Moral Panic Meets Social Control: The Case of Prohibition

New York City authorities pour alcohol into the sewer during Prohibition.

The historical episode/experiment known as Prohibition is getting a renewed look by sociologists, among others. It occurred between the years 1919 and 1933 in post–World War I America, and involved first the passage and then the repeal of a constitutional amendment to ban the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Many issues related to alcohol consumption are of interest to sociologists, from peer pressure and social interaction to addiction and crime. The historic organized effort to rid the country of alcohol abuse also provides lessons for sociology. For example, what role did “moral crusaders” play in creating the “moral panic” that led to the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition)? Why do efforts to “do good” in society often result in unintended negative consequences?

Prohibition was an attempt to legislate away the social problems that are often the result of alcohol abuse—domestic violence, industrial accidents, poverty—problems that everyone agreed needed to be addressed. However, the campaign to protect individuals, families, and society from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse itself ushered in other social problems. Not least of these was the rise of organized crime, exemplified by the Chicago gangster Al Capone. Largely because of its harmful unintended outcomes, this monumental effort at “social control” is generally regarded as a failure.

Similarities in approach (and outcomes) exist between Prohibition and more recent policies to combat illicit drug use, thus illustrating that the underlying issues are still with us. A significant opportunity to explore this sociological lesson has arrived with the release of the PBS documentary Prohibition, which presents the historical background and examines connections to changes in the U.S. population like urbanization and rising immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (LC-USZ62-123257)

Related Links

  • Prohibition, Moral Panics, and Social Control
    Read about how “moral crusaders” sought to exercise “social control” to solve problems related to alcohol consumption—and failed; includes a trailer for the PBS documentary Prohibition.
    (Source: Everyday Sociology blog, November 14, 2011)
  • Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
    Learn about the new documentary series by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, airing now on PBS; the series explores the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, examining sociological questions and such issues as citizens’ rights and responsibilities and the proper role of government.
    (Source: PBS; accessed November 30, 2011)
  • Prohibition
    History’s Web page on Prohibition covers all the facts of the massive “sociological experiment” that fueled the Jazz Age, launched organized crime, and made the 1920s roar; includes several videos related to Al Capone.
    (Source:; accessed November 30, 2011)
  • The Sociology of Drug Use
    Read a high-level summary from 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook (2006) that explains sociological theories related to drug use and addiction, social problems, and social control; the author recaps contributions of key individual sociologists in the field.
    (Source: Pine Forge Press; accessed November 30, 2011)



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