(Introduction) Crime, as a generally understood concept, involves any voluntary activity which violates a law. With that said, few are very fearful of parking tickets in the way others are fearful of robbery, rape, and murder. Therefore, a discussion of the relationship between fear and crime will, for practical purposes, center itself closer toward the violent end of the spectrum of possible criminal activity, rather than on the side of the more mundane, pedestrian forms of crime. Fear of crime, then, may more accurately be written as fear of violence. However, violence alone is not universally evocative of a fear response. Consider action movies, boxing matches, ball games, and even street fights, where crowds of people watch violence and cheer and gamble with little to no visible evidence of fear at all. The operative component of fear of violence is not of the violence itself, which in many contexts may amount to purely inconsequential spectacle, but rather fear of victimization.
Fear of suffering personal injury, loss, humiliation, confinement, sustained abuse in any form, enslavement, sexual violation, death, inadequacy, and the unknown are each individual and unique pillars of a lifeform’s relationship with a hostile universe. To take this idea one step further, one must acknowledge that though fear of victimization is the foundation of one’s fear of crime, the word crime itself implies the violation of an existing social contract. In other words, this is not just a discussion of fear of victimization in the void, but fear of victimization coupled with the expectation of not being victimized. In the study of fear and crime, this observation is critical, because violent crime does not only imply the willful act of violence by an aggressor, but also the involuntary suffering of a victim. The coin must always possess two halves.
In the Fall of 2021, I conducted a small, informal survey of friends and family, asking them to rank their level of fearfulness in a few different ways. The first question asked them to rate “the problem of crime in Shreveport,” (Harkness, 2021). The second asked them to rate the problem of crime in their neighborhood. The third asked them to rate their expectation of being personally victimized. While the sample size and methodology of the initial survey may have been woefully inferior to industry standards, I found the experience to be very useful as an exploratory venture. I happened to know that none of the respondents lived in what locals refer to as “bad neighborhoods,” meaning areas notorious for violent crime, property theft, and narcotics activity. I expected them to view their own neighborhoods as safer than the community as a whole, and on average, this hypothesis was correct. What was interesting was that in spite of the perceived safety of each respondent’s individual bubble, or sphere of influence and exposure, almost all of them reported high expectations of being victimized.
The problem here is that by the numbers, these results should be different. Incidents of violent crime are measured per capita, meaning the numbers are weighted by samples of one hundred thousand residents in a population. A crime rate of “five” or “sixty-seven” may be relatively higher or lower for a given category from one state to another, but in the grand scheme of things, these kinds of numbers still reflect an infinitesimally marginal expression of human behavior. But even in a city of half a million people, a hundred and fifty homicides in two years still looks, sounds, and feels alot like a nightmarish dystopia where child-barbarians run armed, wild, and lawless through the streets, while the good, god-fearing citizens of better days cower indoors, praying for the world to change.
Are human beings predisposed to expect to be victimized? If so, one could define fear of crime as the emotional tension between the intensity of that expectation of victimization and the operative necessities of otherwise navigating one’s obligations, regardless of the risks and threats involved. This is tricky, because it is easy to suppose that the people best suited to confront and neutralize violent threats are the people who are the least fearful, but in reality, first responders and armed service members are often those most likely to experience real, tangible fear, and most often, because they have highly reasonable expectations of being victimized. Similarly, in a perfect world, children ought to be among society’s least fearful lot, and, developmentally speaking, most of them basically are. However, in reality, children are regrettably among the highest and most grossly victimized category of our species.
Few children are aware of, let alone often appear to be explicitly afraid of violent crime. This means that fear of crime is also necessarily learned, which indicates that one’s environment plays a significant role in the development of one’s perceptions of the potency of observable threats. This observation also transitions the discussion of fear and crime from the philosophical to the practical. There is significant overlap between the categories of potential victims and actual victims, as with victims presently captive to human-trafficking and sex-trade industries. For those victims who continue to expect and to be victimized, reality itself informs, hardens, and validates their fear of crime. It is the shared knowledge of their suffering that transcends those injuries and allows those among us who have not (yet) been victimized to share the fear with them. For the sake of victims, of children, of slaves, and also for that of leaders, advocates, and citizens, a discussion of fear and crime must also be grounded in empathy, based not only upon thoughts and prayers and academic curiosity, but upon a healthy regard for practical, achievable, real-world solutions.
The outcome of the preceding analysis presents a closed-circuit understanding of the topic. Fear of crime is both an internal, differential phenomenon which may be disconnected from the reality of crime, and also the product of very real, if occasionally contradictory or counter intuitive external factors. So far, these are psychological and sociological pursuits. However, crime itself, as an actual fact, but also as windmills imagined, influences the behavior of both victims and non victims in ways that shape society, culture, law, kinship, industry, and education. That means the study of the relationship between the fear of crime and the fact of crime is also necessarily a historical pursuit. By proxy, the study of criminal justice is the study of all three: psychology, sociology, and history.
The purpose of this work is to sample the available literature and gain familiarity with some common themes, perspectives, and authorities, in order to better understand the bigger questions involved.. To better aid the lay reader in that effort, this research is confined to discussions of scholarly, peer-reviewed work published within five years of this writing. Some themes discussed herein include authorship, model frameworks, perceptions, police impact, methodology, automation, media consumption, and demography. Wherever applicable, additional analysis and peripheral references will be introduced to support and develop certain themes. In summation, I will identify unexplored areas and opportunities for future research.
All works cited were accessed in full-text using the EBSCO database, all gratitude and credit to Noel Memorial Library Services for Students.
(The Literature) Among the independent research sampled for this project, five commonly-cited authorities emerged. In order of publication, they are Kelling, Pate, Dieckman, and Brown (1974); Skogan and Maxfield (1981); Ferraro (1995); Hale (1996); and McGarrell, Giacomazzi, and Thurman (1997). Their respective contributions to the study of fear of crime are as follows: Kelling, et al, represent the four horsemen of “broken windows” theory, based on the hypothesis that visual cues trigger emotional responses. Skogan and Maxfield explored individual perceptions of crime. Ferraro’s work demonstrated the role of personal experience with victimization as a component of fear of crime, and also studied gender differentiation and vulnerability to crime and fear of crime. McGarrell reinforced the observations of Kelling, et al, but also developed the model to include other components, such as neighborhood composition, which later authors would replicate and innovate. Of these commonly cited authorities, Hale’s work is the most heavily referenced across the various studies sampled herein. His composition of reviews of extant literature related to fear of crime obviously serves as a touchstone for most, if not all of the authors currently writing on fear of crime twenty-five years later, and merits recognition. These works were not directly consulted for this project, but are considered indispensable for any and all future research in this field.
The studies discussed in this work tend to build upon the works of the authors described above, and to reinforce those earlier observations. Taken as a whole, the present study of the fear of crime occurs along a variety of unique vectors. However, there is a generalized consensus among all of these researchers that fear of crime may be studied as an inherent individual emotion or as an individual or collective response to environmental stimulus. Abbot, et al (2020) studied the effects of police effort on victims’ fear of crime. Avdija (2020) focused on the roles played by different types of police visibility, such as foot and vehicle patrols, as well as the effects of changes in quality and quantity of police officers on respondents’ fear of crime. Drakulich, et al (2021), noted the absence of corollary research in this field related to anger, rather than fear, as an operational response to crime, and finds that in some cases, anger is the more impactful emotion because “anger necessarily draws our attention to social meanings” (451).
Koseoglu (2021) builds upon many of these ideas while exploring fear of crime through the lens of university students and their unique circumstances and vulnerabilities. Koseoglu also integrates some analysis of the in-group/out-group dynamic to better understand the role of migrants’ fear of crime. Lee, et al (2020) conducts a regional study of western states neglected in the literature, examining a wide variety of variable risk factors, with the goal of replicating existing findings. Solymosi, et al (2021) approaches the subject of the study of fear of crime, rather than the fear of crime itself, taxonomizing the field’s evolving reliance on technological research tools and the benefits and limitations involved in their use. Solymosi demonstrates that advancing methodology plays a critical role in how responses are collected, qualified, and interpreted. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Wu, et al (2019) incorporates a variety of novel perspectives, including a substantial examination of the roles which various types of media consumption play in shaping fear of crime, but more importantly, Wu’s sample is of 1200 residents of Shanghai, living under what the author describes as “tight [authoritarian] control of state-owned media, including strict restrictions on reporting of negative social events…” (2338).
From an editorial point of view, some preliminary observations about the literature examined here may be useful. Geographically speaking, the aggregate sample size of respondents covers the United States, Turkey, and China. The effect of examining multiple, diverse, and disparate populations when studying fear of crime is to nullify many of the racial, social, and cultural components of that fear. The benefit of this process is a clearer understanding of how human beings experience and process fear on fundamental, universal levels. This approach only enhances subsequent efforts to evaluate and interpret more specific and targeted studies with respect to ethnicity, faith traditions, commerce, etc.
In practical terms, this means that researchers observe certain behaviors which are common across many types of boundaries, such as enhanced responses to fear among women, migrants, the elderly, and the victimized. Armed with a working knowledge of these foundational principles, researchers proceed to examine subjective and objective variables. But not all of these foundational principles are necessarily accounted for going forward. Researchers do not readily agree on the definitions of the words themselves. Fear may be an internal condition or a response to stimulus. Crime takes many forms, the most distinct of which are real and imagined. Even seemingly specific criteria, such as police visibility, or neighborhood cohesion, may yield wildy divergent responses based on the level of explicivity with which those concepts are defined to respondents. Sophisticated, credible research in this field will account for these structural variations in language and conceptualization.
(The Questions) From Abbot to Wu, there is a recognizable pattern in the established frameworks of the various research studied here. First, each researcher seeks to examine unique variables in the context of fear of crime as a quantitative response. In other words, respondents are typically asked to rate their own subjective feelings in the moment on a literal 1 - 5 scale. In this fashion, researchers are preemptively framing their results as producing either a positive or negative change in fear of crime. Solymosi and Drakulich were the only two researchers to (technically) think outside of this box. Additionally, researchers tend to classify the components of the fear response according to a few basic models. The first model is vulnerability, which involves measuring socio-demographic variables, such as gender, ethnicity, age, residency, and finance, but it can also mean something as simple as the difference between day and night, or as serious as a past history of victimization.
The second model is crime and justice, as observed by Avdija, measuring the varying impact of foot and vehicle patrols on fear of crime. Drakulich places the role of law enforcement in contrast with social assistance programs, exposing an entire substrata of complexity overlooked and neglected by other researchers who focus too narrowly and literally on law enforcement as the primary reciprocal societal institution responsible for reducing fear of crime.
The third model is community, which measures perceptual cues like Kelling’s broken windows, but also more subjective considerations such as respondent’s sense of neighborhood cohesiveness and Koseoglu’s migrant outgroup variables. Wu’s media consumption model acknowledged each of these various frameworks, as did Lee and Solymosi. The latter’s research may prove to be the most impactful, because Solymosi demonstrated that “app-based and crowdsourced” methods of data collection offer unique insights into neighborhood construction and composition. Among the notable advantages Solymosi describes are the “ability to capture the transitory and geographically specific nature of fear of crime,” and to “record architectural features” (1024). Lee and Koseoglu use slightly modified models, which consolidate some aspects of the crime and justice model with salient aspects of the community model, but both also treat the respondent’s relationship with past victimization as a unique predictor.
With variables and measures in mind, consider the following research questions. “Does police response and action immediately following the reporting of a crime have an effect on victim’s fear?” (Abbot, 886). What impact does “...police awareness...and police visibility…” (Avdija, 48) have on fear of crime? Between anger and fear, which is the more “important source of support for more punitive approaches to crime control?” (Drakulich, 446). How do “socio-demographic factors…, living area…, [and] direct/indirect victimization...relate to university students’ fear of crime?” (Koseoglu, 45).
Apart from fear of crime, what these questions all have in common is the mutually acknowledged premise that social institutions may have an impact on fear of crime. These questions and the research they inspire are more than academic curiosities and empirical constructs. They represent a call to arms sounded by society’s best and brightest young minds, for leaders, advocates, citizens, students, and most of all, victims, and the fearful. The implication of these works is that fear itself is not even a thing to be feared, as Mr. Roosevelt once suggested. Fear, like any other human behavior, or any other academic subject, can be observed, studied, understood, predicted, and even modified.
(The Answers) Abbot tested (N=2499) for land use, ethnicity, gender, marital status, education, income, age, and number of victimizations in prior years (888). Land use touches both the community model and the crime and justice model, while the other factors Abbot measures are vulnerability variables. She finds that an increase in fear of crime is “positively and significantly associated with living in urban areas, age, female, non-white, hispanic, education, numbers of crimes [victimizations] the respondent reported, and police effort, while [a decrease in fear of crime] was negatively associated with being married and household income” (890).
Koseoglu tested (N=330) for sex, nationality, living area, and disorder. Sex refers to vulnerability. Nationality is different from ethnicity in that nationality may often imply cultural and familial traditions. While ethnicity may best be understood as a measure of vulnerability, nationality signifies a more community model oriented measurement, as does living area. Koseoglu specifies that his attention in this study is drawn to the dynamic between Turkish and Cypriot students (outgroup). Disorder is most commonly associated with Kelling’s broken windows, but may also signify “absence of guardianship…[which]...prevents motivated offenders” (Avdija, 49-50; Wu, 2341). In the latter sense, disorder expresses the absence or ineffectiveness of law enforcement, falling under the crime and justice model.
Disorder also signals a weak or non-cohesive community structure. Keosoglu’s results support earlier findings that “females are more fearful of crime in general” (47). The data, he notes, reflects a statistically significant sensitivity to disorder, age-independent, possibly indicating that women more readily identify and interpret perceptual cues in circumstances where personal safety may be at risk (Ibid). Additionally, the researcher reported that the predominantly urban Turkish students reported generally higher levels of fear of crime than their outgroup Cypriot students, though no statistically significant change in fear of crime was associated with urbanity. Koseoglu reasons this way: “Turkey has suffered a number of terrorist attacks since the 1990’s, increasing social violence among Turks of different ethnic origins, with different ideologies and political tensions may make them much [more] fearful than Turkish Cypriots, who live on a relatively small and peaceful island” (53).
Apart from Wu, who understands and pontificates on this idea at length, there may be an observable trend among the other researchers sampled herein to fail to address and account for the superorganic nature of fear. Like crime, the numbers rise and fall each year according to existential threats, economic trends, and other semi-opaque variables in the aggregate. For example, a targeted study of American fear of crime surveys for the three-to-five year period bookending the end of the Cold War and the L.A. riots would yield infinitely more value to researchers thirty years on, with sophisticated and well-developed understandings of the significance of those events, than to the researchers who did the legwork. To quantify fear in samples beyond the kilo-sphere, one would need to measure enormous amounts of information over the course of years. But there is value in identifying how certain global and environmental stimuli can occasionally produce a common fear response measurable across entire populations without regard to demography.
Solymosi presents a tertiary analysis of twentyseven different “app-based and crowd-sourced” data collection tools which are already hard at work in the hands of researchers around the world trying to accomplish such tasks (1013). The study indicates consensus that these “measures of fear and crime capture more precise spatial and temporal data alongside information about the individual and the environment” because traditional methodologies seek to place respondents in their home environments based on their physical addresses, “rather than where they experience fear events” (1016), and also, to a lesser degree, inquire about “generalized fear” instead of “in situ”(sic) (1017).
Wu and Lee both emphasize the latter in their research as well, and construct elaborate variable matrices to account for crime as a cloud of potentialities, rather than as a generalized boogey-man, which, ironically, tends to be closer to the way Abbot and Avdija construct their crime and justice models. The interesting observation here is that multiple, stable states of fear may potentially coexist, simultaneously and independently of one another, but also occasionally independently of real environmental variables (read: disorder, community models). Lee and Wu’s vulnerability constructs are much more explicit than the others, but one might criticize the natural tendency to arrange victimizations by kind into hierarchical representations--we are most afraid of this, least afraid of that.
Similarly, Solymosi recognizes and acknowledges the limitations which naturally accompany overcollection (which is congruent to hyper-rationalization in the project development phase). Paramount among these are “difficulty of interpretation, …[hindrance] to generalize results, [and] repeatedly asking” [i.e. self-contaminating, suggestive influence in data-collection], (1027). The point is that while these tools may be highly efficient in engaging large samples, they may perhaps be more effective in targeting small or unitary variable sets, rather than multicollinear dragnets.
Conversely, shoe-leather field researchers will always have a healthy advantage over the machines they use when it comes to evaluating and interpreting unique and subtle nuances in their own field data, the respondents who provide, and the environments they inhabit. Abbot and Avdija both place great emphasis on the human aspect of their research, the victim. Abbot wanted to understand how real victims responded to the “police response and action immediately after” victimization, to better understand how police can provide a better service to those victims. Avdija wanted to figure out which forms of police visibility were most effective. In either case, the assumed objective is always the mitigation of fear. For each of them, the results present a mixed bag, with sometimes counterintuitive results.
Abbot is explicit about the a priori reasoning: “if police go out of their way to help victims, then it stands to reason that crime victims should feel less anxious/worried, vulnerable, and unsafe (and less fearful)” (890). Avdija adds texture to the idea of helping victims by qualifying those relationships. Is the police assistance effective? Competent? Timely? Courteous? Judicious? For Avdija, these are not synonymous variables. To summarize a particular point succinctly, police patrols work, they just don’t inspire confidence, but as the researcher also notes, correctly, “police patrols affect both crime and fear of crime” (52-57). Sometimes less can be more, and often more means less. Criminal Justice does have a significant accounting component, to add to the other disciplines, and woe to them with their struggles.
(The Ideas) If Alexander Pope had been raised in the jungle, he might have written “to fear is human.” Like humans, fear is complicated and multi-faceted. Quoting Ferraro (1987), Abbot observes that “fear is a judgement of risk, but also influences those judgments” (881). Quoting other authors in this passage, Abbot observes “dispositional” and “situational” fears, the former being those phobias and fearful natures which respondents bring along with themselves to inflate the surveys. One interpretation of Wu adds a third set: pedestrian fears. Wu ranks respondents’ crime-type related fear on a magnitude scale which paints a pretty lucid picture of a very predictable, if counterintuitive, landscape. These appear, from respondents’ highest fear to lowest fear response, in this order: fraud, theft, burglary, robbery, assault, homicide, sexual assault (2343). People in general are vastly more afraid of getting ripped off than being hurt, killed, or raped, in that order. Drakulich describes fear as a “personal emotion, rooted in concern, and perceived danger” (452). Avdija adds “A person does not always need to be in an actual situation to express fear of crime… [but] ...an emotional reaction occurs when a real possibility of being victimized” (48). Drakulich also uniquely observes that a fear response typically accompanies the prospect “of victimizations of acquaintances” (451).
Anger, on the other hand, as an emotional response to crime “necessarily draws the focus to the social meaning of the crime,” listing among examples “breach of social contract.., ..group inequalities, [and] ...colorblind racism” (453). Examining (N=1457) American National Election Studies from January of 2008 to September of 2009, Drakulich contrasts anger and fear reports from respondents in a sample “designed to be representative of the American people” (457). Interestingly, the results indicated high correlations between anger and what the text refers to as “racist sentiment,” and in this context Drakulich observes that it is more likely to be the fearful, rather than the angry, who are most “supportive of a wide range of approaches to addressing social problems” (451). This is fascinating, because in virtually the same breath, the author notes that while personal victimizations are more likely to engender higher reports of fear responses, the victimization of acquaintances is more likely to produce an anger response than a fear response. Perhaps at the level of collective human consciousness, the meanings of anger and fear are more intricately related than the experience of those emotions at the subjective level.
Wu finds that, on the whole, Chinese consumption of newspapers and radio programs tended to reduce fear of crime, while consumption of television and the internet tended to increase fear of crime when respondents used those modes of obtaining “societal and political news” (2341). This may be the most important observation made in the literature. On the surface, the lesson is elementary. To reduce fear of crime, turn off the TV and get offline. But Wu notes that, surprisingly, social media use had no statistical impact on fear of crime (which may well be the best WeChat slogan an authoritarian nation could ever dream of). The study of the fear of crime can be a very slippery slope. On the one hand, seven out of seven capable, thoughtful, well-educated researchers approached the subject of fear with an eye for how to effectively reduce the emotion. On the other hand, as Wu openly observes, prior to 1978, the Chinese government had found a way to do just exactly that. The researcher concedes that the authoritarian government has gradually given some ground during the so-called “reform era,” but that “government propaganda and censorship of sensational negative news in the most traditional and oldest media types have been successful in cultivating positive views” (2345). Interviewing respondents in Oregon or Alleghany, as with Lee and Avdija, or from the National Crime Victim Survey, as with Abbot, one possesses the (perhaps dubious) luxury of assuming one is dealing with the American police.
As some of these researchers point out in oblique ways, one surefire way of reducing fear of crime is to reduce awareness. Unlike authoritarian governments, victims of violent crime do not count ignorance of the facts among their available options. There is a meandering consensus that victimization is often a weaker predictor of fear of crime than absence of victimisation. Abbot found that prior victimization reduces fear (885). Drakulich found that personal victimization resulted in an increase of fear and anger alike (464), while “anger is more commonly reported than fear in reference to the prospect of victimization among American respondents” (466). Wu notes that the internet has been a boon to domestic criticism of the Chinese government, and the source of great agitation to the oppressive regimes which have struggled to control and suppress spontaneously evolving narratives at the speed of light.
From one perspective, the censorship of negative news events seems criminally draconian. The Chinese netizens make low hanging fruit of the argument that human beings willfully seek out information about themselves and the world, even at great personal peril. The difference between TV and a newspaper is that newspapers may contain lies and distortions, but they are not effectively sensate instruments. They are not flashy or vulgar (mostly), and the articles contained therein do not compete for market share in the attention economy the way Fox News and MSNBC do. They illustrate the calming effect that raising awareness in general has on sober, patient, information seeking people.
But then again, on the other hand, Fox News and MSNBC are the other side of this coin-- unfiltered, unregulated, unsubstantiated, unhinged and uncontrollable media giants fleeing to the edges and fringes of sensationalized and over-lit controversies handcrafted to elicit a powerful emotional response, come hell or high water. It is reasonable to suggest that the golden mean lies somewhere in the middle of these two consumption models. What Abbot says of fear and judgement is also true of fear and culture. Fear is influenced by culture, but also influences culture. The TV can make us less afraid or more afraid. It’s up to us to choose which channel we want to watch, and for how long.
Fear of crime is at once a personal emotion and a social instinct. We perceive a world of cops and robbers. Sometimes the lines between them get blurry. Women, the life-bearers, carry additional burdens throughout their lives, as vulnerable representatives of the fairer sex. Integration and cohesion, that is, pluralistic communities working together, are positive ways to reduce fear. Conversely, disenfranchisement and rabid xenophobia tend to be negative ways to increase fear. Paying attention to what is going on in the world can be a positive way to reduce fear of crime, but sometimes paying attention to what’s happening in the world is like scrutinizing the spooky noises while walking alone in a dark, dirty alley in a shady part of Shanghai at night. If we don’t learn to relax on our own, the government will eventually decide to intervene.
In the literature sampled, fear of crime in children and among first responders and armed service members remain unexplored. The effects of religious influence on fear of crime, as well as the influence of recent or active warfare, remain unexplored. Two standout observations about marriage and income seem intuitive, from the fourth wall vantage point, but certainly merit additional focus from oncoming researchers. That rich people are less fearful of crime surprises noone, perhaps, but that companionship in life mitigates its terrors is a phenomenon which bears and rewards profound scrutiny. Cohesiveness was a commonly used term across various works examined herein, and though it was a variable universally recognized as reducing fear of crime, it seemed to garner the least amount of focus from the authors. Guardianship was another, similarly ubiquitous, but underdeveloped concept. When these authors discuss neighborhood cohesiveness, or effective law enforcement response, or the experience of migrants in outgroup environments, the common denominator is always other people. Family, friends, strong community structures, safety in numbers. The notion that building and improving our relationships with others makes the world a less hostile place for the individual seems to be the pervasive undercurrent of profound and useful truth flowing beneath the surface of all this research.
Avdija gets the final word: “Crime seems to be the root cause of fear…[fear of crime] also increases the actions of individuals to create a safer environment” (49).
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