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Assessing Deviance, Crime and Prevention in Europe
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Crimprev info n°11bis - Methodological, conceptual and political problems with fear of crime and insecurity

Klaus Sessar

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1. Introduction

Within the framework of Workpackage 4, six workshops or seminars are planned. The first seminar took place at the Universität Hamburg on 15-16 March, 2007, organised by Peter Wetzels and Klaus Sessar, both from the Department of Criminology (Faculty of Law). 12 core members and 5 invited experts from 11 different European countries participated in the meeting: Candido da Agra/Porto; Sophie Body-Gendrot/Paris; Adam Crawford/Leeds; Axel Groenemeyer/Esslingen, Dortmund; Joachim Häfele/Hamburg; Helmut Hirtenlehner/Linz; Magnus Hörnquist/Stockholm; Wolfgang Keller/Hamburg; Krzysztof Krajewski/Kraków; Helmut Kury/Freiburg; André Lemaître/Liège; Klaus Sessar/Hamburg, Freiburg; René van Swaaningen/Rotterdam; Bernarda Tominc (representing Gorazd Meško)/Maribor; Sirpa Virta/Tampere; Peter Wetzels/Hamburg; Maggie Wykes/Sheffield.

The Hamburg meeting was intended to establish a communicative basis for further cooperation, especially among the core group members. Following the introductory text of the programme, the meeting “aims as a first step at taking stock of the different nations’ research into fear of crime and feelings of insecurity. Definitions and theoretical conceptualisations of the construct under study as well as measurement issues will be discussed. Policy implications of research into perceptions of crime and feelings of insecurity are additional important issues”. For this purpose the participants were asked by the Co-Leaders to present a brief overview on the state of research and policy in relation to the theme of WP 4 with regard to the countries in which they work. The following questions were to be addressed by the presenters: What does research tell us about the nature and implications of public perceptions of crime and insecurity in each country; what formal policies have emerged in recent years in response to public perceptions of crime and insecurity, and what are their origins and implications?

The Co-Leaders Adam Crawford and André Lemaître outlined the objectives of WP 4. It was expressed that one essential task ought to be to achieve an elaborated state of knowledge regarding the perception of crime and insecurity in its various dimensions (including discrimination and social segregation). Such a step would enable the researchers to better understand the impact of those attitudes on people’s quality of life, on social cohesion and on the generation of fear of crime/concern about crime in different parts of Europe. Included within this discussion were to be investigations of factors producing fear and concern as the two subtopics of the overall concept of insecurity. Specific attention was also to be given to the way the media treats public insecurity as a topic of the justice systems.

In actual fact, however, the meeting mainly concentrated on fear of crime and how it is constructed, both methodologically and conceptually. More precisely, the meeting focused firstly on the relationship between fear of crime and the problem of crime and personal victimisation, and secondly on fear of crime as part of a larger concept of general insecurity. The contributions of the participants were quite diverse in this respect. On this account it was advisable to develop some individualideas by taking the presented papers into consideration wherever appropriate.

2. Some political implications of fear-of-crime studies

At first, fear of crime was an element of a growing crime discourse in the USA during the 1960s that was triggered by a dramatic growth of offences seen in police statistics and victim surveys. Initially, a moderate idea was to solve the problem through better education and upbringing, fighting poverty and redeveloping the inner cities. A conservative idea, on the other hand, counted on combating fear by combating crime. In so doing it was discovered that fear was eminently suited to setting up a general criminal policy directed towards law and order and stiffer punishments. Fear thus became a new political issue independent of the reasons that triggered it and irrespective of how it was objectively founded. It has never lost this Janus face - on the one hand fear of crime as a result of real threats, and on the other, the basis for extending law enforcement. Over time it took on two faces, meaning that a discourse on the fear of crime developed that was independent of the discourse on crime, with correspondingly different ambitions.

Criminology (politically naive, as so often) was not uninvolved. It considered fear of crime as a given social problem that fell directly within criminology's very own field. As such, adopting it seemed the most obvious thing to do. Adding to this was the allure of various lucrative research orders commissioned by the body politic, particularly at that time in the form of regular victim surveys. Of course, it is correct to say that fear of crime is a serious problem that greatly impairs the quality of people's lives. What is left out though, is that criminology massively contributes to fear by conducting researching on it, and this in a double sense. With its terminology and studies it puts into the world the relevant definitions of what fear, anxiety, worry, etc. “are”, and then goes on to say that “you are afraid”, “anxious” or “worried”. That then is in turn studied. This “fear of crime feedback loop” implies a kind of warning in that “as criminologists we need to be mindful of our own power effects on this field of inquiry. Mindful that we do not produce the very criminological objects we then propose to measure, examine and analyse” (Lee, 2001, 480-482).

3. The measurement of fear of crime

In the early stages of such investigations fear of crime was conceptualised and studied primarily as a problem of individuals. The initial empirical question in victim surveys was: “How safe do you feel walking alone in your neighbourhood after dark?”; the answers to choose from were: “very safe“, “somewhat safe“, “somewhat unsafe”, and “very unsafe“. This so-called standard question, since then used internationally and occasionally modified and supposed to measure the affective component of fear, does not mention crime nor does it use the terms “fear” or  “being afraid”. Instead, it refers to darkness, to being alone and to walking outside in the neighbourhood. When combined, for some people these three items are capable of sending a shiver down their spine even in the absence of any threatening event. But the criminological interpretation of this kind of unsafety was “fear of crime”: I feel unsafe because I am afraid of experiencing some sort of violence, for example. (It should be mentioned that only two hundred years ago unmarried women were not allowed in some parts of Europe to walk alone outside their home after dark; thus, the standard question may have a gender-specific colouring from the beginning.)

Assumptions are that this kind of questioning generates higher rates of fear (more precisely higher rates of unsafety) amongst women and older people than in men and younger people although the former had less to fear in public than the latter. Whatever the explanations of this so-called “fear-of-crime paradox” are, it disproved one of the central criminological hypothesis that fear of crime resulted from experience with crimes, be these personal experiences or those passed on by third parties (family, friends, acquaintances – called indirect victimisation). Further studies including Swedish investigations reported by M. Hörnquist supported these findings up to the point that victimisation experiences are no longer considered a main source of fear.

The use of the cognitive component of fear yielded similar discrepancies. The respondents are asked how they assess the likelihood of becoming a victim of a robbery, an assault, a rape, a burglary etc. in the near future. Fromthe many studies on this topic here is just one succinct example: In a victim and crime survey four years after the Berlin Wallhad come down, 36%of the young female inhabitants of large East German cities regarded being raped in their district as likely or very likely (Sessar, 2007, 128). Similar results were found in some districts of the city of Kraków in 2003 where 24% of the female respondents up to the age of 40 considered themselves likely or very likely to fall victim to being raped. In view of the low incidence of rape outside the private sphere, such a discrepancy between the subjective risk assessment and the objective risk situation is highly remarkable. It harmonises with other observations as well, such as with the findings that crime figures are falling, but fear rates may remain the same or even rise. When all this is taken into account, the question is whether the methods used were right and/or if factors other than crime can trigger fear of crime. “Is ‘fear of crime' more than ‘fear' of ‘crime'?” (Garofalo, Laub, 1978, 242-243). Or: What do we measure when we measure fear of crime?

4. Methodological Problems

Concerning the problem of methodology, it would appear that despite enormous research efforts, we still do not know what fear of crime actually is. Despite its widespread use, the above mentioned standard question is viewed as being invalid, not least because crime or definite specific offences are not asked about, meaning that unsafety could also refer to fear of the dark or fear of being alone. Or the question is linked to the fear of being run over or being attacked by a dog. Then, independently of this, is current or anticipated fear measured? Since physiological symptoms like high blood pressure or adrenaline release are not available for studies, only expressive or emotional attitudes remain for measurements and thus have to tolerate proximate notions such as worry, concern, anxiety, or anger. It has also been supposed that fear tended to fit violent crime, and worry property offences. Another even further-reaching suggestion was made to give up the fear of crime concept completely in favour of a “worry-about-crime” concept. Furthermore, it has been disputed why the positive assessment of one’s own victimisation risks is fear of crime (its cognitive component; see above). In fact, there is not necessarily fear as long as the assessments concur with actual danger; in those cases, what we have is the realistic perception of a threatening local atmosphere. On the other hand, in cases of a totally unrealistic perception of one’s own victimisation (see the mentioned attitudes of women in East Germany and Poland regarding rape) risk assessment reveals a strong emotional component.  

One of the strongest objections to the quantitative method of measuring fear comes from the area of qualitative research. If the same subjects are firstly asked about their fear of crime or their worry about crime by means of a questionnaire and are then asked again at a later date by means of an in-depth interview about the same issues, the resulting responses often diverge. Mostly, though not always, the subjects who are personally asked through an interview express much less fear and anxiety than those who fill out abstract items from a questionnaire. One reason for this is the different meaning of time and space. The questionnaire method suggests that, regardless of concrete social contexts, people are somewhat fearful at all times within their neighbourhood or home environment. With the help of the qualitative method this concept of latent fear is contextualised, that is, spatially, temporally and situationally contained and thus more precisely definable: “I only feel unsafe around the train station”; or: “Several days ago I was worried when a group of drunken football fans rioted in my street” (Farrall et al., 1997; Kury et al., 2004; Herrmann, Sessar, 2007). This may go towards explaining the allegedly greater levels of fear that exist amongst women, because the catalogue of questions that is normally used is “blind” to concrete contacts which may trigger passing confusion and unsafety in the public domain, perhaps especially among women.

Comparing the two methods would most certainly be difficult. More context based items placed in a questionnaire means lower opportunities for generalisable analyses to be carried out. In other words, the quantitative method would gradually lose ground in favour of a qualitative method. Perhaps we should refrain from comparing the two methods with another in an attempt to find out which is superior. Rather, both instruments measure different forms of the phenomenon. “True” fear is hard to discover being much more a construct of the researcher’s interests in the object: “... any specific definition of fear of crime is neither correct nor incorrect; rather, it is either useful or not useful, and that is revealed by the results of the research” (Skogan, 1993, 131).

5. Social disorganisation and fear

Perhaps there has been too much fixation on crime. The aforementioned uncertainty as to whether that which is being measured is actually fear of crime focuses the/our attention on the issue of what else it could be. In other words, it is about further clarification of the variance in the attitudes of the respondents not explained by crime. It is quite possible, then, that the proportion of fear of crime originating from non-criminal issues is greater than that coming from crime itself. In this area fear then becomes a social problem – a more appropriate expression would be ‘worry’.

The field that has to be thought about first is that of social decay in urban contexts. The expression developed for this is “social disorganisation“, which in turn empirically differentiated according to “social disorder” and “physical disorder”. The latter terms are often brought under the umbrella term “incivility”. Social disorganisation is a concept from the ecology of crime studies in 1920s Chicago where life in transitional slum areas was linked to the committing of crimes. It has meanwhile come to mean a situation in which the family, school, social amenities and the neighbourhood have lost their integrative power and whereby the informal social networks of mutual help and control have loosened or dissolved. This is equally characterised by the decline of political, cultural and social (voluntary) activities in so far as they are an expression of participation in the affairs of the community. There is, of course, another side to it. It is to be observed how little the local authorities do to counter social decay by, for example, establishing communal social facilities, by promptly removing damage and rubbish, by the encouragement of and financial support for citizens’ initiatives, by the re-fitting of public spaces to stimulate and stabilise security and bring about a feeling of well-being, in other words, by ensuring the existence of functioning infrastructure. On the contrary, many of these urgently needed responsibilities of local government are in a run-down state. Characteristics to be counted among those of “social disorder” are: vandalism, groups of people loitering, harassment, noise, open drunkenness, drug dealing and consumption in public; for the area of “physical disorder”: derelict houses, dilapidated parks, destroyed public telephones or rubbish containers, graffiti. In extreme situations: riots, pillaging and the like.

When fear of crime is associated with such instances then this is because of the well-established relationship between incivility and crime. Where such a connection is less apparent, incivility can have a kind of warning function - where broken windows are not repaired and rubbish is not removed from the streets, violence is not far away. This is then another step to dissolving the original relationship between fear and crime. Furthermore, all possible conditions thought to affect the emergence or exacerbation of fear of crime besides or instead of crime itself are to be tested using multivariate analyses. It would be ideal to have, for example, sufficiently large random samples of urban neighbourhoods available with various crime rates and various degrees of incivility “to untangle accurately their separate relationships with fear” (Skogan, 1990, 77).

Nevertheless, the clues in the research material were sufficient to initially put the causes and conditions for fear of crime on an ever broader basis: “Sometimes the question of fear seems chronically enmeshed with the dynamics of detraditionalisation and an accompanying sense of disruption of formerly settled moral and customary orders” (Hope, Sparks, 2000, 5). Similarly C. Hale, who puts the question whether fear of crime should not better be characterised by “insecurity with modern living”, with “quality of life”, “perception of disorder” or “urban unease” (1996, 84). A key point, as indicated by S. Body-Gendrot, is that the unsafety of the individual created by his isolation in the masses is made more apparent as urban decay makes communication impossible or at least more difficult.

It is through these aspects that fear of crime turns into a code or metaphor for more general feelings of insecurity. Being related to the living conditions in near and farther-flung living environments in the first instance, they may also become applicable to more general fears about global developments. On this point the first concepts are being formulated and the first hypotheses are coming under scrutiny.

6. Global anxieties and fear

It may well be no exaggeration to see our world in a fundamental, radical transformation hitherto unknown. A relevant heading for this is globalisation,which is understood as the process of growing international interdependence in all areas (economics, politics, culture, environment, communication, etc.). However, it would appear that economic aspects are taking the lead, so much so that globalisation is primarily equated with economic interdependence. Since globalisation’s main driving motor is maximising profit by using rationalisation and technological progress to the extreme, many of the political, social, environmental etc. processes are made subordinate to it, leading to endangering and damaging civilisation considerably. Examples are of the economic kind (unemployment as a growing effect of international mergers), ecological kind (climate change, extinction of entire animal and plant species, unrestrained using up of the last natural resources), technological kind (uncontrollability and vulnerability of nuclear power stations), biological kind (gentechnical manipulation, poisoning of food chains) or of an epidemiological nature (AIDS, SARS, BSE). The globalisation of terrorism and crime is also in full swing. Finally, the institution of national borders is ever more losing meaning as an instrument of controlling and directing and as a symbol of defending cultural identity. Of course the aim here is not to complain about these developments, but rather to try and find an empirical connection to fear, angst and insecurity.

Little is put up to counter such developments. Therefore it can be observed that such problems are increasingly making themselves independent. One consequence is powerlessness (Giddens, 1991, 191:  “powerlessness in relation to a diverse and a large-scale social universe”),a feeling of being exposed to the mercy of this, precisely insecurity or unsafety: What can I still eat with a good conscience? Do I have to cancel my holiday flight because of possible terrorist attacks? Yet another child murdered, when is it the next one’s turn? I’m fired too? Swimming baths and youth clubs are closed, new prisons are opened? “It is ever less a question of whether the food is good, the area you live in is nice or the sexual partner is attractive but ever more a question of whether all this is secure” (Golbert, 2003, 20).

A wealth of literature deals with the new forms of insecurity in the face of growing globalisation and the dangers for civilisation coming from it. One author reaching over from earlier societies which were based on need to today’s anxiety based societies is U. Beckin his work “Risk Society” (1992). The authorsees a change from unequal societies to insecure societies, from the demand for equal distribution of the cake to being equally spared from the poison in it: “The driving force in the class society can be summarised in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! The commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need” (1992, 49;emphasis in original). Another German sociologist, N. Luhmann,goes one step further: “Anxiety resists any kind of critique of pure reason. It is the modern apriority - not empirical, but transcendental; the principle that never fails when all other principles do. It is an ‘Eigen-behavior’ that survives all recursive tests, one that seems to have a great political and moral future” (1989, 128).

The empirical question founded on this is in what form do such global fears manifest themselves? It seems as if a theoretically based “transfer” from the level of global fears to fears in every day life is missing. Z. Bauman offers the plausible picture of the “portioning of anxiety” as a heuristic approach: “In its pure and unprocessed form the existential fear that makes us anxious and worried is unmanageable, intractable and therefore incapacitating. The only way to suppress that horrifying truth is to slice the great, overwhelming fear into smaller and manageable bits - recast the big issue we can do nothing about into a set of little practical tasks we can hope to be able to fulfil” (1999, 45). However, a reverse direction, from the micro to the macro level, is just as imaginable and has to be taken into account. “...feelings of personal impotence may become diffused ‘upwards’ towards more global concerns” (Giddens, 1991, 193). The question is whether all this is also valid for fear of crime?

H. Hirtenlehner reported in Hamburg on the first of such investigations (now published in Kury 2008). With the help of the “Second-Order Confirmatory Factor Analysis” (Byrne, 2001) different sets of variables were calculated in relationship to one another from the areas of: “Fear of Crime” (risk assessment with regard to, e.g., robbery, burglary, sexual harassment: 8 items ); “Social Disorder” (loitering juveniles, vandalism, run-down houses: 8 items); “Personal Fears” (serious illness, decrease in standard of living: 4 items); and “Social Fears” (increased taxes and prices, destruction of the environment: 6 items). In these calculations, fear of crime was not the dependent variable, but rather one of the factors for the purpose of identifying a new dimension hypothetically called “Generalized Insecurity”. According to Hirtenlehner, the findings show that “fear of crime is inseparable from other forms of insecurity. It represents one component of a generalized insecurity whose origins can be found, according to many sociological diagnoses of the time, in the political, economic and social changes in late-modern societies. Secondly, the findings detect a mechanism of confounding between incivility and crime-related fears which has not been much studied up to now. Fear of crime and feelings of incivility appear to be parallel manifestations of a generalized syndrome of insecurity which can only be understood in the light of social change” (2008, 149-151).

Of course further studies must be undertaken in this area; however these results increase the plausibility of the thesis.

7. From crime to risk, from fear to insecurity (or angst)

Should we be able to agree that we live in risk societies and that although fear and insecurity may not dominate our lives, they do indeed accompany them, then we should change our scientific methods. Then we can commence fromthe concept of risk and the corresponding feelings of fear and insecurity, and look from there toanalyse the relevance that crime and fear of crime actually have (Sessar, 2008).

That said, the question of what a risk is has not yet been answered. It is unclear whether the term is directed at real dangers (such as environmental destruction) or whether it instead refers to risk attitudes, similar to the concern of falling victim to a violent act without such acts necessarily occurring in reality. According to M. Douglas, “risk is not a thing, it is a way of thinking, and a highly artificial contrivance at that” (1992, 46). In this case, risk can also become a form of perception, depending, for example, on the subject’s own safe or unsafe appraisal of his or her situation. The more secure a society feels, the more fearful it is of new and unforeseen challenges and the more likely it is to turn them into risks. Based on this account, the “Risk Society” has already been identified as an “Angst Society” (Scott, 2000, 39).

In this context the reflections of W. Hollway and T. Jefferson (1997) are particularly valuable. They noted that fear of crime is linked to risk as the central feature of a society whose future is ever more uncertain. Characteristic of such risks is that little is known about them, which means they are difficult to define and control. Therefore, the fear of the future, as well as the relentless quest to be its master, means that the social order must be defended from unspecified threats. Since a given cause must exist for all things, risks and fears become political constructions, through whose help accountability can be created and the “missing subject” will be searched for. This also applies to the risk of falling victim to a crime, only that here the cause of the risk can be pinpointed as the stranger, the other, the (potential) criminals and the “folk devils”. And because the causes are known they can be assigned with guilt and responsibility. Moreover, they can also be turned into a projection screen for completely different uncontrollable fears: “fear of crime ... is an unconscious displacement of other fears which are far more intractable” (Hollway,Jefferson, 1997, 263).

8. Conclusion

Perhaps we should steer our research interests into another direction. It sometimes seems to appear as if we are hunting a phantom called fear of crime. We have to learn that fear of crime withdraws away from us the closer we get to it, that is, the more accurate our instruments become. It is for this reason that the advice of W. Skogan to replace ‘correctness’ with ‘usefulness’ is important (see above). Another piece of advice might be to do away with the concept of fear of crime completely and to turn to something that we have discovered: anxieties and feelings of insecurity towards radical change in our societies including increased risks and imponderabilities, to which new forms of violence and crime as well as terrorism belong.

Such a change would also have political implications. It has always been important for criminologists to address the abuse of the fear of crime through law and order orientated criminal policy. With the new concepts of dangers, risks and insecurities this abuse has not be thwarted, but has instead grown. Its name is prevention – prevention for the purposes of manufacturing and guaranteeing security and freedom from angst.

Risk is a matter of prevention based on ever more confining rules through which our behaviour is controlled and our freedom is restricted. Being unable to predict risk as it “tells us only what we cannot do, not what we can do” (O’Malley, 2004, 2), we are forced into substituting our ignorance for a maximum degree of control to feign a sense of security. Control replaces knowledge, meaning: the less knowledge we possess, the more control is thought to be needed. The most advanced control systems in terms of tactics, technology, data collection, statistics and the like are constantly being developed for better risk management, a development which is preferably left uninhibited by legal or judicial surveillance. Control fears control.

“Governance through surveillance” could perhaps then be a new criminological theme?


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Date of publishing :

05 june 2008

Paper ISBN :

978 2 917565 10 0

To cite this document

Klaus Sessar, «Crimprev info n°11bis - Methodological, conceptual and political problems with fear of crime and insecurity», CRIMPREV [En ligne], Crimprev Info, CRIMPREV programme, URL :

Contacts :

Klaus SESSAR, Universität Hamburg, Faculty of Law, Department of Criminology, Schlueterstr. 28, D-20146 Hamburg. E-mail: