct or values of others. Projects of moral regulation are generally ones which derive not from the instrumental interests of their proponents, but rather from commitments to what is right and what is wrong as an ethical judgement distinct from appeal to that which is right as tradition or as expediency. It is typically the case that matters of sexual conduct and values are readily moralized; they are widely regarded as being organized around the dichotomy of right and wrong, even though the values espoused do not necessarily derive from any specific code of morality. However, a wide variety of other fields of human activity can become subject to moralization: consumption, pictorial and other forms of artistic representation, dress, the treatment of children, the disabled and animals are persistent fields of moral politics.

The group of words ‘moral,’ ‘morals,’ ‘morality,’ encompass unstable and shifting meanings and referents and thus exhibit many ambiguities. These terms cover a range of meanings from moral philosophy’s quest for rational criteria of judgement, through to the sense of ‘moral’ as personal values barely distinguishable from the subjectivism of emotions. For some these slippages are grounds for avoiding talk of morals or of moral regulation. However, such difficulties confront many concepts that are active in both academic and everyday life. As Gallie (1955-6) long ago pointed out, concepts such as justice and democracy, and we may add morals, are ‘contested concepts.’ In this chapter ‘moral’ is a broader concept than ‘morality,’ referring to all judgements of right and wrong, while morality refers to more or less coherent sets of moral values.

Mitchell Dean has objected that the concept ‘moral regulation’ ‘delineates no clear domain’ that can be distinguished from other forms of political regulation or intervention (1994: 155). This objection might be raised against any concept located at some level of abstraction; ‘politics’ or ‘economics’ have no fixed or agreed meanings and can be fruitfully employed in a range of widely different contexts. In the sense adopted here, namely the invocation of right and wrong, moral regulation demarcates a distinctive form of politics, in particular one that can be distinguished from struggles over interests. This does not imply that moral regulation is self-contained; rather, such projects are often found in association with other forms and styles of politics. Dean is further mistaken in thinking that a focus on moral regulation does not permit attention to ethics viewed as involving projects of self-formation. His objection flows from his following Foucault in equating morals with moral codes. On the contrary, moral regulation characteristically invokes some complex mix of the incitement to self-regulation and the promotion of external governance; this distinction is evident in the difference between ‘temperance,’ which, in both older and newer forms, promotes the self-governance of the drinker (abstention, ‘signing the pledge’), and ‘prohibition,’ which focuses on demands for the institutionalization of external governance (criminalizing the production, distribution or consumption of alcohol). In the practical politics of the moral regulation of alcohol, combinations of these elements form the specific projects pursued.

Mariana Valverde, one of the most productive researchers in the field of moral regulation studies, has subsequently abandoned the concept on the grounds that its use tends to homogenize the field and that it imports the assumption that we know where morality ends and other things (such as politics and economics) begin. All concepts construct fields or objects of inquiry and there is a consequent risk of their reification into taken-for-granted unities (as, for example, with a concept such as ‘the economy’); but this is a problem about how each concept is used rather than with concepts as such. The concept ‘moral regulation’ does point to a significant shared feature of certain types of projects, namely those projects directed at governing others in the name of moral distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong. This should not be taken as implying that some projects are pure instances of moral governance; it is always likely that any particular instance will combine several different forms or styles of governance.

This chapter explores the reasons for this current interest in moral regulation by tracing the different types of inquiry that have been pursued. In summary form, there are two linked reasons for engagement with moral regulation, one political and the other theoretical. Politically, in a period in which class conflict has been in recession, political struggles have tended to focus on the ‘culture wars’ around competing identities that have typically centred on contests over moralized symbolic values, what is right or wring, what should be permitted and what prohibited (or at least discouraged). Alongside major contestations over the environment, trade practices and health politics, there have been ever more volatile contests over fields demarcated by moral and cultural symbols.

Theoretically, after the pitched battles at the end of the twentieth century between structuralism and poststructuralism, there have been attempts to avoid such sterile oppositions as those revolving around consensus versus conflict, objectivism versus subjectivism, and the like. One significant consequence has been the attempts to bring into the same frame inquiries that were previously segregated. The most concerted move in this direction found expression in Foucault’s turn to governmentality with its central concern ‘to show how the government of self is integrated with the government of others’ (1989: 296). While expressed within a different conceptual framework, a similar project is present in Bourdieu’s focus on struggles within specific social ‘fields’ over distinct forms of economic, cultural and symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1984, 1990). This chapter explores the contention that concern with moral regulation has been a significant component of the history of the social sciences, but that it is important to recognize that these lines of inquiry have been marked by significant shifts in the problematization of the moral dimensions of social governance.

Social Theory and the Moral Domain

The concern with the study of the place of morals in social life is not new. Mary Douglas has gone as far as to speculate that ‘in all places at all times the universe is moralized and politicized’ (1992: 5). Morals have been regarded as both metaphor for and cause of the health of society. In pre-modern times dangers were moralized and politicized through the terminology of sin, with collective sins unleashing divine retribution on individuals and communities. Indeed, in important respects, concern with the moral condition of society was present in the formation of the very beginnings of modern social thought.

Enlightenment thought brought with it the beginnings of the study of ‘the social’ as distinct from the political realm; it exhibited a dual focus on moral and social conditions. A central problematic of Enlightenment thought revolved around the relation between patterns of social development and individual character. Individual action was conceived as having a dual source, the passions/interests and reason. Progress was regarded as the unanticipated consequences of individual self-interested action; its classic manifestation was Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand.’ In this tradition ‘the moral’ was conceived as providing access to the intrinsic attributes of human actors, conceived as ‘human nature’; the comparative study of these objective attributes (‘moeurs,’ ‘moralit,’ etc.) provided the means of identifying the ‘condition of mankind’ (Smith, 1976 [1759]). But the moral condition was also used to provide an index of the well-being of the whole society and generally took the form of a comparative historical approach exemplified in Gibbon’s study of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, with its explicit concern with the fate of other civilizations (Gibbon, 1910 [1776-88]).

A long-standing tradition explained the rise and fall of nations by reference to the prevailing moral climate. It should be noted that in this respect Enlightenment thought exhibited significant continuity with pre-Enlightenment thought, albeit in secular guise. It was no longer the ‘wrath of God’ that was to be feared; rather, it became a preoccupation one which has shown remarkable endurance with the idea that the decline in morals weakens social cohesion and hence threatens the very survival of society. This concern with morals provided a more or less systematic way of thinking about a core question in social theory, namely the relation between the individual and the community, between self and others; its traces reach out through many forms of social thought.

However, the nineteenth century witnessed currents which both carried forward and rejected this concern with the moral condition of society. The moralizing tradition left a very distinctive imprint upon sociology as it emerged from the broader traditions of social and political thought. Some of the earliest quantitative studies, such as those conducted by Quetelet (1969 [1834]), explicitly sought to measure the health of society through ‘moral statistics.’ Quetelet sought to measure social morality by compiling statistics on such matters as drunkenness, illegitimate births, suicides and, most extensively, the propensity to commit crime. Similarly the German Moralstatistik movement studied ethical social life through the compilation of statistics on suicide, divorce, crime, illegitimacy, church attendance and alcohol consumption (Deflem, 1997). In England Harriet Martineau in How To Observe Manners and Morals advanced a more qualitative method of observing the morality of a people; one should start, she suggested, by examining the inscriptions on gravestones: ‘[T]he brief language of the dead will teach… more than the longest discourses of the living.’ Gravestones could establish attachment to kindred and birthplace, choice of idols and popular values. The age of death revealed the state of health of a community, which, in turn, was an ‘almost unfailing’ index of its morals (Martineau, 1838: 105, 161).

At the same time social thought retreated from concern with moral conditions. In a tradition that varied the mix of radicalism and positivism, the concern with ‘social conditions’ understood empirically in terms of housing and working conditions came to the fore. In the period after the French Revolution there was a shift away from ‘morals,’ displaced by a concern to render the study of the social scientific that attested to the prestige of the natural sciences; its product was the triumph of positivism.

This process required a separation of science from religion; but it should not be forgotten that at the same time a powerful current in both religious and scientific thought sought to harmonize the new science, especially evolutionary thought, with a non-literal theology. Over a long period the concern to resist the intellectual divorce between science and morals was reflected in varied efforts to advance a ‘moral science’; the term was widely used by the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and was still attractive to John Stuart Mill in his On the Logic of the Moral Sciences (1965 [1843]). A similar ethos surrounded the use of ‘moral science’ to describe the aspirations of a variety of bourgeois reformers who from the end of the eighteenth century engaged with the conditions of prisons and other institutions of incarceration. Moral science denoted a distinctive mix of piety and rationalism that inspired the whole nineteenth-century philanthropic enterprise (Prochaska, 1988). However, the positivist camp triumphed, after long and protracted skirmishes and battles, with its insistence on the separation of social and moral questions. Its victory was marked by the inscription on the building blocks of the social and human sciences of the dictum that the radical separation between facts and values was the only secure path to knowledge.

While this epistemological positivism came to dominate the official self-conception of the social sciences, it inserted a profound ambiguity in modern thought. As the nineteenth century ‘progressed,’ the belief in the human capacity to change the conditions of life required answers to ethical questions about how we should live. Yet such questions had been expelled from the sanctified grounds of ‘the sciences.’ Modernity both desperately needs morality, but makes it increasingly difficult to achieve because the grounds for moral certainty have been undermined. Morality can less readily be grounded in claims of rationality, but only subjective opinion; nevertheless the social and human sciences in the early twentieth century remained profoundly concerned to promote moral agendas. While the articulation of this dilemma has changed, we remain familiar with the difficulty of deciding whether there can be a principled manner in which disputes between rival moral and ethical claims can be resolved.

The tradition of reading the condition of society from its morals was never entirely abandoned. It was taken forward into the twentieth century by Durkheim in a form that was to play a major role in the constitution of the discipline of sociology; it should be noted that his sociology was firmly located in the tradition of moral science. His familiar distinction, developed in The Division of Labor in Society (1964 [1893]), between mechanical and organic solidarity served to introduce what was to become the core problematic of his subsequent writings. The cohesion of simple societies was provided by an intuitive but intensive shared morality articulated in unitary religions which commanded the assent of all. Durkheim’s abiding question was: how was it possible that modern society, lacking such a cohesive religion, could sustain strong social bonds sufficient to hold at bay the fragmenting tendencies associated with the individualism of industrial societies? In his later writing he returned to an emphasis on collective representations manifest in such institutions as marriage, family, money and property. He sought a secular morality to secure the vitality of commitment that had been associated with religion. He held out the promise of a scientific study of the moral order.

We must discover those moral forces that men, down to the present time, have conceived of only under the form of religious allegories. We must disengage them from their symbols, present them in their rational nakedness, so to speak, and to find a way to make the child feel their reality without recourse to any mythological intermediary. (Durkheim, [1961]: 11)

The gradual decline of sociological interest in morals in the early twentieth century was linked to the increasing rigidity of the division of labour between sociology and psychology. In the nineteenth century moral capacities were conceived as natural attributes of specific social categories, such as mothers, priests and teachers, who transmitted morals through instruction. For example, Elizabeth Blackwell’s text Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of their Children (1878) was enormously successful and exemplified this tradition of ‘moral instruction.’ Such instruction was rigorously gendered: males and females were deemed to have distinct moral capacities, and, as Susan Okin (1989) has shown, this moral dualism has its roots in the early Middle Ages in the association of females with ‘hearth and home.’ By the Victorian period this had come to take the form of a belief in the moral superiority of women and, consequently, with their acquisition of responsibility for the moral instruction of the young. Throughout the period moral instruction was viewed as consisting of the transmission of some specific, usually religious, moral code.

A significant change occurred as psychology came to focus on the stages of individual development. G. Stanley Hall’s ‘discovery’ of adolescence was an important step and one which took the debate beyond that of moral instruction because Hall accepted a Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics, both physical and moral, were directly inheritable between generations (Hall, 1904); but it should be noted that in this model the vices were more readily inheritable than the virtues. This line of thought served to reinforce the distinctive Victorian anxiety about degeneration (Nordau, 1895). With the rise of psychology as a coherent discipline, the emphasis shifted in a more humanist direction to a concern with childhood as a distinct developmental stage. Child development was approached as an individualized and individualizing process. One major strand focused on the moral development; its classic expression was in Jean Piaget’s The Moral Judgement of the Child (1932), which focused on a periodization of stages of moral development treating moral reasoning as the acquisition of a cognitive capacity, and which had by now broken with the tradition of moral instruction in favour of a wider concern with parenting and education.

The central concern with morals that played such a key role in Durkheim’s sociology was not systematically taken up as sociology constituted itself as an academic discipline. Instead the focus of attention shifted to the study of social relations and processes and, in particular, to the forms of authority and social control. But rather than disappearing completely, a sociological concern with morals re-emerged in a number of different guises.

In the first instance it was manifest in attempts to grapple with what were perceived as aberrant forms of social conduct. As the ‘age of extremes’ that was to characterize the twentieth century got underway, there was a marked shift away from a concern with morals as political, economic and military upheavals shook the world (Hobsbawm, 1994). Concern with morals seemed to have religious resonances that were out of place in a rapidly secularizing world. However, European politics in the twentieth century exhibited many forms of the politics of indignation that were to culminate in National Socialism in the 1930s and in ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the 1990s. Sociological attention to such phenomena was first articulated by Max Scheler (1961 [1912]) in his study of ressentiment. The concept derived from Nietzsche’s notion of ‘slave morality’; it connoted impotent hatred and envy. Ressentiment is the expression of the base ‘bourgeois spirit’ formed by the cumulative repression of hatred, envy and revenge which finds no expression in an alternative culture, but secretly craves the values that it denies and denounces. The lower middle classes, particularly in societies where natural hierarchy has broken down yet where inequality, envy and competitiveness are rife, were its characteristic exponents and it manifested itself in petty-bourgeois reactionary politics.

This tradition was taken further by Svend Ranulf (1964 [1938]); he sought to add an empirical content to Scheler’s ressentiment thesis by means of an inquiry into what he termed ‘disinterested moral indignation,’ where no immediate advantage or interest could accrue to its exponents. He highlighted the instance of the urge to punish criminals. The desire for punishment is pronounced where the lower middle class is large and politically significant. The moral indignation of the lower middle classes results from their situation as a class subjected to extraordinarily high degrees of self-restraint. Under these circumstances ressentiment is directed against those who violate their self-imposed norms.

What is significant about the ressentiment tradition is that it was less concerned with the processes whereby outbursts of moral indignation were amplified, which, as we will see shortly, came to dominate the concerns of deviancy theory. Rather, highlighting ressentiment concentrated attention upon the task of explaining its content and its targets. It offered the prospect of penetrating beneath the phenomenal level of accounts provided by participants and of the discourses within which they are articulated. The theory held out the possibility of uncovering underlying trends or tendencies which do not form part of the consciousnesses or discourses of the participants. The promise was to make sense of social issues that manifested themselves in persistent social tensions and anxieties and generated characteristic forms of social action. Its continuing attraction lies in the possibility of social explanation that combines with a hermeneutic dimension in that it takes account of the experiences, meanings and anxieties of actors, but at the same time offers the prospect of going beyond experience to some sense of what is ‘really going on,’ of causal mechanisms that are at work behind the consciousness of participants.

Sociology, Deviance, and Moral Panics

With the institutionalization of sociology, a project that was accomplished most thoroughly in the USA, sociology came increasingly to be absorbed by two closely related themes, namely the study of ‘social problems’ and ‘deviance.’ These two strands were frequently to merge, overlap and then separate again.

The first strand was closely linked to the legitimization of sociology as a discipline through its aspiration to claim a privileged status as science. The main result was the rapid depoliticization of sociology and the rupture of its relations with social reform movements. The sociologist became a self-declared ‘expert,’ one whose techniques could be applied to ‘problems’ that were referred to them by a variety of social and political authorities; the sociologist studied the issue and then generated policy recommendations which were passed on to the appropriate level of governmental apparatuses. In the formative growth period of US sociology after the First World War it was ‘the survey movement’ which expressed this vision of the role of sociology (Bulmer et al., 1991). This style of sociological work reached its classic expression in the Lynds’ study of ‘Middletown’ (Lynd and Lynd, 1929). Typical subjects were urban housing conditions, commercialized vice in the cities, rural depopulation and many other topics.

After the Second World War the ‘social problems’ approach was carried forward but increasingly broke with the objectivism of the earlier phase. The subjectivist turn in American sociology expressed itself in ethnomethodology and symbolic interaction. The focus shifted from a view of ‘social problems’ as objective conditions in the external world, to one informed by a sceptical epistemology that viewed ‘social problems’ as existing in the interpretative practices and meanings conferred by social actors. This approach led to attention being concentrated on the way in which ‘claims-makers’ constructed social problems, the conditions that accounted for whether they were taken up by others, achieved attention from news media, and secured responsive activity from institutional apparatuses. Not surprisingly attention tended to stress the social activism grounded in outrage and moral indignation that articulated popular demands that ‘something should be done.’ While the issues taken up may engage with issues where there is wide agreement about the harm involved (for example, drunk driving, sexual assault, and so on), the primary stimulus of social problems research has been with the socially constructed nature of the issue (for example, satanic abuse, alien abduction, and so on). In the most general terms, Merton proposed that ‘a social problem exists when there is a sizable discrepancy between what is and what people think ought to be’ (1976: 7). Jack Douglas (1970) made early use of an explicitly social constructionist approach, a tradition that continued within the intellectual space of the debate between ‘constructionism’ and ‘realism’ and remains live and vigorous (Best, 1995).

A closely related set of concerns fuelled the emergence of the sociology of deviance, which was to become a flourishing subdiscipline. Continuity with social problems was guaranteed by the key role played by labelling theory. Deviance was not viewed as a natural product of difference or abnormality, which had motivated the late nineteenth-century preoccupation with degeneracy. The core argument advanced by Howard Becker (1963) was that deviance is a social construct imposed upon individuals as a result of their being labelled deviant; this in turn leads them into deviant careers (see also Matza, 1969). Becker deployed concepts of ‘moral enterprise’ and ‘moral entrepreneurs’ and drew attention to the fact that these roles are performed by both established authorities and crusading reformers. Much of the work within the problematic of deviance focused on labelling as an exercise of power; one of the most frequently pursued forms was the role of the media in the amplification of deviance.

One of the major trajectories that emerged out of the labelling tradition was the concern with social movements that pursued projects of moral regulation. A classic example of social movements which cannot readily be accounted for in terms of the instrumental interests of the participants is the great legislative adventure of American constitutional prohibition. Joseph Gusfield’s Symbolic Politics (1963) advanced the social constructionist enterprise by focusing attention on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and their success in reinvigorating the flagging revivalist message of temperance that played a decisive role in launching the prohibition movement in the USA. But at the same time he linked this inquiry to the concerns that had fuelled the European concern with ressentiment by searching for an explanation of why the attack on alcohol ignited such passions, to elucidate ‘what is really going on’ behind the polemical discursive surface. His thesis, that the traditional rural interests of North European settlers with Protestant affiliations experiencing economic and cultural marginalization reacted with a politics of ‘status defence’ to reassert their social and moral ideals, has continued to elicit controversy (Wallis, 1979).

The persistence of this tradition is exemplified in Bourdieu’s more recent argument that moral regulation campaigns emanate from declining fractions of the petty bourgeoisie where ‘resentment is clearly the basis of the reactionary or conservative-revolutionary stances of the declining petty bourgeois who are anxious to maintain order on all fronts, in domestic morality and in society, and who invest the revolt against the worsening of their social position in moral indignation against the worsening of morals’ (1984: 435). In a similar vein Kai Erikson in Wayward Puritans (1966) explored the role of deviance in fixing group moral and social boundaries. In his study of the Salem witch trials he focused on responses to intense social anxieties and the associated cultural stress in which a community drew symbolic boundaries around specific forms of conduct and social statuses.

A major strand of work has been preoccupied with ‘moral panics.’ Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of English teenage gangs ushered in the concept ‘moral panic,’ understood as social action in which some social group becomes defined as a threat to societal values, a designation which is then amplified by mass media, and induces moralization from moral entrepreneurs and experts. This lineage has tended to lay heavy stress on the role of the media as both amplifying and in some cases ‘causing’ panics (Cohen and Young, 1973). Thereafter ‘moral panic’ studies proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic and have continued to the present (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Jenkins, 1992, 1998; K. Thompson, 1998). The significant feature of the deployment of the concept ‘moral panic’ is that it imports the normative evaluation that such campaigns are overreactions or disproportionate responses to social anxieties. The concept is not used with respect to movements with which authors are in sympathy; thus environmental, anti-nuclear and anti-globalization movements have not been deemed to be moral panics. Yet such movements undoubtedly use moral discourses to moralize the conduct of the social and economic projects which they oppose. As will be seen below, moral regulation studies seek to avoid imposing their own moralization on the movements and projects that are studied.

It should be noted that a significant shift occurred from the earlier concerns of deviancy theory. The primary focus on problematic and marginal social groups declined and the focus changed to problematize the practices of those whom Becker has termed ‘moral entrepreneurs,’ the social agents who problematize the conduct of others. Expressed in the terms of labelling theory, the focus shifted from the ‘labelled’ to the ‘labellers.’ While there is no clear-cut boundary which marks the emergence of ‘moral regulation’ as an organizing frame of reference, it was this shift within deviancy theory that provided the key step in stimulating the moral regulation inquiries.

Moral Regulation and the Turn to Governmentality

The emergence of a distinct body of work that could be identified as constituting the field of moral regulation was not the product of any single theoretical trajectory. Rather, it arose as a number of intellectual positions engaged with the problematization of morals and morality. Its two primary strands have been Gramscian Marxism and Foucauldian governmentality.

Gramsci provided an opening towards a non-reductionist account of the dynamic of Western capitalism. The reproduction of economic relations is not in itself sufficient to account for the persistence of capitalist social and political relations; Gramsci famously deployed the concept of hegemony to lay the basis for an account of how social, cultural and political leadership can be secured at the level of everyday or lived social relations. His approach is exemplified in his discussion of Americanism and Fordism, where he argues that Fordist production techniques required the ‘making’ of a ‘new type of man’ that was demanded by the rationalization of production and work, one that ‘cannot be developed until the sexual instinct has been suitably regulated and until it has been rationalized’ (Gramsci, 1971: 297). In a manner which has parallels with Elias, with an added attention on class conflict, he contended that the creation of the new Fordist man is an ‘often painful and bloody process of subjugating natural (i.e. animal and primitive) instincts to new, more complex and rigid norms and habits of order, exactitude and precision’ (1971: 298).

Gramsci’s project was extended by Corrigan and Sayer’s account of state formation in England prior to the Industrial Revolution. They advanced the thesis that English state formation involved a ‘cultural revolution,’ in which moral regulation was a normalizing process that rendered the extant social order natural and taken for granted. The Corrigan-Sayer treatment differs from the subsequent trajectory of moral regulation studies by virtue of the centrality they attribute to the role of the state: ‘Moral regulation is always coextensive with state formation, and state forms are always animated and legitimated by a particular moral ethos. Centrally, state agencies attempt to give unitary and unifying expression to what are in reality multifaceted and differential historical experiences of groups within society, denying their particularity.’ (1985: 4)

Subsequently the focus on the state has largely been displaced by attention to moral regulation as emanating from a complex of social forces, discourses and practices dispersed throughout civil society. While the state is a key player in some moral regulation projects, for example in the current ‘war against drugs,’ most projects emanate from ‘the middle’ or from ‘below.’ However, Corrigan and Sayer did capture a significant thematic that has remained of enduring influence: ‘Moral order accordingly has a dual character, both externally regulative and internally constitutive’ (1985: 194).

A powerful and influential integration of Gramscian Marxism and deviancy theory was provided by Stuart Hall and his colleagues (1978). They were concerned to explain why it was that a series of prosecutions of some particularly violent assaults on elderly citizens in England in 1971 and 1972 resulted in such heavy media attention, exceptionally severe judicial sanctions and widespread public anger. They interpreted the resulting ‘mugging panic’ in terms of a set of anxieties current in British society at the time which articulated significant social dislocations. The analysis focused attention on what the authors describe as the mechanism of ‘convergence’ that ‘occurs when two or more activities are linked in the process of signification so as to implicitly or explicitly draw parallels between them’ (1978: 223). Where convergence occurs, the possibility is created for a process of amplification when a dispersed set of social anxieties become elided. Race figured in the political vernacular since the muggings were committed by black males. Race was linked with ‘youth’ since the offenders were in their early teens while their victims were elderly. ‘Race’ and ‘youth’ thus became articulated with a generalized discourse of ‘law-and-order’ focused on anxiety about the lack of safety in inner-city areas. Race, youth and law-and-order were welded together with a pervasive sense of ‘anti-permissiveness,’ that something had ‘gone wrong’ with British society in that things ‘weren’t like they used to be.’ This focus on the linkage of otherwise unconnected elements within projects of moral regulation has become an influential line of inquiry.

The focus on the links between external and internal dimensions of moral regulation was to be most fully developed by Foucault. One of his major themes, as noted above, was the link between the government of self and the government of others. Foucault distinguished, on the one hand, the divergent moral practices in societies and the various formalized moral codes and, on the other, the forms of ethical subjectification or ‘the forming of the self as an ethical subject’ (1985: 26). It was these forms of subjectivization inscribed within practices of the self with which he increasingly engaged. Since he refused the reduction of social fields to one another (of truth to epistemology, or power to the state), it followed that a history of ethics can never be a history of moral codes or of moral practices.

Foucault was much concerned with moral regulation (although he does not use this specific concept) throughout his writings. The ‘great confinement’ incarcerated the poor and the insane in workhouses and madhouses; it was the moralization of idleness that created the workhouse as the ‘prisons of moral order’ (Foucault, 1965: 63). He went on to focus attention on the question: why have sex and sexuality been so persistently the target of moral problematization? For so long this question had been treated as self-evident, sex being the paradigmatic ‘moral question.’ But for Foucault the opening up of the great medico-psychological domain of the ‘perversions’ was a decisive event; the medicalization and psychiatrization of perversions, along with the programs of eugenics, were ‘the two great innovations in the technology of sex on the second half of the nineteenth century’ (1978: 118). In subsequent volumes of The History of Sexuality he went on to argue that in the ancient world moral codes were of far less significance than the ethical concern over sexual conduct which were not tied to systems of prohibitions (1985: 10). In the same period he continued to emphasize the significance of the nineteenth-century project of the moralization of the working classes. For the bourgeoisie, it was ‘absolutely necessary to constitute the populace as a moral subject and to break its commerce with criminality, and hence to segregate the delinquents and to show them to be dangerous not only to the rich but to the poor as well’ (1980: 41).

Foucault’s sketch of a new strategy of inquiry under the label of governmentality has provided the most significant orientation for studies of moral regulation. There are two reasons for this. First, moral regulation exemplifies the dispersed sites of social power such that movements arising from many different sources have come to play significant, if frequently only temporary, roles on the historical stage (Hunt, 1999a; Valverde, 1991). Thus, for example, eugenics reached mass audiences and considerable respectability towards the end of the nineteenth century, forming complex connections with first-wave feminism, only to fall into disfavour. Second, moral regulation projects tend to exhibit various combinations of governing others and governing selves. For example, anti-alcohol movements in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century turned away from the temperance concern with ‘signing the pledge’ to pursue coercive constitutional and criminal legislation, yet since the collapse of prohibition the temperance project has re-emerged—in some respects stronger than ever—in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous, focused on the self-governance of alcoholics with an unwavering avoidance of any suggestion of ‘prohibition.’ The current tobacco wars similarly exhibit a complex assemblage of restrictive regulation with health education techniques.

The Entry of Everyday Life

The specific intellectual influence of Foucault resonates with one of the most general intellectual currents that has fuelled the expansion of moral regulation studies, namely the diffusion of historical sociology and the blurring of the differentiation between ‘social history’ and ‘historical sociology.’ It is beyond present concerns to account for this historical turn (see Abrams, 1980; Skocpol, 1984; Smith, 1991); however, it should be emphasized that the decisive feature was not just the ‘turn to history’ but rather was a return to the history of everyday life.

The trajectory of the new social history has been conducive for the growth of studies of moral regulation projects. There has been a shift away from a preoccupation with institutions and nation-states that has created a space for engagements with the history of civilization, conceived no longer in terms of high culture, but as the lived experience of people in their daily lives, of everyday life (Ari’s and Duby, 1987-91; de Certeau, 1984). One branch of this tradition is that associated with Norbert Elias’s study of the civilizing process, in which not only bodily self-control but various forms of moral self-control become disseminated through gradually expanding social strata (Elias, 1978 [1939], 1982 [1939]). Within this interest in ordinary lives, the problematization of moral issues has long played a significant role. The new social history has facilitated a variety of studies of the wide variety of moral regulation projects.

It is not intended to provide an exhaustive account of this substantial body of work; it is only possible to indicate some of its most significant varieties. Many studies trace, over shorter or longer periods, the formation and changes in aspects of everyday life, from relations between parents and children, to relations to animals, from food practices to recreations, celebrations and forms of conviviality that involve patterns of moralization. From this wide canvas mention should be made of Peter Burke’s (1978) concept of ‘the reform of popular culture,’ which has not received from sociologists the attention it deserves. This concept focuses attention on the way in which social or class distancing occurs that involves the moralization and attempted regulation of the activities of subordinate classes; for example, significant turning points occurred when in the early modern period rural landowners withdrew their support from traditional recreations of the lower classes such as bear-baiting and dog-fighting.

While the tradition of cultural history is less developed in North America than in Europe, it has produced a significant variety of studies on the link between popular culture and regulation. Early on, Jane Addams (1909) advanced a critique of industrialism for having successfully organized work, yet failed to make provision for leisure; this failure was seized upon by those seeking only profit from the commercialization of leisure. This sparked a major preoccupation with the moral dangers of commercialized leisure. This theme was also present in Thorstein Veblen’s classic discussion of the ‘leisure class’ (1967 [1899]) and in Paul Cressey’s (1932) now largely neglected study of ‘a-dime-a-dance’ commercial dance-halls. This type of work serves to remind us of the key part that the critiques of the commercialization of leisure have played in projects of moral regulation epitomized by movie censorship and current attempts to regulate the Internet.

One familiar field in which issues of moral regulation has come to the fore is with respect to attempts to regulate what was termed obscenity in the nineteenth century and became pornography in the twentieth. While much of the debate on these questions has been partisan advocacy, there has been important sociological work on the characteristics of movements advocating censorship. Nicola Beisel’s (1997) study of Anthony Comstock’s anti-obscenity campaign argues that the middle-class support which Comstock attracted can be understood as an expression of their concern to preserve the capacity to transmit cultural capital to their children; hence the need for their ‘protection’ from immorality. In contrast, Bill Thompson (1994) tackles a longer period and focuses on a comparison of anti-pornography crusades in England and the USA.

One significant by-product of these historical studies has been the realization that ‘first-wave’ feminism had been heavily engaged in a variety of moral regulation projects. This has led to two overlapping but distinguishable lines of inquiry. First, there has been a major internal debate within feminism between those who applaud the engagement of early feminist in projects such as temperance, anti-obscenity, sexual purity and sexual hygiene; those taking this stance have generally been supporters of the recent anti-pornography campaigns (Jackson, 1994; Jeffreys, 1985). In contrast, a second, and very different, position has expressed caution, if not outright criticism, with regard to the sexual conservatism of first-wave feminism, warning against the perils of contemporary feminism adopting such positions and joining cause with political conservatism (Dubois and Gordon, 1983; Stansell, 1986; Walkowitz, 1992).

These controversies have stimulated a wider interest in the distinctive moral politics of the late nineteenth century. The fascination with the phenomenon of Victorianism has continued to flourish into a veritable industry. It has been recognized that the purity movements exemplified an important form of politics. Lurking not far beneath the surface has been a question about the history of the present, namely whether since the late twentieth century we have been witnessing a return to a period of highly moralized politics. Mary Douglas has provided a wider cross-cultural context for these reflections. She argues that the rituals of purity and impurity are projects to create or impose unity upon social experience. Pollution and purity categories reflect core beliefs about social order that become activated especially when current social values involve contradictory strains. She utilizes the example of beliefs about the ‘sexual danger of women’ and the taboos generated thereby, which tend to flourish when male dominance coexists with pressures to recognize female autonomy; in such contexts the quest for female purity is ‘an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction’ (Douglas, 1966: 162).

This concern to understand why periodic eruptions of moral regulation occur that exhibit preoccupations with sexuality and sexual conduct has motivated a trajectory of studies on sexual purity—or, as it was often styled ‘social purity’—movements. It was Foucault who asked the deceptively simple question: ‘Why is sexual conduct, why are the activities and pleasures that attach to it, an object of moral solicitude?… How, why, and in what forms was sexuality constituted as a moral domain?’ (Foucault, 1985: 10).

Pivar’s (1973) study of American purity movements views the controversies over prostitution as the site around which the contest between purity and pollution was fought out. He traces a shift from an impassioned opposition to ‘regulationism’ to the rise of ‘social purity.’ The anti-regulationists opposed any perceived public toleration of prostitution as exemplified in tolerated ‘red light’ districts or imposed medical inspection of prostitutes. The opponents of regulation viewed such policies as condoning prostitution, to which they proposed the alternatives of projects to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ prostitutes, even though such philanthropic efforts were generally unsuccessful. Such anti-regulationism increasingly became expressions of a feminism committed to the goal of sexual purity within which the issue of prostitution became transformed into a wider agenda aimed at raising males to a higher moral standard. Beyond exhorting men to sexual purity, the politics of purity rapidly became one of legislative restriction and coercion, promoting the criminalization of a range of sex-related activities. The destination of this lineage is detailed by Langum (1994) in his chronicle of the Mann Act of 1910, which criminalized the transportation of females across state lines for the purposes of prostitution ‘or other immoral purposes.’ In the hands of an expansionist FBI, this statute came to be enforced against consensual extramarital relations and, in particular, against Afro-American entertainers and sportsmen.

The history of the purity movements in Britain is traced from the end of the seventeenth century down to the 1950s by Bristow (1977). He argues that purity campaigns manifested a deep anxiety about fears of national weakness and decline. What distinguished social purity movements in the 1880s from earlier more male establishment bodies was the alliance between militant Protestant revivalism and Christian feminism. This movement linked the dual targets of the ‘white slave trade’ and juvenile prostitution. Bristow contends that the specific form of national crisis was the Edwardian concern with the ‘degeneration of the race’ in which ‘purity’ and ‘national power’ came to be equated. The crucial period at the turn of the century has been traced in much greater detail by Lucy Bland (1995), who succeeds in maintaining a warm sympathy for the courage and determination of the first-wave feminists while articulating strong reservations about the conservative anti-sexual politics that they pursued. My own study of moral regulation movements (Hunt, 1999a) covers the long span of moral regulation projects from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, while offering a comparative perspective on British and American moral reform projects.

It is significant that studies employing the concept of moral regulation or related concepts have predominantly focused on a strongly social history context, with an overwhelming emphasis on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There has not as yet been a sustained attempt to apply the moral regulation perspective to the highly visible ‘culture wars’ that emerged in the late twentieth century. There has been much polemical writing advocating a range of normative positions, but little analytical or critical work. Forays that have been made have used styles of work from an earlier period. David Wagner’s The New Temperance (1997) sets out to explain the re-emergence of moral politics, which he calls the ‘new temperance,’ that emerged in the 1980s. He makes use of Gusfield’s ‘status anxiety’ account, which he links to the ‘moral panic’ tradition, but is more concerned to track the chronology of the successive waves of current moralized politics than to provide critical or explanatory accounts about why they have the content they do and why they appear at specific junctures (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Thompson, 1998).

Wagner presents the culture wars as attempts to assert the respectability of a new liberal elite of professionals and academics and, at the same time, to deny it to other social constituencies. They are quests for a ‘new respectability’ that seeks to reinstate and shore up social boundaries that have become increasingly blurred. These concerns manifest themselves in an accumulation of middle-class anxieties; for example, about their consumption, their sexuality and about the safety and future of their own children. The concern about the use of recreational drugs by their sons and daughters comes up against the hedonism and lack of interest in careers exhibited by many young people; this, in turn, feeds into a generalized economic insecurity compounded by the feeling that education—the classic form of cultural capital transmitted by the middle classes—can no longer guarantee the jobs and futures that their offspring no longer seem particularly interested in.

Middle-class preoccupations with personal behaviour serve as a mechanism for confirming social distance from an amorphous mass that are perceived as culturally and ethnically different and a threat to the hegemony of the respectable classes. Classically, the work ethic of the respectable classes is counterposed to the idleness of the lower classes. Not only do such themes provide an affirmation of respectable social values, but they also advance an explanation of the disadvantages experienced by the lower orders, who ‘have only themselves to blame.’ These mechanisms involve what Foucault (1982) termed ‘dividing practices,’ which are employed to impose distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving, the respectable and the unre-spectable. For example, the successive phases of the ‘war on drugs’ have provided a master symbol that is mobilized in order to re-establish a separation between the disorder of middle-class youth and the culture of poverty in the ghettos.

The specific targets of the new respectability campaigns exhibit their own complex histories. For example, one of the primary current targets, the smoking of tobacco, has shown remarkable class mobility; smoking, once a privilege enjoyed by the upper classes, moved to the lower classes, only to become repudiated by the respectable classes just in time for it to be taken up as a marker of sophistication by women, only then to be made the subject of tighter disciplinary regulation over the last two decades, when it has again become associated with the lower classes. In general, once the everyday vices percolated through the urban world of the poor and immigrants, they tend to be renounced by the middle and upper classes, as witnessed by the history of opium. Thus today’s moral battles mark a return to the celebration of a new middle-class respectability rooted in the valorization of self-governance.

Moral Regulation as a Constructive Process

The most challenging issues that confront attempts to understand projects of moral regulation are as follows. How are we to explain the selection of specific forms of problematic behaviour that form their targets? Why has prostitution been a major concern in several periods only to fade into the margins? How are we to understand the shifting focus on different forms of recreational consumption? Why alcohol, why tobacco, why recreational drugs? Why do some of these targets return time and time again while others have their moment in the spotlight only to disappear? The targets engaged with are only ever—at best—symptoms. Rather, they should be approached for the light they throw on the problematizations that each period confronts; it follows that these problems may not themselves be directly visible in the discourses and practices deployed.

One important consequence is that we do not need to concern ourselves with such questions as whether access to ‘dirty pictures’ in the 1870s ‘caused’ the corruption of socially advantaged young men any more than whether in the 1970s pornography ‘caused’ violence against women. The strategy to be pursued is to explore how the underlying problematizations ‘selected’ the specific targets and to focus attention on the effects produced by the pursuit of such projects. Yet, in intentionally challenging claims of direct causality, it is necessary to avoid falling back on a ‘moral panic’ explanation which views such beliefs merely as irrational responses promoted by moral entrepreneurs and amplified by the media.

Nor should we be satisfied by the insertion of the qualifier ‘symbolic’ to account for the link between those who take up such campaigns and the behavior that is stigmatized. There is a risk that in such accounts the ‘symbol’ is made to do too much causal work, as if the symbol itself were ‘the missing link’ between the agents and their target. This is not to imply the proscription of appeal to symbolic connections between agents, objects and targets, but only to insist that the linkages between agents and targets are never fully explained by their symbolic dimension.

The aim should be to advance accounts that are fully social, that neither accept the normative judgements of actors as in themselves providing an explanation of their action nor dismiss them as irrational, and does not limit explanation to the psychological dispositions of individuals. Against those who are content to advance the circular argument that people oppose obscenity because they believe obscenity to be immoral, it is both necessary and possible to inquire into how the targets selected were problematized, within what discursive formations they were problematized, and what tactics and strategies were employed in pursuing them. This strategy makes it possible to avoid the sterile opposition between ‘objectivism’ and ‘subjectivism’ which has dogged American ‘social problems’ theory.

In order to pursue this analysis it is necessary to elucidate the categories ‘agents,’ ‘objects’ and ‘targets.’ A central task in exploring projects of moral regulation is to demonstrate how its agents become activated, why the specific object is selected, and how that becomes linked to some specific target group. The ‘agents’ are those who take up some cause and become its active or passive supporters; in many of the most interesting cases the agents are drawn from the ‘middle,’ the middle class or some segment thereof. There is no general rule that moral regulation characteristically mobilizes middle-class sentiment, yet such responses are characteristic of many such projects and exhibit distinctive forms of moral indignation. Some projects are initiated ‘from above’ by political or economic elites, but more typically such campaigns emerge from ‘the middle’; it is such projects that have received the fullest attention in the tradition of ressentiment theory discussed above.

Aside from paying attention to the primary social forces involved, consideration also needs to be given to the alliances formed between different categories of agents; for example, the recent concern about child pornography on the Internet has resulted in an alliance between moral entrepreneurs, school boards, watchful parents and conservative politicians. Major political social forces generally become ‘agents’ only reluctantly, or only after a movement has already achieved political momentum; a classic example is the case of the prohibition constitutional amendment in the USA. One of the puzzling features of studies of recent moral regulation campaigns is that there has been relatively little interest shown in an attempt to achieve a detailed identification of the moral agents involved.

The ‘object’ of a moral reform offensive identifies the social behaviour that the campaign is directed against. Prostitution, obscenity, alcohol and tobacco are short-hand labels that designate the objects against which action is aimed. Or, to be more precise, it is the social conduct associated with these objects that is at stake. But it is interesting to note that over time it often becomes the substance itself, such as alcohol or tobacco, that is moralized. The questions that must be engaged with are: Why, from a range of possible objects, is some particular object selected? Why did Comstock first select obscene material as his object of attack and then switch his attack to gambling? Why did this issue represent itself in the 1970s under the label ‘pornography’? Why have there been periods that exhibited intense preoccupation with prostitution, only for the issue to fade and then to re-emerge some decades later?

The concept ‘target’ designates the social category whose conduct is associated with the object of the campaign and who thus becomes moralized and made subject to some attempt at regulation. Why was it that immigrants bore the brunt of Comstock’s moralizing rhetoric against obscenity in the 1870s? Why are young minority women the target of current attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’?

A common feature of many accounts of moral regulation is the explanatory weight attached to ‘anxiety.’ While some approaches treat anxiety as a psychological phenomenon, the most important currents are concerned with social anxieties rather than with their individual manifestations. It is the identification of specific middle-class anxieties, whether about their own economic security or the future of their offspring, that is treated as the major component ‘causing’ them to support particular moral regulation projects. There are some important questions concerning the viability of ‘anxiety’ as an explanatory device. Anxiety accounts partake of the allure of structuralism by offering access to a hidden or depth reality underlying the surface of social life. But we have no directly available means by which to validate the explanatory claims that their invocation suggests. It is important to insist that it is necessary to avoid the assumption that to identify an anxiety can itself provide a causal explanation. Rather, unless we are to lapse into some version of essentialism, the identification of a social anxiety itself requires an adequate sociological explanation.

It is crucial to explore the linkages that characterize the distinctive feature of so many moral regulation projects where the overt object has no direct connection with moral agents. The moralization of the disadvantaged that is evident in many current moral campaigns always requires the tracing out of the specific linkages which develop into the more expansive antagonisms that such issues as drugs, alcohol and crime reveal. The distinctive feature of moral regulation projects is their tendency to select the weakest and most vulnerable targets—whether it be the poor, the single mother or the immigrant; familiar though this response is, it is not easy to explain its tenacity. It is not that it is surprising that weak targets are selected, but what is more problematic is that socially distant vulnerable targets are selected. I make no claim to solve this problem, but to pose it is important, not only because such attacks on the vulnerable are deeply etched in the pages of history, but also because the tragic nature of the consequences of such victimization often inhibits us from asking why campaigns directed at such targets gain momentum. The cutting edge of this line of inquiry is that, all too often, accounts rely on some essentialist idea of some inherent, engrained or pre-constituted hostility. It is not that antipathy to ‘the other’ does not persistently assert itself or that there are not systematic patterns to racial and class hatred; rather, the really difficult question is to explain the mechanisms whereby clashing cultural, political and class interests manifest themselves in the moral wars that arise from everyday concerns and social anxieties. At this juncture, it is necessary to move to a more concrete level; one component of such an analysis requires attention to the specific situation of different sections of the middle classes.

The contention that today’s moral wars can be understood as efforts on the part of the middle class to differentiate itself from the poor and disadvantaged requires major revision. By the late twentieth century a new petty bourgeoisie had formed around the knowledge industries, but it has probably not as yet formed itself into a self-conscious class. However, it is undoubtedly a segment concerned to advance its claims for social and economic recognition. Most sections of the middle classes have continued to prosper, particularly in relationship to blue-collar workers, who have been the main victims of the economic restructuring of the last two decades. It would be fruitful to explore the possibility that different fractions of the middle class play very different roles with respect to recent moral regulation movements. For example, it is likely that the economically weakest sections of the commercial middle class are important sources of support for social order projects such as the ‘drug wars’ and anti-crime crusades since they are less able to assert and protect their class distinction. In contrast it is likely that the professional and bureaucratic middle classes are the key players in battles over moralized consumption, such as pornography, tobacco and alcohol, as means of asserting their cultural distinction.

What is important is that to attend to the role in current moral politics played by the professional and bureaucratic middle classes serves to emphasize that moral regulation projects have no necessary conservative character. Many of today’s projects exhibit unambiguously liberal features such as concern with safety, health and the environment, and, in particular, with issues of gender and race equality, and, most recently, with human rights. This suggests the thesis that rising or aspiring social groups tend to link participation in projects of moral regulation with distinctively liberal political positions, while more overtly conservative forms of moral regulation are likely to be associated with declining social strata. More work would be needed to explore this hypothesis. One thing, however, is abundantly clear. The social configuration of moral politics generally involves complex associations of diverse social forces. Nowhere was this more clear than the anti-pornography campaigns of the 1980s, which involved tacit alliances of radical feminist currents with traditional conservative and religious forces, and were often joined by radical and left currents. The exploration of these complex networks needs to be an important focus of attempts to understand the dynamics of moral politics.

Gendered Moral Regulation

It needs to be emphasized that the politics of moral regulation have, since the early nineteenth century, been strongly gendered. By the late nineteenth century, women had succeeded in carving out a significant sphere of active engagement in the public domain. The same distinctive role of women has also been an important feature of late twentieth-century moral politics. In the late nineteenth century women articulated an active maternal feminism which, although built from much of the same material as the patriarchal construction of womanhood, replaced the passive ‘angel in the home’ with the strong maternal moral guardian of the home (Dietz, 1998). Without suggesting that women thereby secured anything approximating equality, maternal feminism was a significant intervention that carved out arenas of the domestic field as domains of female authority and also secured some small but significant sectors of the public sphere as feminized terrain. Moral politics, philanthropy, family policy and, gradually, social work and wider fields of social welfare became significant arenas of female intervention.

How are we to understand the relationship between gender and moral politics in the late twentieth century? As in the nineteenth century, women today have played a preeminent role in the moral politics of the last two decades. While not all of these female activists make the claim to be feminists, the discourses deployed have their roots in the forms of feminist thought that came to the fore in the late 1970s. Thus, conservative ‘real women’ employ ‘pro-woman’ discourses with unmistakable roots in feminism. The parallels with the politics of the late nineteenth-century purity campaigns are striking.

Why has the dominant strand in contemporary feminism adopted a theoretical and political stance that so closely parallels that of the earlier purity movement? The first thing to do is to brush aside any temptation to flirt with cyclical accounts about fin de siècle or millennia. Instead, we should ask: what changes in gender relations in recent decades have prompted this ‘new purity movement’? Only a sketch of these changes can be offered here. It is essential to recognize the changed structural position of women within the economic division of labour. Women have been significant beneficiaries of economic restructuring, which has broken the predominant role of heavy manufacturing industries and displaced male manual and semi-skilled labour. In the new growth sectors of assembly manufacture and consumer and financial services the proportion of women has increased rapidly. In the administrative and professional fields there have been dramatic processes of feminization, including such traditional professions as the law and medicine.

These changes are not without their associated problems. There is a sharp distinction between two types of female employment. The earnings of younger women in full-time jobs are now very similar to those of men, while those of the larger group of women in part-time employment still lag behind male incomes. In the fields of administrative, managerial and related occupations there is frustration about the pace of change that is epitomized in concern about ‘the glass ceiling.’ Women with young children make complex choices balancing their career and economic interests with a pervasive preference for spending some years out of full-time work. These features are the key to understanding the structural basis of heightened tensions within contemporary gender relations. There is an increasing mismatch between the economic aspects of the sexual division of labour and culturally constructed gender relations. In its simplest form there is no longer a ‘fit’ between economic and gender regimes; neither women nor, for that matter, men can lead their lives and make their choices in a social world where they know ‘how things are,’ even less ‘how they should be.’ These tensions are experienced particularly sharply by middle-class women in professional and administrative occupations because it is here that the contradictions between personal advancement and personal life are sharpest.

The tensions surrounding gender express themselves in the quest for a ‘new respectability.’ Its content is significantly different from the respectability pursued by the Victorian middle classes. ‘New respectability’ reflects the aspiring role of upwardly mobile women concerned to demonstrate their independence. The contours of this concern exhibit themselves in a perplexing variety that reaches from the‘Cosmopolitan woman,’ who asserts her rights to sexual pleasure, to the austere anti-sexualism that rigidly confines sexuality to the private sphere. The valorization of autonomy and independence produces a renewed sense of sex as involving both danger and pleasure; the substantive positions adopted fall along the continuum of danger-pleasure (Vance, 1984). In its immediate sense the danger of sex is increasingly epitomized not so much by sexual violence, but by concern with sexual harassment in the workplace. Harassment in Victorian discourses was about threats to respectability in the streets from male ‘pests.’ It is significant that today it is the workplace which is the central site of concerns around inappropriate sexual conduct. This reinforces the pressures towards a suppression of sexuality that manifests itself in the preoccupation of the new respectability with restrained dress and self-presentation, for it is in the workplace that the direct competition between men and women is at its sharpest.


This chapter has sought to show that analysis of the dynamics of moral regulation facilitates our efforts to understand the specificity of the continuing vitality of projects of moral regulation. The purity campaigns of the late nineteenth century and the new movements from the late 1970s are of special significance because of the central role of female activists and feminist currents of thought. The merit that may be claimed for the approach suggested is that it seeks to integrate the interaction of class and gender relations in these processes.

While it is important to consider the links between these two major upwellings of moral regulation movements, there is a risk that it may lead us not to attend to the specificity of the current forms of moral reform projects. It is for this reason that this chapter ends by stressing a shift in the agenda of moral regulation studies towards a concern with the interaction of the dual processes of ‘governing others’ and the heightened significance of tactics that promote and incite subjects to engage in self-governance. It should not be implied that the presence of self-governance in moral regulation projects is new. The late nineteenth century was suffused with attempts to induce ‘self-control’ and ‘self-restraint.’ The difference is that these projects protected an externally approved standard to which individuals were exhorted to conform. Contemporary forms of self-governance are concerned less with such externally defined rules and more with the processes through which individuals are stimulated to take charge of their own identities, commitments and thus, generally, their ethical self-fashioning of a ‘way of life.’ This shift in the intellectual agenda marks a move away from direct regulatory projects to a wider integration of moral, or now perhaps ethical, self-regulation.