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

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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.

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  1. A third strand of literature that is skeptical about the very utility of the concept has also emerged (Waddington 1986; Cornwell and Linders 2002).

  2. See Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009, p. 41, from which the following summary is drawn. Concern refers to the way the level of concern and fear vis-à-vis a threat is raised beyond its usual level and becomes widespread. Hostility refers to the anger and hatred directed at the “folk devils.” Consensus refers to the way in which view of the threat as a threat is “substantial or widespread.” Disproportion—probably the most controversial term in the literature due to its normative loading in some uses—refers to the exaggeration of the danger “actually” posed by the threat. Volatility refers to the way in which moral panics “erupt fairly suddenly … and, nearly as suddenly, subside.”

  3. Alongside this definition and these elements, two longstanding associations accompany the concept of moral panic. The first is the association of moral panics with “troubled times.” Often, analyses of moral panics implicitly or explicitly suggest that some of the anxiety that drives them is a result of major shifts within a society or the threat of such shifts; these anxieties are then analyzed as having been “channeled” into hostile emotions aimed at the “folk devil” that is the focus of the moral panic. The second is that moral panics are almost axiomatically viewed in the literature as a “symbolic struggle,” or “a battle between cultural representations,” and thus are theorized as fundamentally about cultural power. Where such power emanates from, and for whom it is exercised, are some of the central questions addressed by extant theories of moral panics. In this article, the “cultural” aspect of moral panics is taken for granted; the work to be done is to theorize better how this struggle for cultural power works in a moral panic and what those inner workings might tell us about the sociology of culture more generally.

  4. Jeffrey Olick’s essay, “Figurations of Memory: A Process-Relational Methodology, Illustrated on the German Case,” (2007) provides a reconceptualization of collective memory that also moves that concept away from its initial Durkheimian, “substantialist” conceptualization (see especially pp. 89-92 for the critique of Halbwachs/Durkheim). He does this via four concepts: field, medium, genre, and profile. These, he argues, allow the analysis of “figurations of memory” in a way that avoids reification, assumptions of unity, etc. In somewhat parallel fashion, I propose to use resignification, synecdoche, and metanarrative to reconceptualize the moral panic as process here.

  5. Thus it should not surprise us that Hall et al. find some common ground with Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans (1966). While Erikson articulates a Durkheimian perspective—in which Puritan society secures its solidarity via the exclusion of deviants—Hall et al. present the Marxist mirror image of this view, in which consensus is produced ideologically by targeting deviance. For Hall et al., the differentiated sectors of the market oriented media, the police force, and the judiciary arm of the state intersect to produce an effective image of consensus, wherein disagreement in the newspapers serves to communicate more effectively the overall consensus vis-à-vis the “mugging” threat in London.

  6. Via the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Richard Rorty, Frederic Jameson, James Clifford, and Hayden White, the implication of social theory and the philosophy of history itself with various metanarratives became an arena of fierce debate, which circled around the idea of postmodernity as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard 1984, p. xxiv) and, even more intensely on the difference between “master” and “local” narratives and the implications of the distinction for imagining a postcolonial anthropology. For an extended discussion, see Klein 1995. I do not take a position on this debate except to reserve the possibility that metanarrative is still rhetorically active in “late modern” or “postmodern” societies, for example in the intertwining of personal stories with heroic narratives about “America” in US presidential elections (Alexander 2010, pp. 63–88).

  7. For an analysis of the timely utility of melodrama in literature, see Brooks (1995).

  8. It is possible that the eventful, timely “resignification” that I identify in moral panics could play a causal role in the larger, longer process of ideational embeddedness, much as others have identified specific moral panics as part of larger, longer-term regimes of control. But they are, nonetheless, different concepts.

  9. By point of comparison, in September of 1692, another witch trial began in Stamford, Connecticut. It did not end in the same way at all, which is why no one outside historians of Colonial America has heard of it. The actors involved (who were aware of what had happened in Essex County Massachusetts that summer) “were for the most part remarkably cautious” in handling the accusations. “The officials responsible … refused to make hasty judgments about the accused and insisted on weighing carefully the evidence against them” (Godbeer 2005, pp. 7–8).

  10. The chronologies of Salem abound, albeit not as much as the interpretations. Herein I rely upon dates from Le Beau (1998) and Norton (2003), as well as dates from primary accounts collected in Burr (2002 [1914]), Boyer and Nissenbaum (1993).

  11. To be clear: belief in witches certainly did not disappear immediately, but the use of legitimate state violence to kill them did (Demos 2004, p. 387; Weisman 1984, p. 183).

  12. Data on accusations and executions is publically available at

  13. Robert Calef, in More Wonders of the Invisible World, printed in London in 1700, describes the scene this way: “Mr. Burroughs was carried in a Cart with the other, through the streets of Salem to Execution; when he was upon the Ladder, he made a Speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions, as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeated the Lord’s Prayer,) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least seeming) fervency of Spirit, as was very affecting, and drew Tears from many (so that it seemed to some, that the Spectators would hinder the Execution.)… Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare, that he was no ordained Minister, and partly to possess the people of his guilt; saying that the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light; and this did somewhat appease the people” (Burr 2002 [1914], pp. 360–361).

  14. Cotton Mather, “Good Men Described and Good Things Propounded,” Boston, 1692. Deodat Lawson, “The Duty& Property of a Religious Housbolder,” Boston, 1693. William Corbin “A Sermon Preached at Kingstown in Jamaica,” New York, 1703. Cotton Mather, “Souldiers Counselled,” Boston, 1689. Cotton Mather, “The Present State of New England,” Boston, 1690 (Evans 1968).

  15. For each sermon, the page numbers cited refer to the following sources: Deodat Lawson, “Christ’s Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan’s Malignity,” pp. 124–128 in Boyer and Nissenbaum (1993). Samuel Parris, “Christ Knows How Many Devils There Are,” pp. 129–131 in Boyer and Nissenbaum (1993) and “These Shall Make War With the Lamb,” pp. 132–136 in Boyer and Nissenbaum (1993). Cotton Mather, “Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World. Uttered (in part) on Aug. 4, 1692,” Boston, 1693, in Evans (1968).

  16. The use of spectral evidence (testimony from afflicted persons about being visited by the specter of a specific accused person) was another way in which the Trials departed from precedent; the decision by the magistrates to allow this sort of evidence was encouraged in a letter from Cotton Mather, who went against clerical and legal precedent in advising it.

  17. This view is a development of (and was inspired by) Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s “contextual constructionism” vis-à-vis social problems, and in particular their note that, from a moral panic involves “huge fluctuations … n the degree of concern over a given issue over time.” Thus, separate from the objective impossibility of spellcasting, one could, from their “contextual constructionist” perspective, say that many in Massachusetts Bay Colony saw witchcraft as a social problem worthy of concern, and on occasion, action, over the course of the seventeenth century. But only in 1692 did the Colony go through a moral panic about witches. See Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009, pp. 150–167, especially 165–166.

  18. So, for example, much of chapter 2 (“The Inventory,” Cohen 2002, pp. 16–34) is dedicated to showing how perceptions of the affluence of the youth delinquents were false (p. 23); estimates of “loss of trade” and cost of damage by beach resort owners were wildly exaggerated (pp. 24–25); and the number of incidents of actual physical violence was remarkably small (p. 24). This analysis, while important to the case, is somewhat different in tone and purpose from the process of resignification I have identified here.

  19. This is particularly the case with the “affluence myth” perpetrated by a report that a boy had told magistrates that he would write a check for 75 pounds to pay a fine imposed upon him. Despite the fact that this individual was quickly revealed to have neither 75 pounds nor a checking account, the synecdoche quickly took hold at the mythological, secondary level of signification: these teenagers stood in for a generation that had a cushy, affluent life (unlike their hardworking, disciplined parents), but nonetheless threw everything away via bad behavior, lack of respect for social order, and ultimately, crime and violence.

  20. Omar Lizardo (2010) has argued that Levi-Strauss’s structuralism can only be rescued as methodological approach—in other words, that a “non-denotational model” of structure must replace any ontological claims made by a theory of structure. William Sewell, Jr. (2005, pp. 328–346) has also argued that a culturalist or interpretivist sociology must avoid a strict textualism or “linguistic reductionism,” and engage the making of meaning as a practical accomplishment.

  21. In “Towards a New Contextualism: The Complementary Theories of Kenneth Burke and Roland Barthes,” Elizabeth Neild affirms the importance of connotation and myth for Barthes’s overall oeuvre, while admitting that his basic view of the object of literary analysis is “entirely static” (1978, p. 101). While developing the potential contained in Barthes’s structuralism, she corrects for this via Burke’s emphasis on the act as essential, developed via his analysis of the US Constitution: “as the constitution itself was an enactment by particular agents in a particular scene, so subsequent interpretations of the constitution and its amendments will themselves be enactments by particular agents in particular scenes” (p. 72). Ultimately, Neild suggests in her conclusion a complementarity that I try to actualize for sociological analysis in this article: “Burke’s method focuses primarily on the work in relation to writer and reader; thus in the pragmatic dimension. Barthes method focuses internally, on the relationships of the signs to one another; thus in the syntactic dimension. The three dimensions described by Morris—the pragmatic, the semantic, and the syntactic—are interdependent and complementary” (p. 214).


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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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Reed, I.A. Deep culture in action: resignification, synecdoche, and metanarrative in the moral panic of the Salem Witch Trials. Theor Soc 44, 65–94 (2015).

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