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Measuring Fear

23rd November 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

In measuring the power of fear, criminologists often rely on household crime and safety or crime victim surveys (CVSs). These surveys capture the prevalence and frequency of crimes against the person (e.g. assault, robbery, threats, sexual offences) and against households (e.g. property crimes, such as burglary, car theft, and vandalism).

However, is ‘fear’ of crime a useful measure of the ubiquitous fears and concerns addressed in Zygmunt Bauman’s book Liquid Fear, (Polity Press, 2007)? Bauman argued that liquid fears are the result of the absence of genuine collective security that has arisen as a consequence of the negative side of globalization. These include massive inequality, the rise and rise of surplus people with nowhere to go, and a growing unease about identity and security. The response has been to put up all sorts of barriers to migrants, to movement, and to worries about strangers and fears for our children. In short, liquid fears leave us all feeling that we have to devise our own strategies for safety and stability. Our purpose in life is reduced to avoiding bad things (cf. Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage, 1992).

Crime victim surveys are a useful alternative to police or court records to measure the risk of crime, and can tell us about why crime is not reported. Two reasons for not reporting crime are ‘fear of reprisal’ and that the ‘police won’t do anything’. These can be seen as a litmus test for the extent of the ‘existential tremors’ and increased feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty that Baumann suggests is the post-modern condition. However, ‘fear of reprisal’ it is not commonly offered as a reason for not reporting crime, but increasingly common is the sense that the police would or could not do anything. Other typical reasons offered are that the crime was a minor matter, or the ‘victim’ resolved the matter themselves – however, these responses are now less common than in the past.

The reasons for not reporting a crime, especially a violent event, is however remarkably universal and more or less the same reasons are mentioned in CVSs across many countries. What varies is the apparent resort to self-help and the levels of trust in health and police services. I have worked on CVSs conducted by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Western Australia, and have been struck by how important a sense of collective security is in suppressing fear contagion (one of the benefits of face-to-face contact with respondents). For example, I was surprised to learn that in many rural Cambodian communes, households had good regard for their local police (I was much more critical) and indeed generally felt safer than I expected. However, the role of public safety agencies is only a part of the story when communities are disrupted and undermined by the effects of globalization and the shift from communitarian values to individualism.

What can we learn from a recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on the problem of public safety? The ABS approached 36,495 private dwellings (7,074 males and 29,421 females in pre-assigned households) and 63% responded to questions about crime and safety. The headline result was that an estimated 2 in 5 people (39% of the population) had experienced physical or sexual violence over the age of 15 - 42% of men and 37% of women had reported such an experience. Does this result confirm our fears of an unsafe world?

The ABS survey gauged fear by asking four attitude questions that operationalised fear as an unsafe feeling - either walking at night or waiting and using public transport at night, and finally when at home alone. Two of these ‘fear’ questions have been used continuously since the first crime victim surveys were conducted in the 1970’s. The most recent survey asked people (in reference to the last 12 months): “How safe do you feel walking in your local area alone after dark?” and “How safe do you feel when you’re at home alone after dark?” The results show that women are much more likely to feel unsafe and indeed modify behavior to a significant degree. Over 1 in 4 women did not walk alone after dark compared to less than 1 in 20 men. This ‘fear adjustment’ by women carries through in two further questions about safety using public transport: “How safe to do you feel using public transport alone after dark?” and, “How safe do you feel waiting for public transport alone after dark?” About 14% of women did not use public transport after dark because they felt unsafe, compared to around 3% of men, and women also felt notably more unsafe when they used public transport (6.3% of women; 3.6% of men) or while waiting for public transport (8.6% of women and 5.5% of men).

When feelings about safety are examined in more detail (for example, disaggregated by age, prior experience of crime victimization, education and lifestyle factors), it reveals much more variation in the conditions that enhance or diminish those feelings. It also reveals significant gaps between the perceived and actual/objective risk of violence occurring in a public place. That is, the chances of becoming a victim of a violent crime, especially a serious violent crime such as robbery, bodily assault or a sexual crime, are much less frequent than imagined. Indeed, risks can be amplified by media and word of mouth. In addition, many acts of violence take place within the home or among intimates and so an apparent disconnect can occur in our judgements of crime risks, especially in public places. The risk of an elderly person being assaulted is rare but the elderly have an elevated fear of crime and that is because an assault, a push, purse snatch or a scam could have much more serious consequences for them than for younger crime victims.

Although some risk may only be perceived, fear itself is a debilitating emotion and if not remedied can quickly undermine individuals and communities. Because fear is often contagious, public agencies such as police attempt to counter fear through reassurance measures, especially when the arrest of an offender is remote, or if the criminal behavior is rare but catastrophic and likely to reoccur. Examples of reassurance measures include: a short-term surge in uniformed police; spending time with victims or survivors; public announcements about agency response; and enhancing electronic surveillance.

The response to violent extremism is an example of the increasing securitization of everyday life. The ramping up of security on the scale now regarded as the ‘new normal’ pervades all aspects of modern life, yet the more the state and individuals minimize risks, the less safe and the more anxious our communities appear to become.

Finally, there is much more to explore about how technology and the ‘Internet of Things’ have begun to transform the way fear and safety are experienced and imagined. CVSs are yet to fully catch up on these developments and so we know very little about perceived or actual fears of internet safety. Data that is available may rapidly become out of date as is likely with surveys of children’s safety on the Internet. An ABS survey in Queensland undertaken in 2009 estimated that 3% of children had encountered safety concerns including access to inappropriate material, and strangers asking for or gaining access to a child’s personal information. The ABS Personal Safety Survey found ‘indecent text, email or post’ among the most commonly reported forms of sexual harassment. Take a look at the ANU Cybercrime Observatory to find out more about our work on cybercrime and cyberterrorism.

Rod Broadhurst is a Professor of Criminology at RegNet and teaches on the Master of Criminology, Justice and Regulation, now accepting applications for semester one, 2018.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet