Theory and Society

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 65–94 | Cite as

Deep culture in action: resignification, synecdoche, and metanarrative in the moral panic of the Salem Witch Trials

  • Isaac Ariail ReedEmail author


Sociological research on moral panics, long understood as “struggles for cultural power,” has focused on the social groups and media conditions that enable moral panics to emerge, and on the consequences of moral panics for the social control systems of societies. In this article I turn instead to modeling the specific cultural process of how the conditions for a moral panic are turned into an actual moral panic, moving the understanding of moral panic away from its Durkheimian origins and towards a process-relational cultural sociology. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ theory of myth and Kenneth Burke’s dramatism, the paper posits the cultural process of resignification via synecdoche and metanarrative as the driver of the disproportion, concern, hostility, consensus, and volatility of moral panics. This process can be carefully traced in the case of the Salem Witch Trials; a retrospective reading reveals the same process at work in the “Mods and Rockers” panic analyzed by Stanley Cohen. Beyond moral panics, theorizing resignification as a non-exclusive counterpoint to framing and ideational embeddedness enriches the theoretical repertoire of cultural sociology. “Deep culture” and mythological signification can, using the schema proposed here, be understood as practical accomplishments—rhetorical responses to particular situations that, when performed successfully, legitimate violence and other forms of domination.


Theory of myth Sociology of culture Kenneth Burke Roland Barthes Culture and power Semiotics 



The author thanks Jennifer Bair, Soma Chadhuri, Christina Simko, James Lundberg, Claire Decoteau, Adam Slez, Josh Pacewicz, Monika Krause, Julia Adams, Steven Pincus and three anonymous reviewers for discussions about and/or comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA

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