Crime, Media, Culture
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1741659005054020
2005 1: 169 Crime Media Culture
Mark Banks
Spaces of (in)security: Media and fear of crime in a local context
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Spaces of (in)security: Media and fear of crime
in a local context
MARK BANKS, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
Reflecting recent efforts to understand fear of crime as a locally situated process
(Walklate, 1998; Lupton and Tulloch, 1999; O’Mahony and Quinn, 1999; Sparks, Girling
and Loader, 2001), this article analyses the importance of two different ‘local contexts’
for shaping audience interpretation of media crime. The first of these is the home. The
integration of media technologies into the moral economy of the household, and textual
readings made within the context of a contested ‘politics of the sitting room’ (Morley,
1992), provide a framework for the interpretation of media crime. Second, and of most
interest here, senses of community attachment associated with living in a particular
locality are judged to shape the meaning and interpretation of media crime. The article
draws on interviews with two households in a suburb of Manchester and argues that the
impact of media crime must be considered within a framework that takes place seriously,
both as a context for everyday action and as a force in shaping community identity and
personal and shared senses of fear and (in)security. The article highlights the historical
neglect of spatial context in studies of audience reception of media crime and argues for
the need to develop more ‘place sensitive’ research into the impact of media discourses
on audiences’ fear of crime.
Key words
class; community; fear of crime; Manchester; media
The ways in which media representations of crime (hereafter media crime) impact upon
audiences continues to occupy both popular and academic discussion (Gerbner and Gross,
1976; Gunter, 1987; Sparks, 1992; Chiricos, Eschholz and Gertz, 1997; Howitt, 1998). To
date, such studies have tended to gloss over the moderating effects of the domestic
contexts of media reception. Further, this discussion has also lacked a grounded, spatial
CRIME MEDIA CULTURE © 2005 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi,, ISSN 1741-6590, Vol 1(2): 169–187 [DOI: 10.1177/1741659005054020]
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dimension – studies have rarely addressed the significance of place context in the
interpretation of crime imagery. While it has been suggested that the media may be one
of various stimuli that create ‘geographies of fear’, affecting our orientation to and use
of public and private spaces (Smith, 1986; Valentine, 1992; Shirlow and Pain, 2003), and
others have made the case that the impact of media crime must be understood in
everyday contexts (Sparks, 1992; Lupton and Tulloch, 1999), in-depth studies of the
ways in which media crime is interpreted within quotidian existences domestically rooted
and geographically located in real (and imagined) places (Keith and Pile, 1993) remain
In response to this, I analyse here the ways in which media representations of crime
are incorporated into the everyday lives of two middle-class households in Manchester.
Research findings are presented from the in-depth study of two situated contexts. The
first of these is the home. The positioning of media technologies within the ‘moral
economy’ of the household, and textual readings made within the context of a contested
‘politics of the sitting room’ (Morley, 1992), provide a framework for the interpretation
of media crime. Second, and of most interest here, senses of community attachment and
well-being associated with living in a particular locality are judged to shape the meaning
and interpretation of media crime.
It is offered that media representations (local and non-local, fictional and factual)
impact with significance on audiences’ fear of crime, in a non-deterministic and unpre-
dictable fashion. Each household is shown to articulate a distinctive attitude to media
crime, and a contrasting fear of crime discourse, that (I argue) is strongly determined
through specific senses of ‘home’, ‘community’ and locality. Put more simply, a sense of
is argued to be significant in structuring household relationships and attitudes to
media crime. Arguing that ‘home’, ‘community’ and ‘locality’ provide telling contexts for
understanding the impacts of media crime contradicts the popular assumption that the
mass media invidiously ‘mainstream us into a common reality’ (Gerbner and Gross, in
Heath and Gilbert, 1996: 379). While the aim of the article is not to deny the possibility
of establishing more general relationships between media and the fear of crime (Gerbner
and Gross, 1976; Gunter, 1987; Chiricos, Eschholz and Gertz, 1997), it does lay particu-
lar emphasis on the importance of local context in shaping the ways media crime is under-
stood and acted upon in personal and social, domestic and public situations. This
corresponds with the recent concern in the wider fear of crime literature to account for
the importance of embedded practices of everyday life in shaping discourses of crime fear
(Sparks, 1992; Taylor, 1995, Taylor, Evans and Fraser, 1996; Holloway and Jefferson, 1997;
Walklate, 1998; Lupton and Tulloch, 1999; Tulloch 1999; Girling, Loader and Sparks,
2000; Pain, 2000; Sparks, Girling and Loader, 2001).
The fear of crime continues to generate a substantial and diverse literature (see Hale,
1996; Pain, 2000). While the definition of ‘fear’ has varied, O’Mahony and Quinn (1999)
suggest that fear of crime is usefully invoked as a general term to cover the broad range
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of responses linked to ‘anticipated anxiety about crime’ (p. 232) – rather than direct fear
of some imminent threat – and this usage will be applied here.
It is often noted that the ‘cultivation thesis’ (Gerbner and Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al.,
1977) has tended to dominate the discussion of media effects on fear of crime. Here, a
key hypothesis is that the media (primarily television) generate ‘undue’ or ‘irrational’ fear,
largely through their obsession with crime news and genres, an overblown emphasis on
the crime ‘threat’ and sensationalized coverage of spectacular (usually violent) crime.
Television is seen as a tool of the dominant social order, reproducing hegemonic values,
stereotypes and distorting the ‘reality’ of the crime issue – here the audience are
constructed as passive recipients of ideological messages of an ‘authoritarian consensus’
(Sparks, 1992: 88) with which they can do little other than accept. While the cultivation
thesis has been widely criticized (Sparks, 1992; Heath and Gilbert, 1996; Lupton and
Tulloch, 1999), not least for its assumptions about the passivity of the audience and the
universality of cultivation ‘effects’, the specific relationships between media crime, percep-
tions of audiences and local place remain obscure. A study of crime perception in US cities
by Heath and Petraitis (1987) found no substantive correlation between fear of crime in
a neighbourhood or locality and exposure to crime on television. Others have found that
television crime may stimulate a fear of ‘other’ places (often cities) from which the viewer
is physically distant (Coleman, 1993). It has also been suggested that television reinforces
fear of urban rather than rural crime (Zillman and Wakshlag, 1985; see also Heath and
Gilbert (1996) for a useful review of this literature).
Following Sparks (1992), the argument here is that perceptions of media crime are forged
within the dynamic context of everyday life, where stories and myths collide with experi-
ence and action, where people and places coalesce in routines both disjointed and
rhythmic, and where the full panoply of what Silverstone (1989) has referred to as the
‘the polysemy and the polymorphology of daily experience’ (p. 78) provides a crucial inter-
pretive framework. By examining the politics of ‘home’ and ‘community’, as constitutive
of a wider sense of place, this study attempts to provide a more spatially embedded notion
of ‘local context’ than hitherto provided by qualitative studies of media crime audiences.
Home – the domestic context of media crime reception
Before we begin to engage with the reception and interpretation of media texts we must
first be mindful of the domestic meanings of media technologies themselves. For example,
prior to addressing any ‘effects’ of television it is necessary to explore how television itself,
as a medium, has a particular role to play in the moral economy of the household
(Silverstone, Hirsch and Morley, 1992; Livingstone, 2002). To engage with television,
regardless of particular programme content, is in itself a meaningful act, reflective and
constitutive of the politics of household life. Television may be seen as a medium for
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cementing family life, a primary source of leisure and pleasure; alternatively it may be seen
as a nuisance or disrupter, a distraction from more ‘real’ concerns; it may even be seen
as the source of a pernicious and baneful immorality. In contrast, newspapers may (for
example) be perceived to convey a sense of moral authority and objectivity, often linked
to their consistency of tone and appearance of permanency (Ericson, Baranek and Chan,
1991). Thus, different technologies have differential household impacts, and may facili-
tate unity or disunity, cohesion or dispersal (in multiple television owning, or ‘multimedia’
households for example), and can bring into focus the ways in which power is negoti-
ated in the domestic context (Livingstone, 1992; 2002). As we will see in the interviews
later, the construction of television as a moral object can have a crucial impact on house-
hold exposure to, and understandings of, media crime.
At the level of media content, an interpretive audience research paradigm has come
to the fore, epistemologically grounded in the notion that significant or realistic under-
standing is only possible when audience meanings are considered within the quotidian
contours of their formation (Morley, 1986; 1992; Lull, 1990; Silverstone, 1994; Ang,
1996; Moores, 1996). Despite some criticism, not least for its imputed negation of the
power of the text (Cobley, 1994), this approach has proved most persuasive in arguing
that the meanings generated by media remain understandable only in the context of the
study of everyday life, where the daily experiences of home and social life, reproduced in
public and private routine and ritual, shape patterns of meaning, identity and experience.
Here, because power relations based upon class, gender, ethnicity and age are played out
and reinforced in the domestic context, so access, use, control and interpretation of
domestic media become part of this disunity. However, to date, media crime research has
largely avoided a direct engagement with this environment, despite work that has posited
the necessity of examining specific time–space contexts of media crime reception (Sparks,
1992; Taylor, 1995; Lupton and Tulloch, 1999; Tulloch, 1999).
Place – the spatial context of everyday life
It is widely argued that place is a fundamental category in the formation of self-identity
(Tuan, 1977; Massey, 1991; Keith and Pile, 1993). The ways in which we describe and
understand our position in the world rely heavily on our sense of not just being someone
but somewhere; thus we harbour strong feelings for place. Place has a double articu-
lation; it acts as a physical context for everyday life, a material situation, but it is also
imaginary and subjective – place is space with ‘felt value’, emotionalized space or space
with feeling (Tuan, 1977; Shields, 1991). The role of place in identity formation
should not be underestimated, for as Urry (1995) notes, place is the lived context in which
‘people actually experience social relations’ (p. 1). Yet, within media studies and cultural
criminology, place has often been overlooked (Sparks, Girling and Loader, 2001).
While media theorists have been encouraged to engage with what Moores (1996) calls
‘the complex intersection of media technologies, image spaces and local places’ (p. 27),
the ways in which media use and interpretation is structured by personal and shared
understandings of place and space remain poorly understood. Ethnographic audience
research has largely failed to address how attachments to (non-domestic) place and space
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may have significant import to the ways in which audiences make sense of, and respond
to, media and texts. Rather than assuming audiences provide ‘universal’ readings, or ones
where variation is determined only through individual characteristics or the nuances of
the domestic sphere, we should see the media as being variably accommodated into
existing regimes of public and private communication that vary within and between
cultures, and across distinct geographical communities and places (Morley and Robins,
While place has appeared in the fear of crime literature, this has largely been in the
specific context of studies seeking to determine the relationships between fear and the
built environment (Newman, 1972; Poyner, 1983; Herbert and Davidson, 1995; Fyfe and
Bannister, 1996; see Pain, 2000 for a review). It is only recently that studies have begun
to theorize everyday life as a locally situated, mediating context for the production of
differential meanings surrounding a fear of crime (Smith, 1986; Sparks, 1992; Taylor,
1995; Holloway and Jefferson, 1997; Walklate, 1998; Girling, Loader and Sparks, 2000;
Pain, 2000; Sparks et al., 2001). O’Mahony and Quinn (1999) provide an interesting case
study of the ways in which individuals’ levels of ‘satisfaction’ with their local community
could be linked to fear of crime, and while (perhaps unsurprisingly) the more ‘satisfied’
groups exhibited less fear, a more revealing suggestion was that ‘community variables’
may have a greater impact on fear of crime than individual variables such as age, class
and sex. Yet while they conclude that community attachments ‘should not be ignored in
attempting to understand the dimensions of fear’ (p. 246), the specific socially and
spatially located discourses of fear that circulate within a community – and often construct
the symbolic parameters of that community – are not revealed.
In drawing on Beck’s (1992) and Giddens’ (1991) writings on risk and social trust under
imputed conditions of reflexive modernization, much of this new work on the ‘situated-
ness of fear’ (Pain, 2000) has only considered how fear of crime discourses are ‘located’ in
so far as they are managed in the dynamic context of an ‘individual’s subjectivity and
biography’ (Lupton and Tulloch, 1999: 511), where attitudes towards crime are not only
shaped by personal history but are ‘grounded in the experiences of everyday life’ (p. 511).
Walklate (1998) does showhowindividual attachments to, and status within, a community
can have a profound impact on the local crime discourse, shaping both the understanding
of the crime problem and the perceived risk of victimization. For observers such as Lupton
and Tulloch (1999) and Sparks, Girling and Loader, (2001), many of the controversies and
complexities of the fear of crime debate – not least the apparent ‘mismatch’ between levels
of fear and likelihood of victimization – could be overcome by an approach that empha-
sizes fear as a condition situationally constructed by (often) ‘non-rational’
operating within the time–space constraints of everyday life (Pain, 2000). Place, however,
remains marginal, and is only an implicit presence in these studies. In the main, there is
limited discussion of how place mediates fear through its status as a site for the reproduc-
tion of social relations and shared meanings, and a deep repository of personal and collec-
tive emotions (but see Girling, Loader and Sparks (2000) for a unique exception to this).
If detailed consideration of the meanings and discourses surrounding geographical
concepts such as place, space and locality has yet to be fully formed in the general fear
of crime literature, they have barely registered within the sub-field of studies examining
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media crime impacts. Sparks (1992), while sensitive to the mediating context of everyday
life, only briefly mentions sense of place as a key variable affecting readings of media
crime, and while Tulloch’s (1999) study details an impressive list of concepts that contrib-
ute to his respondents’ everyday understandings of media crime, place is only indexed in
somewhat limited fashion as ‘landscapes of fear’ (echoing Tuan, 1979). This tends to
reinforce the notion that place only has import to fear of crime discourses in so far as it
constitutes a potential ‘threat’ or ‘risk’, and results in an obscuration of both the full range
of emotional attachments that people can have to places and the broader nexus of social
relations that are experientially reproduced in different spatial contexts. Place is much
more than a repository for fear – and if it has the potential to fundamentally shape our
modes of perception, structure our social actions and determine our whole sense of ‘being
in the world’ (Massey, 1991; Massey and Jess, 1995), then it needs to be theorized more
fully within fear of crime studies.
Data is presented from interviews with two middle-class households (the ‘Kents’ and the
from the suburb of Didsbury, which lies approximately five miles south of
Manchester city centre. Didsbury is often viewed as an upmarket, cosmopolitan suburb,
populated by a high number of the ‘new’ or ‘cultural’ middle class (Wynne, 1990).
Residing in large semi-detached and detached Edwardian houses and villas, its inhabitants
can enjoy the bustling atmosphere of the shopping centre, the numerous pubs, restau-
rants and the various community- and activity-based social clubs – Didsbury is an aspira-
tional suburb for the middle class professional family. In many ways it is similar to the
nearby suburb of Hale used by Taylor (1995) in his study of middle-class perceptions and
understandings of local crime.
These structurally similar families (white, middle class, ‘nuclear’) are shown to offer
contrasting discursive positions with respect to a fear of crime. For each household, the
consumption, interpretation and ‘effects’ of media crime are considered within the ‘local
context’ previously outlined – the practices of everyday life where the use and meanings
of media technology, the politics of the domestic sphere and a sense of place are
considered centrally important. It is this latter context of community and place, however,
that emerges as dominant in shaping the interpretation and meaning of media crime, and
its contribution to the wider fear of crime discourses evident in each household
(O’Mahony and Quinn, 1999).
The Kents
For the Kent household, television was valued for its possibilities to provide ‘family’
programming (they cited Pride and Prejudice, Family Fortunes, Gladiators, The Borrowers),
but also news, current affairs and educational resources (Question Time, Newsnight,
The Midnight Hour). Television was watched everyday, usually being switched on when
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the children arrived home from school and then remaining on until the parents went to
bed. It was clear that television was seen as a medium that provided a focus for shared
– as the parents offered:
Maria: We like Family Fortunes.
Graham: I suppose it’s for the time we normally have fish and chips, on a Friday
night, it was on at seven it became quite a habit programme because we’d
all sit down and watch it.
The home, geographically centrally located in the kinship and community networks
that the Kents valued, provided a site for a shared ontological security and television was
seen to be central to this, providing a focus and context for group activity, learning and
a prompt for discussion and debate of local and wider scale social issues (Gauntlett and
Hill, 1999; Morley, 2000).
The depiction of crime in both local and national media did not seem to disturb or
induce anxiety in the Kents – they were avid viewers of a full range of crime news and
dramas (Cracker, 999, The Bill ) – nor did they fear for their children’s moral safety from
being exposed to television that contained images of crime:
Maria: We don’t [stop them] we just let them watch it.
The Kents also emphasized their community activities (helping out at school, wood-
craft and aerobics), their strong senses of local identity and desire to ‘put something back’
(Maria) into a city that has provided them with opportunities for a stable and happy family
life. The children were encouraged to take an active role in local social events, and were
encouraged to play out in the street and visit friends across the neighbourhood.
The Kents were keen listeners of local radio, and both Maria and Graham were regular
readers of the Manchester Evening News and the South Manchester Reporter. Local news-
papers rely on the sensational crime story as a stock-in-trade (Williams and Dickinson,
1993; Taylor, 1995), and while the Kents might match the profile of those argued to suffer
the ‘strongest fear effects’ of such reporting (Liska and Baccaglini, 1990; Chiricos,
Eschholz and Gertz, 1997: 342) it was interesting that the Kents adopted a more prag-
matic information-gathering (Smith, 1986) approach to local press:
Graham: One of the local papers is very good at reporting statistics and in fact the
worst that you can be is in South Manchester and to be a single male
student, I mean they are constantly being attacked.
More often though, local newspapers were used to obtain information about
community activities and social interests rather than crime. Graham offered that his inter-
ests lay more in other areas:
Graham: Local planning matters . . . and the letters page they get either national or
local issues in and there’s a good feature article on local pubs and they
cover the arts, local sport . . .
The Kents did not articulate any anxiety about media reporting of local crime – the risk
of crime seemed able to be rationalized within the context of ‘objective’ reporting they
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perceived in the local press. Crime was recognized as a fact of life, one made ‘knowable’
(Holloway and Jefferson, 1997) through local news and ‘talk’ discourses (Taylor, 1995),
and made manageable through their deep local knowledge and day-to-day experience of
their own and neighbouring districts.
Despite suffering break-ins and having had their car vandalized, the Kents felt little
apprehension or sense of ‘fear’. When pressed on this, this feeling of security was seen
to stem from the fact that the Kents had all been ‘born and raised’ in south Manchester.
Having lived in the districts of Fallowfield, Withington and now Didsbury, and with
extended family and friendship networks across the city, the Kents felt connected and
confident in their environment. And while family ties and longevity of residence is by no
means a universal indicator of sense of well-being or ‘community’, it was in this case,
Graham: Our priority is more with our local community . . . I do feel part of a
continuity, I feel that it’s my turn now to contribute, so I feel also, you know,
we’re trying to put something back in – like I’m a governor at the local
school . . . and Maria similarly does a lot at school; so it’s enjoying it and
being part of it.
Strong feelings of attachment were noted, not just to Didsbury but also to neighbouring
districts and the wider city of Manchester itself:
Maria: I mean I just feel proud about Manchester and some of the things that were
firsts that happened here, you know the [invention of] computers [and] the
Pankhurst Centre,
I’ve taken Jenny there because I think that’s an import-
ant part of heritage.
Graham: I’ve a very strong affinity with Manchester . . . I think partly because if you
go far back enough we’re Irish Catholic heritage we’ve never quite been
sold on this sort of British thing of the Union Jack and ‘Last Night of the
Proms’ and all the rest . . . so part of our priority is more with our local
community, our local sort of parish community and beyond that it becomes
such a strong vein of Irish Catholic heritage – in Manchester they reckon
that everyone’s got at least one grandparent who was Irish Catholic . . .
[Also] there’s the sort of Manchester humour, the humour of the down –
not the oppressed – but the hard working.
The Kent parents spent some time reminiscing about their childhood experiences, their
memories of work and community – from Graham’s recollection of ‘hundreds’ of men
making their daily way to work at Manchester Docks, to Maria’s happy recall of her
father’s exploits ‘ducking and diving’ to make a living. This was no doubt nostalgia in part,
but overwritten with a firm sense that Manchester essentially ‘hadn’t changed’ (Graham)
and that they were ‘lucky’ (Maria) to live in such a rewarding and extensive community.
The portrayal of crime in the media (factual or fictional, local or distant) did not chal-
lenge or undermine this rich and varied sense of historical continuity and order in place.
Crime did not generate fear in this household, merely provoked debate, rationalized
within the sharp sense of local knowledge and local awareness:
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Maria: We [talk about] issues that may have been raised on things like [the local
and national news], it might spark off conversations with friends, not
necessarily the programme, but the issue is, like, there’s some very very
poor parts of south Manchester. I mean parts of Rusholme you know, parts
of Fallowfield, parts of the Wilbraham estate and you know, and in Moss
Side there are some very poor areas and there’s unemployment and they’ve
got problems.
Fictional crime on television was actively watched – there were enthusiastic discussions
of television’s dramatic representations of crime in their locality:
Graham: We watched Prime Suspect, mainly because it was set in Manchester; we
made a particular effort to see if we could play ‘spot the street’!
Jenny: They asked to use the local schoolchildren to be on Cracker, like, in the
background, they were filmed coming out of the school and going over to
my school and back.
Maria: We’re more likely to watch [Cracker] yeah; we do like to be able to spot
where they’re filming it if they go outside.
Both Cracker and Prime Suspect are Manchester-based realist crime dramas; ‘gritty’
and explicit, yet these fictional dramas were woven into the domestic routine in unex-
pected ways, providing topics of conversations in and outside the home – a shared
viewing pleasure that seemingly failed to generate anything other than positive affirma-
tion of the Kent’s sense of community and place. Such a reading is perhaps indicative of
the ways in which crime texts can be incorporated into people’s everyday lives in unex-
pected ways – not necessarily anxiety inducing (à la cultivation thesis) or consumed to
help cope with ‘scary situations’ (Zillman and Wakshlag, 1985) but somehow supportive
of local pride, knowledge and a sense of place.
In this household I observed a substantial and varied media diet, characterized by
openness and willingness to a range of media discourses. Television, in particular, was
seen as a positive medium, providing both information and entertainment across a wide
spectrum of topics. Combined with a positive, ‘outgoing’ (Massey, 1991) sense of
community cultivated within the context of local place, a discursive field opened up into
which media crime was absorbed and a fear of crime discourse either mollified or ration-
alized as a set of ‘calculable and knowable’ risks (Holloway and Jefferson, 1997). A sense
of place informed and grounded a lay knowledge that the Kent’s could apply to explain
the ‘causal chains’ (Lupton and Tulloch, 1999: 521) of crime (‘poverty’, ‘unemployment’,
‘lack of education’ and so on) while avoiding the need for defensive labeling or stigma-
tization of deviant groups or areas (Sibley, 1995). Long-standing and deep rooted
time–space connections provided an ability to positively identify with Didsbury, other
districts of the city and Manchester itself, helping to underpin a solid sense of security
in place – offsetting any potential threat embedded within a local fear of crime
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The Henshaws
The Henshaw parents were quite adamant that watching television was morally suspect
and a pleasure of last resort:
Robert: We’re not people who have the television on for long periods.
Patricia: Mostly though, TV’s what we do when we haven’t got anything else to do.
The children were not quite so keen to stake this claim. While the Henshaw children were
perhaps still too young to fully challenge parental authority, some tension was noted
between 12-year-old Alison and her parents:
Robert: You used to enjoy Neighbours.
Alison: Correction. I wasn’t allowed to enjoy Neighbours.
Patricia: Alison will watch anything probably.
Television was watched ‘most days’, but for less time than the Kents – often it was
switched off between 6–9pm and only turned on again for a specific programme or a late
national news bulletin. Patricia bemoaned the fact that her children would ‘probably watch
all night’ if allowed, while she herself had got ‘out of the habit’ of watching television –
though the children’s accounts contradicted this. It was felt that perhaps initially there was
some attempt (in the face of the researcher) to give a ‘good’ impression over the amount
of viewing being undertaken (Morley, 1986). The indication was that television was a site
of conflict between parents and children, with the parents’ authority coming under
increased challenge as the children grew up (Gauntlett and Hill, 1999; Livingstone, 2002).
Like the Kents, much discussion revolved around the home as a provider of security
and grounding for family life. The Henshaws had lived in Manchester for 15 years, both
parents having been born in other cities, but all spoke enthusiastically about living in
Didsbury and were pleased that the recent relocation of a close relative to Manchester
would provide opportunities for family activities. The Henshaws were concerned to stress
how the home and street were both characteristic of a ‘family area’ (Patricia), one that
they had specifically selected as suitable for bringing up the children, and one that was
primarily valued for its relative safety:
Robert: It feels a very friendly place . . . it also feels a very safe place.
Alison: Well you just don’t go out at night anyway – but you know the only place
you might get attacked is that path, but you know you feel safe. No one
would want to attack you or anything . . .
Robert: That’s not to say there aren’t burglaries and things around here, there
certainly are . . . I mean we’re in a Neighbourhood Watch and somebody’s
only got to come up the street who nobody knows and suddenly there are
30 pairs of eyes!
Patricia: The Homewatch on this street really does work, people do take notice if a
burglar alarm or a car alarm goes off. People will actually come out.
A recurring emphasis was the ongoing necessity of managing ontological security in a
(perceived) risky environment (Walklate, 1998). While the Kents had not revealed especial
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concerns about domestic security, the Henshaws were far more sensitive to the need to make
active choices around the management of personal and domestic risk (Beck, 1992). Inter-
estingly, unlike the Kents, the Henshaws had not been the victims of burglary or vandalism
– yet their sense of anxiety and fear proved to be more pronounced. There was clearly some
degree of anxiety about potential threats to home and street – not based on past experience
of victimization – but formed in the context of a wider sense of unease about their status
within the community and the capacity of that community to withstand crime ‘threats’.
Further probing on television viewing revealed the parents’ favourites to be Antiques
Roadshow, Masterchef, The Borrowers and Poirot – shows that broadcasters often
promote as ‘family viewing’. A strong belief in ‘traditional’ moral values meant that tele-
vision crime, violence and other ‘unsuitable’ material were rarely seen in this household,
children’s viewing in particular being carefully monitored:
Robert: I suppose some of the things that we would consider watching together we
would want to preview first to make sure.
Patricia: When we heard that Ivanhoe was going to be on we thought that that
would be a good one to watch as a family but then we read the news that
said it was quite violent and in the end we didn’t let the children watch it.
The Henshaw parents tended to avoid television reporting of real crime, as well as the
majority of fictional dramatizations with crime themes. The sense of careful viewing
extended to consumption of local television news; such programmes were at first
dismissed as irrelevant to their daily concerns and thus rarely watched, but anxiety about
the content of these programmes began to emerge as a justification for avoidance:
Robert: It’s often crime related; it relates to the area we’re in. It can be a bit grizzly.
All household members spoke of their concerns about local crime. While both factual
and fictional television crime tended to be avoided in this household, local newspapers
were used, mainly as a ‘source of burglary information’ (Robert). The use of local news-
papers as a source of local crime information was much more marked in the Henshaw
household, and the motivation appeared to be providing reassurance about victimization
risk, rather than the broader ‘local knowledge’ that the Kents appeared to crave.
In contrast to the Kents, the Henshaws did articulate a fear of crime, however this was
not an abstract or uncontrollable fear but one that was able to be managed (Holloway
and Jefferson, 1997) in the context of a discrete sense of community and a somewhat
insular place discourse that drew upon the symbolic and imagined qualities of Didsbury
as a ‘family area’ and morally superior place. Didsbury was described by the Henshaw
parents as ‘the village’, distinct from the perceived ‘inner city’ sprawl of Manchester. The
material motifs of Didsbury ‘village’ were its parks, churches, specialist shops; its
imagined, (quasi-rural) social relations cultivated through the civic society, local news-
papers, church groups, neighbourhood watch schemes and festivals:
Robert: You have to say we’re very fortunate living in [Didsbury], there’s a friendly
feel to it . . . the special feel . . . some people only get it if they live further
out of Manchester.
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The Henshaws felt that village life was made possible through the ‘green’ environment
(local parks, tennis courts and so on), but they were perhaps more concerned to mark
out how the ‘village’ was reproduced through characteristic forms of social activity and
cultural practice:
Robert: Didsbury’s got a very strong identity of people, you have things like the
Didsbury Festival that goes on in the local park . . . and also things like the
civic society, recycling things . . . that’s all done within the community area.
More perniciously, the notion of a discrete ‘village’ was used to garner comparison with
those south Manchester suburbs perceived to be somewhat less salubrious. The Henshaws
contrasted the ‘Arcadian’ aspects of Didsbury with surrounding districts, each theoreti-
cally with their own claims for ‘village’ status:
Patricia: I don’t think there’s that same, almost like, village identity about places like
Burnage and Withington and Chorlton . . . [West Didsbury] is also perhaps
a different type of area in that there’s quite a lot of young single people
there, houses in multiple occupation and perhaps people don’t tend to stay
around as long whereas this sort of area is a family sort of area.
While the Henshaws were locally active, primarily in church social groups, the broader
imagined geography of ‘village life’ acted as a discursive framework for the cultivation of
a sense of security in the face of a potentially threatening world ‘out there’ – an example
of how concepts of place and space may be implicated in the construction of ontologi-
cal security and a reminder of how the notion of community remains a powerful reposi-
tory for collective and spatially located identities. In his study of Stoke Newington in
London, May (1996) reveals how middle-class residents draw on rural mythologies and
Arcadian images to reconstitute their urban milieu as a corner of ‘mythical village England’
(p. 210), largely in defensive response to perceived increases in the immigration of ethnic
minority residents. Like May’s informants, the Henshaws mapped out an aestheticised
geography of English village life, pivoted around the parish church, parks, pubs and other
physical expressions of tradition and continuity. Within this aesthetic, crime was the feared
other, one the Henshaws frequently attempted to rationalize within the ‘village’ frame-
Interviewer: So you’re not particularly worried about crime in this part of town?
Patricia: No I don’t think so, it does happen, there are burglaries . . .
Robert: But you take your own prevention by making sure you put your alarm
on at night.
Patricia: It’s classed as inner city . . . we don’t feel inner city really. It’s quite
suburban here really. But we have strong links with the local church and
our local school . . . we feel very much part of the local community.
Interviewer: Is there anything at all that you worry about?
Robert: It’s an area that people tend to come [to] on Saturday night.
Patricia: Young people generally.
Robert: So later on sometimes you get a police car, helicopters.
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Patricia: That wouldn’t stop us from going into Didsbury at night if we wanted
Robert: No no, I’m not saying it would, it’s one of the things that’s raised as
being of a concern, I’m not saying it’s something that would concern
Unlike the Kents, for the Henshaws crime was the dominant theme in discussions around
place and community. The prime strategy for coping with crime risk rested on identifying
‘outsiders’ as the disorderly threat, and relying on ‘the community’ to keep the neigh-
bourhood in good order and this outside world at bay (Sibley, 1995). While the local news-
paper was used to help monitor and manage the crime ‘threat’, more generally, media
crime was part of this ‘other’ world, with television, in particular, needing to be closely
monitored and avoided where it posed a potential moral risk to home and community
(Silverstone, 1997).
The Kents contradicted the widely held belief that high levels of television viewing lead
to high levels of crime fear (Gunter, 1987). This household avidly consumed television,
and other media of various kind – yet exhibited no fear of crime. Instead they appeared
to adopt the position that television provided both family entertainment and useful
informational and educational resources; there were few concerns about bad ‘habits’ or
guilt about high levels of viewing (Gauntlett and Hill, 1999). Further, they confound the
idea that direct experience of crime will enhance fear of crime, for while they had been
victims of break-ins and vandalism, they felt that crime in their locality was both
‘knowable’ (in that there were identifiable crimes and victims within a specific geogra-
phy) and manageable in that it was able to be rationalized with recourse to lay socio-
logical arguments. The Kents in fact used media depictions of crime, both fictional and
real, to inform these arguments – the media providing a resource to spark conversation
and dialogue with family and friends about everyday life in south Manchester suburbs.
Such an open, reflexive approach was steeped in a rich history of place attachment, local
activity and a desire to ‘put something back’ into the community. This positive sense of
being-in-place directly shaped their interpretation of media crime; a deep sense of local
knowledge and a critical attitude towards the media meant that they could manage crime
more ‘rationally’. Despite their different material circumstances it is clear there are some
similarities between the experience of the Kents and that of ‘Joe’, one of the participants
in Holloway and Jefferson’s (1997) study. The experience of ‘Joe’ is instructive, for like the
Kents, Joe is community active, has a local extended family, and a strong sense of connec-
tion to local place. As someone who inhabits ‘a local world, a known world and in prin-
ciple therefore a controllable world’ (p. 264), the fear of crime discourse has limited
impact, for there is no requirement to provide additional ‘defence against other unname-
able fears and anxieties’ (p. 265).
Similarly the Kents’ experiences indicate the potentially
moderating effects that community and place can have on what is often thought to be
a universal and generalized ‘fear’ of crime.
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At first, the Henshaws appeared to be unaffected by media crime, largely because of
their moral resolution to be unaffected by the (corrupting) medium of television. Tele-
vision was a malevolent presence, an intruder upon the good order of the home.
Watching television was a bad ‘habit’ to be regulated. But the impacts of media crime
were more indirect; a certain degree of fear was generated by media crime, but this was
not evidenced through viewing habits, but rather non-viewing habits, as they deliberately
avoided crime shows, ‘grizzly’ news, and ensured that all viewing was ‘family’ viewing. It
is worth noting then that images may have an ‘effect’ even when, or precisely because,
they are not watched. With television crime being avoided, newspapers were used to
evaluate household risk from local crime (rather than support community interests as in
the Kent household) – and the overall sense gained was one of a household somewhat
fearful and ‘under siege’ from crime, its ubiquitous representation and the ‘flux and threat
of the outside world’ (Morley, 2000: 87). The Henshaws’ responses to ‘grizzly’ media
perhaps typifies what Silverstone (1997) has referred to as an ‘anti-politics of withdrawal’
characteristic among middle class suburbanites; that is, employing strategies to repel
‘unruly’ elements, and ‘strangers’ that threaten the good order of home and suburb (see
also Morley, 2000).
Members of the Henshaw household feared crime yet were able to manage it within
the context of a place discourse that emphasized the boundedness of local community,
constructed within the context of deeply embedded social and community support
structures. The pillars of church, the neighbourhood and the ‘village’ provided a security
and exclusivity that meant blame for crime could be so easily displaced onto other suburbs
and ‘outsiders’. We can see that in contrast to the more outgoing and positive attitudes
offered by the Kents’, the Henshaws had found ways to cope with their fears ‘in the
community’ that involved cultivating a more rigid, exclusive and defensive sense of place,
where ‘village’ social support networks maintained order and, at a personal level, priva-
tized strategies to avoid crime (Neighbourhood Watch, staying in, avoiding crime on
television) were employed. Where the Kents’ sense of place was fluid and multiply-
focused (incorporating a number of districts and social relationships across the city), the
Henshaws’ was insular, introverted and spatially fixed around the physical, symbolic and
imagined social relations of ‘the village’ (May, 1996). In contrast to the Kents then, the
Henshaws’ account indicated that community and place are not necessarily mobilized in
a positive or inclusive way – and that in order to achieve integrity a fear of crime discourse
may rely on the construction of symbolic boundaries with specific inclusions and
exclusions (Sibley, 1995).
As Howitt (1998) notes, establishing the impacts of media crime on audiences is fraught
with difficulty, not least of which is that acts of media consumption are often fleeting and
transient, and ‘messages’ may only be partially ‘absorbed’ by audiences as the flow and
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dynamics of everyday life go on around them (Bausinger, 1984). It becomes difficult to
specify just how and to what extent media is affecting peoples’ lives and sense of place,
especially when other individual, social and environmental factors may have as significant
a role to play (Heath and Gilbert, 1996). The approach taken here has been to try to
evaluate media use within its domestic context and more widely, within the lived context
of community and locality. This is designed to more adequately account for the spatially
situated realities of media use, the meanings that media crime can generate and the frag-
mented ‘effects’ that it can have on actors in everyday contexts. Despite structural simi-
larities in terms of being white, middle-class ‘nuclear’ families, living in the same
neighbourhood, each with young children of comparable ages, marked differences in use
and attitudes to media crime were noted – differences that were most clearly articulated
when situated within the ‘politics of the sitting room’ and contrasting discourses of
community and locality.
While this article represents an attempt to ‘spatialize’ the literature on media crime
impacts, it by no means provides any comprehensive account of the range of possible
impacts that geographical ties or affiliations may have on a fear of crime discourse. Nor
does it specify any objective, causal relationships between types of media crime consumed
and forms of response. While the evidence indicates the existence of competing fear of
crime discourses within the middle class, it makes no general claims about the applicabil-
ity of these typologies to the middle classes more generally. Further omissions include
deliberation on the domestic impacts of new media (Livingstone, 2002), and any
discussion of gender as a shaper of patterns of media consumption. The interpretive
paradigm in audience research has most effectively revealed the conflicts and tensions
that underpin men’s and women’s differential use of domestic media (Morley, 1986; Gray,
1992) and the home remains a key site where gendered patterns of consumption and
meaning will reproduce. Nonetheless, in this study, while gender was important in so far
as the ‘traditional’, conventionally gendered nuclear family provided the context for media
consumption, the individual attitudes exhibited towards media crime were less about
gender differences and more about the collective desire to secure some notion of ‘family
life’ and a rooted sense of place in a local environment subject to potentially disorienting
flux and change. It might also be added that the lack of polarized distinction between
men’s and women’s consumption and taste may simply reflect a narrowing of the ‘power
gap’ between men and women, and the wider dismantling of taste hierarchies in the
context of domestic media use (see Gauntlett and Hill, 1999); though whether this has
led to the full negation of gendered patterns of consumption and meaning would require
further investigation (see also Morley, 2000).
Yet, despite these drawbacks, the evidence develops discussion in two key areas: the
first relating to the imputed uses and ‘effects’ of media crime, the second concerning the
value of specifying how ‘local variables’ such as sense of place impact on the construc-
tion of fear of crime discourses. In this first instance, the data presented gainsays the view
that we can hope to specify and isolate general ‘cultivation effects’ of media crime. Howitt
(1998) questions whether this is ‘good enough’ and wonders whether our methods and
theories lack the necessary sophistication to isolate such effects. This may be so. But, as
Sparks (1992) avers, always, ‘images of crime . . . are caught up in the fine grain of
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cultural and social experience’ (p. 5), and rather than attempt to isolate general models
of media effects, more attention might be paid to the ways in which media crime solicits
differential responses according to the subjectivities, biographies and time-space routines
of subjects caught up in the ongoing ‘warp and weft’ of everyday life (Silverstone, 1994).
Moreover, the evidence indicates the benefits of integrating – theoretically and empiri-
cally – ‘a sense of place’ into current research on fear of crime. This has been recom-
mended elsewhere, most prominently by Girling, Loader and Sparks (2000) who argue
that crime and place are ‘in some complex, significant (and researchable) ways entangled
. . . people’s sensibilities towards crime depend on their sense of place, and their orien-
tation to place is – in part at least – determined by considerations of crime and order’
(p. 46). In agreement, and in addition, I would add that an agenda for place-sensitive
media crime research is essential, for, as the politics of mediated communication come
increasingly to intersect with the politics of place and space (Morley, 2000), so media
become more central to the ways in which people’s ‘worlds of crime’ are lived, defined
and imagined.
1 While in the case of this article a ‘sense of place’ is primarily understood as a combination of the
social relations of home and immediate locality, place sensibilities are always ‘rich in attachment
to multiple locales’ (Cuba and Hummon, 1993: 26) and are not necessarily bounded by local
social relations. In recent years, attempts to develop more expansive, hybrid and fluid
conceptions of place have been invigorated by postmodern and postcolonial theory and
interdisciplinary investigations into the significance and consequences of globalization (see
Harvey, 1989; Massey and Jess, 1995; Morley, 2000).
2 See Lupton and Tulloch (1999) on the construction of rationality/irrationality in the fear of crime
3 Names have been changed. The two households were part of a wider sample interviewed for a
project examining uses and meanings of local and regional television. The study attempted to
understand middle class understandings of media within the wider context of senses of local
and regional place (Banks, 1998). The sample chosen here is purposive rather then
representative. The two households were chosen to illustrate the potential for contrasting fear
of crime discourses, senses of place and media use, amongst ostensibly similar middle class
households in a discrete locality. Because the principal aim is to examine how sense of place
makes a difference to consumption of media crime, other variables that have been shown to
effect media use and fear of crime (age, gender, ethnicity and so on) have been downplayed, if
not altogether ignored. This is not to foreclose any future consideration of these variables. I
might add my selection of two white, middle class ‘nuclear families’ does not preclude, and
indeed suggests, the possibility of future examinations of households that differ from this
increasingly minoritized arrangement. As illustrative case study examples, the extrapolation is
based on a lengthy and sustained encounter with each household and a self-conscious attempt
to construct a valid analysis rather than a desire to produce a representative account (Mitchell,
1983). Each household was interviewed twice, in their own homes, for two hours each visit.
Interviews were taped and transcribed. The analysis of the transcripts employed a ‘grounded
method’ approach, seeking to develop codes and categories from within rather than prior to the
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data. The interviews were semi-structured, broad in focus and characterized by synchopation,
complexity and depth – the second interview provided opportunity to revisit and clarify
meanings (for all parties) as well as allow verification or refutation of initial findings generated at
first interview (Corbin and Strauss, 1990).
4 Graham, 42 year-old, administrator; Maria, 40, unemployed/home worker; Jenny, 12; Peter, 10;
Daniel, 6.
5 Both households had one main TV set in the house, with parents having a set in their bedroom.
None of the children had TV sets in their bedrooms. Both households had radio sets and
personal computers – though at that stage not connected to the Internet. In this respect they
could be portrayed as somewhat traditional consumers, even old fashioned, in this mooted era
of ‘time shifting’ and fragmented, individualized consumption of new multimedia technologies.
For a discussion of the potential for technology to usurp shared ‘family life’ see Gauntlett and
Hill (1999), Livingstone (2002) and Morley (2000).
6 A local centre celebrating the work of the Pankhurst family and the Suffragette Movement.
7 Robert, 40 year-old, surveyor; Patricia, 38, homeworker; Alison, 12; Fiona, 9.
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Crime discourse with its knowable subjects (the victim and the criminal), actionable responses
(strategies of crime prevention and self-protection) and potential for controllability (the labelling,
monitoring and managing of criminals) now, arguably, provides a comforting displacement for
more threatening (less controllable) anxieties around (say) insecure employment, ageing, health
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