You are on page 1of 20

A (macro) sociology of fear?

Andrew Tudor
Abstract
A proper sociological approach to fear is of both empirical and theoretical significance in understanding late modern society. Normally fear has been explored psychologically, as one of the emotions, but recently a sociology of emotions has begun
to emerge. Furthermore, there have also been attempts to examine fear macroscopically, arguing for the existence of a distinctive ‘culture of fear’ in contemporary societies. Furedi’s argument to this effect is explored here, suggesting the need
for a more systematic theorising of fear in its social contexts. Via an analysis of the
elementary characteristics of fear, a model is constructed of the ‘parameters of fear’.
This model serves as a guide to the classes of phenomena within which fear is constituted and negotiated. It is also used to further examine the virtues and failings
of ‘culture of fear’ approaches to fearfulness in modern societies.

In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid.
Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for
a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people,
making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at
least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid
of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and
forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found
and build the company and now own and direct it.
Joseph Heller, Something Happened
How are we to understand fear? As Heller’s ironic but pertinent observations suggest, fearfulness in varying degrees is part of the very fabric of
everyday social relations. Any sociology, therefore, must find ways of conceptualising fear and examining its social causes and consequences. More than
that, if we are to believe countless television, radio and newspaper discussions
of food scares, medical risks, security failings, urban disorder and looming environmental disasters, that need is pressing. Fearfulness appears to have become
a way of life in modern society. Many of us – or so we are told – are afraid to
go out on the streets of our towns, at night certainly, but even during daylight
hours as well. Yet staying at home carries its own threats: a whole industry
manufacturing alarms, locks and surveillance mechanisms has been founded
on our conviction that our homes are wide open to dangerous intruders. We
© The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, 02148, USA.

A (macro) sociology of fear?

view strangers with suspicion and the future with trepidation. Our children are
no longer allowed to walk to school, and the landscapes of fear that we paint
for them are populated not with trolls, wolves or wicked witches, but with paedophiles, satanic abusers, and generically untrustworthy adults. Of course,
none of these fears may be merited. But they have become part of the common
currency of late modern society, and we do not have an adequate understanding of their genesis, their character, or their consequences.
Nor is a better sociological grasp of fear simply an urgent empirical requirement. The concept itself is central, though sometimes silently so, in several of
the general themes that have marked modern social and political theory. Risk,
for example, a pervasive topic in recent sociological thought, presupposes
different senses of fearfulness in the various forms in which it has been theorised (Beck, 1992; Beck, 1995; Beck et al., 1994; Douglas, 1985; Douglas, 1992;
Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982; Giddens, 1990). Similarly with the associated
concept of trust, which has also gained prominence in recent theory, whether
as a constituent of appeals for a more communally oriented or ‘communitarian’ mode of social life or as part and parcel of an analysis of civility (or the
lack of it) in the modern state (Alexander, 1998; Carter, 1998; Etzioni, 1995;
1997; Giddens, 1990; 1991; Luhmann, 1979; Misztal, 1996; Tam, 1998). Where
risk and trust have been much explored as societal phenomena, however, fear
has remained relatively untheorised.
In this paper I want to examine some of the conceptual problems that
confront a sociological analysis of fear. I shall do so first by reflecting on
an apparently simple situation of fearfulness, hoping to illustrate, no
more, that even in its most elementary forms fear is embedded in a complex
of physical, psychological, social and cultural relations. Then I shall move up
the scale of abstraction to examine two of the most common ways in which
fearfulness has actually been conceptualised: as emotion and as culture.
Finally, in the light of those considerations, I shall explore some of the analytical requirements of a more macroscopically-oriented sociology of fear and
fearfulness.

Feeling frightened
Imagine that you are walking along a forest track, dense undergrowth on
either side, a thick silence emphasising the sound of your own footfalls.
Suddenly, no more than thirty metres in front of you, a large gold and
black striped cat emerges from the forest to halt on the path ahead. It is a
tiger. It stands looking intently towards you, its tail swaying slowly from side
to side. You freeze in mid-step. You experience the physical symptoms of
fear: your heartbeat accelerates; your breathing turns shallow; your mouth
goes dry. Perhaps you break out in a cold sweat. Then, after that frozen
moment of shock, you turn and take flight back down the path from whence
you came.
© The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003

239

This is a large. You are here for the spectacle. unfamiliar creature. psychological. engaged to facilitate encounters in the wild for affluent tourists whose everyday world is a far cry from this ‘state of nature’. The group encountering this solitary tiger. This trust. overcomes the fear response. which has been generated in a set of pre-established economic and social relations (themselves constructed within a larger socio-cultural context). But it is at least conceivable that your cognitive apparatus will be such as to encourage you to approach the animal rather than flee from it. raise your camera rather than a gun. Rather the object of fear is an expectation of negative outcome. that the tiger will not cross the intervening thirty metres without being brought up short by your armed guardians. ‘the object of fear is not adequately conceptualised as a threatening agent who or which should be avoided. Perhaps you do not recognise the beast ahead of you as a tiger. You hold your ground rather than flee. a division of labour and a clear hierarchy. Not hunters. appropriately equipped for just this exigency. Although you are unarmed. Nevertheless you might still be frightened. the behaviour of which you may presume to be unpredictable. In these circumstances the adrenalin generated by the tiger’s much hoped for appearance feeds into exhilaration as much as fear. as Barbalet (1998: 155) writes. In a complex social exchange involving reciprocity and moral legitimation. cultural and social environments in which it is located.’ Perceived (and thus socially mediated) danger of a future state of affairs is constitutive of a present 240 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 .Andrew Tudor Or do you? Although the ‘flight or fight’ reaction to fear. of course. but guides. you have been retained to eliminate the threat. its realisation in concrete circumstances is profoundly conditioned by situational factors. secure in the knowledge (as far as you can be) that you are protected. Even then. to indulge curiosity rather than caution. constituent elements in our actions. then. they are inextricably intertwined in a skein of interconnected threads. lacking the appropriate cognitive map to identify it as aggressive and carnivorous. Out of this tangle emerges our emotional response. Or perhaps you are a hunter. it has carried its social world out into the forest with it. say. In that sense. for our emotions are. Although we can analytically deconstruct the elements of that mediation – and later I shall seek to do so more formally – in a concrete situation. Your route down this particular forest track was chosen in the expectation of this meeting. has a culture. pace Darwin. All this is no more (or less) than to say that even the most seemingly straightforward situation of fearfulness is heavily mediated through the physical. you may still be experiencing some of those physical symptoms of fear. but the adrenalin associated with them is now channeled into the concentration of the hunter face-to-face with the hunted. and. you are in company with those who are. the further actions consequent upon it. Or perhaps you are not alone. for. fear has an important temporal demension. in turn. has often been seen as a ‘natural’ or evolutionary response that we share with animals. for the big cat has been following the path on a regular basis as part of a pattern of terrorising a local village.

that has not meant that the prevailing conceptualisation of fear. Such fears. say. The mainstream sociological tradition neglected a © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 241 . however. Both are socially constituted in similar ways. fear as culture Traditionally fear has been understood as one of the emotions (often. as a ‘primary’ or ‘basic’ emotion) and thus consigned to the tender mercies of psychology. in William James’ (1979: 80) well known account of the climber faced with the ‘terrible leap’ whose ultimate success or failure is as much a function of the confidence or fearfulness that he experiences as of his physical ability. it is the extended temporality of ‘anxiety’ which may prove of most sociological interest. however. say. How. To examine this. What the appropriation of the study of emotions by psychology did mean. and of emotions more generally. though a common one.A (macro) sociology of fear? state of fear. for example. of course. though. Contrary to sociologists’ worst stereotypes. This temporal dimension is important. because it extends the range of phenomena to which the term ‘fear’ is customarily applied from the superficially immediate physical experience of. shall we conceptualise fear? Fear as emotion. the encounter with the tiger to that generated in the larger time-horizon of anticipated states of affairs. Of course that was not simply a consequence of psychological imperialism. though. fear experienced and articulated over an extended period is likely to be more open to socially patterned processes of reinforcement and routinisation. has been little more than a behaviourist gloss on an emotional ‘black box’. Izard’s (1991) textbook or Ekman’s and Davidson’s (1994) collection is enough to suggest the considerable variety of psychologically grounded accounts of the emotions. where fears relate not to aspects of the natural environment (mediated by the social though they may be) but to attributes of our and others’ social worlds. large and small. as will become apparent. A glance at. It would be a mistake. are significant features of many social situations and have complex ramifications for the ways in which we live our lives. For although all fear is significantly moulded by its socio-cultural environments. we are straying away from the elementary forms of fearfulness and into the domain of what is much more clearly social fear. it is necessary to put into some clearer analytic order the elementary features of fearfulness that we have encountered thus far. Now. But care is required here. then. and then that emotion itself may in turn be constitutive of further danger – as it is. was that for many years there was little attempt to develop a distinctively sociological approach to the subject. to view ‘terror’ as somehow natural and immediate while ‘anxiety’ is predominantly social and deferred. This range is reflected in the differing emphases found in common-sense usages such as ‘terror’ and ‘anxiety’. and it is such sustained anticipation of negative outcomes across time and space that is the stuff of what we will later discuss as the ‘culture of fear’. indeed.

As Harré (1986a: 3) optimistically observed early in the development of such views: ‘the overwhelming evidence of cultural diversity and cognitive differentiation in the emotions of mankind has become so obvious that a new consensus is developing around the idea of social construction. Unsurprisingly.Andrew Tudor range of what are now recognised as important subject areas. Indeed. for example. to address those structuring and constituting resources which we utilise in expressing our own emotional states and in responding to those of others. We may. exhibit certain dispositions which remain a constant backdrop to the culturally variable articulation of emotions in social action. makes such a distinction. in the essays assembled recently by Bendelow and Williams (1998). whether biological or psychological. and physiological processes. a physiological substrate to emotional responses. many are distinguished by their emphasis on the constructed character of emotion. In reacting against the perceived reductionism of essentialist approaches. How these lacunae came about. an element of constructionism must inevitably distinguish a sociological perspective on the emotions from others more directly concerned with physiology and psychology. it was to be expected that sociology would want to insist upon the importance of human activity in the social construction and reproduction of emotion. at least as that is represented in the introductory overview to the 1996 sequel to his earlier volume (Harré and Parrott. How else could it be sociological? This is not to suggest that physiological and psychological features have no place in a sociological discussion. and how ramified were their consequences. With the passage of time and the growth of research that tone has moderated somewhat. ‘Human psychology is a complex pattern of cultural practices. 1996: 20). But. There may be. and various new perspectives have emerged (for a summary see Lupton. as can be seen. whatever other positions it might espouse. even Harré now appears to subscribe to a more multi-dimensional approach. for example. an understandable desire to establish the credentials of the constructionist approach as an alternative to the entrenched views attributed to psychology. But to inquire into emotions sociologically is. Of course. there are strong and weak constructionist cases.’ A certain evangelism was apparent in the tone of many of the essays collected in Harré’s (1986b) pioneering volume. Suffice to observe that until the last couple of decades the combination of psychologisation and neglect meant that sociology remained conspicuously silent on matters emotional.’ Nevertheless. Armon-Jones (1986: 37). defining the strong thesis 242 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . a sociological account must of necessity deal in the socio-cultural materials and circumstances through which social agents’ emotions are produced and channelled. as some have argued. some of them – the body. ‘None has priority since each interacts with and shapes the others. as humans. for example – closely related to the emotions. discursive conventions. More recently the discipline has woken up to the need to understand emotions as something other than a residual category. minimally. need not concern us here.’ the editors write. clearly they do. 1998: 10–38).

the strong case excludes serious consideration of the complex interweaving of the various parameters within which emotions function. the strong case does exemplify a key danger of the constructionist position. there are societal modes of emotionality which are less transitory and.’ Because it affords ontological primacy to the cultural materials through which emotion is socially constructed. and reflective of. even a weak constructionist formulation is inclined to ask: in as much as individuals experience this emotion. the distinction between which has. but one which was at the time both widespread and articulated in specifiable patterns of essentially social activity. However. a transitory phenomenon as it turned out. specific modes of emotionality are widely practised. it can prove as reductive as the psychological or physiological perspectives against which it was a reaction. And while the weak case avoids some of these difficulties in as much as it does not in principle exclude other variables. but still affords to the socio-cultural domain a significant role in both channelling this affect and. but in social and bodily agency as conceived in terms of its foundations in social structure. in practice it often falls back into another form of reductivism because of its contingent tendency to focus analysis at the micro level. that is a fair question. specific forms of emotionality. the understanding of the importance of emotion not only in culturally produced and mediated experience.’ The weaker case allows that there may be a degree of ‘natural’ emotional response. Hence. less dramatically prominent than the public mourning of a princess. in any case. I have no wish to intervene in the dispute between strong and weak cases. however. ‘wholly constructionist approaches can obscure our view of the phenomenon of emotion in the larger sense. in some circumstances. from what social and cultural materials is it constructed? As far as it goes. including the primary emotions. Social © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 243 . But it is also essential to think macroscopically. that emotion is an irreducibly sociocultural product. Any culture seeks both to promote and proscribe certain forms of emotional expression. In effect. options which are realised by social agents in institutionalised modes of social activity. Over given time periods and in particular socio-cultural contexts. It is as if the very concept of ‘emotion’ binds discussion to the individual in whose person emotions are presumed to be located. become increasingly blurred since Armon-Jones advanced her formulation. The so-called ‘outpouring of grief’ that the British media diagnosed (and amplified) at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 is one dramatic instance of such a mode in operation. of course. Emotions are in certain respects individual experiences par excellence. since they are routinised. in actively constituting it. actively traded upon. and sociological analysis must recognise that. to view particular social formations as conducive to. and routinely expected by members of a social collectivity. to characterise whole societies as ‘being emotional’ in distinctive ways in the sense that their members typically exhibit certain emotional attributes in specifiable societal circumstances.A (macro) sociology of fear? ‘as one which claims that for any emotion. As Lyon (1998: 43) observes. Or. even more generally. that is. More significantly.

1999: xxvi): we displace discomfort at the shortcomings of our society onto scapegoats. From road rage to youth at risk. as agents. But the vividness of his descriptions is not matched by incisiveness in his explanations. 1999: 72). project our guilt about. operates in such an ‘emotional climate’ for. Fear. for example. 1998: 159–61). are always pervaded by discriminable and culturally specific modes of emotionality. focused largely on American data. His data (notwithstanding a tendency toward rhetorical overstatement) does indeed suggest that there is a real set of questions in need of analysis here. ‘and so many of them unfounded?’ (Glassner. however. within distinct ‘emotional climates’ (Barbalet.Andrew Tudor formations. he says. ‘Why are so many fears in the air. proposing no coherent theoretical understanding. as Scruton (1986: 10) rightly observes. he charts the rich variety of topics constituted as fearful in the American news media. We function as social beings. As many have known to their cost. cannot simply be concerned with the operation of the individual ‘emotion’ of fear. leaving childcare to strangers. He too provides much evidence about contemporary fearfulness. therefore. he is much struck by the widespread application of the precautionary principle in late modern societies: ‘the evaluation of everything from the perspective of safety is a defining characteristic of contemporary society’ (Furedi. ‘proportionate to our unacknowledged guilt’ (Glassner. ‘Our fear grows’. not least those especially concerned with risk. of course. his case is marred by an inadequate and undeveloped mass psychology in which ‘projection’ and ‘displacement’ play key roles. In the recent sociological literature there have been two extended attempts to examine fear at this level of generality. Like numerous other analysts. is Glassner (1999). from irresponsible mothers to new diseases. It must examine the cultural matrix within which fear is realised and attend to the patterns of social activity routinely associated with it. which is predominantly a descriptive and polemic account of the kinds of phenomena which he considers to comprise the modern culture of fear.’ he asks. 1999: xi). Nor is it enough to develop a social psychology of fear of the kind that we typically find in the sociology of the emotions. Furedi’s (1997) Culture of Fear. whole regimes of domination can be founded on fear. then. is more interesting in this respect. One. Fear must also be examined at the societal level where it may even become the very foundation of forms of social organization. it ‘is a social act which occurs within a cultural matrix. both under the rubric of ‘the culture of fear’.’ A sociology of fear. ‘From a psychological point of view extreme fear and outrage are often projections’ he writes (Glassner. but he also seeks a more comprehensive explanation of how this situation has come about. While Glassner’s study does have virtues – his point is well made that unjustified states of fearfulness are often exploited for profit and advancement by various social groups and organizations – it lacks analytic power. While he is clearly right to draw attention to the complex role of the mass media in generating and amplifying collective fears. onto fears about child pornography. This cannot be understood simply as a rational response to growing dangers or as an 244 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . 1997: 4).

‘Perception of being at risk expresses a pervasive mood in society’ he writes. to conceive that process in terms of a ‘free-floating © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 245 . We perceive the world as dangerous and expect the worst of other human beings. But the mere postulation of such a culture is not enough. relativising genuinely frightening aspects of modern life and thus underestimating their real force. if actually used by agents in establishing and maintaining their routinised activities. ‘one that influences action in general’ (Furedi. and offer a general account of its social origins. make certain claims. contemporary society is similarly afflicted. Let us concede that Furedi’s (and. having done so. about the mechanisms through which it functions. For Furedi.A (macro) sociology of fear? automatic consequence of increased technical knowledge. ask through what social mechanisms is this culture effective? Here Furedi is rather less convincing. For Furedi this is enough to justify speaking in terms of a ‘culture of fear’. we are in a constant state of fearfulness. for that matter. 1997: 53). More specifically. 1997: 45) and claims that ‘there exists a disposition towards the expectation of adverse outcomes’ (Furedi. a ‘moral climate’. and.’ He writes of ‘society’s disposition to panic’ (Furedi. However. and his underlying analytic strategy is to postulate the recent emergence of such a culture. We can imagine circumstances in which the resources that a culture provides will. As his constant recourse to terms like ‘pervasive mood’ and ‘moral climate’ might suggest. whereby a general state of pre-existing anxiousness. In a word. 1999: 70 and passim) would argue as much. dispose them toward being fearful. 1997: 20). Now it may be that he overstates the cultural grounds on which this distinctive fearfulness rests. We might even agree that a state of generalised fearfulness appears to shift its focus from time to time and situation to situation. It is also necessary to document it systematically and analytically. Certainly critics of such cultural constructionism (eg Young. rather. But it would be difficult to deny the proposition that late modern societies have indeed developed a distinctive and troubling focus upon the fearful and that this informs wide reaches of contemporary social activity. Glassner’s) evidence is such as to merit the hypothesis that modes of fearfulness in late modern society are usefully described as constituting a distinctive culture of fear. is made available for subsequent focus on any feature of the sufferer’s situation. he seems to view the culture of fear as working broadly on the model of an individual suffering from ‘free-floating anxiety’. The pervasive mood of fear. sometimes implicitly. however caused. It reflects. As a descriptive account all that is not in itself implausible. 1997: 20) ‘appears as a free-floating consciousness that attaches itself to (and detaches itself from) a variety of concerns and experiences. his tacit account is a kind of diffuse cultural emanationism in which it is sufficient to demonstrate the contours of a culture to show its effectiveness in moulding social action. he suggests (Furedi. This can be maintained whatever views we might have about the realism or otherwise of the fears articulated within this culture. lacking trust in established authority and exhibiting little or no faith in the efficacy of human intervention.

a long sociological tradition of classificatory schemes designed to categorise the factors presumed to be significant in the formation of social regularities. Parameters of fear There is. It does not so much answer the question ‘how is the culture of fear socially effective?’ as repeat the assertion that there is a culture of fear which selfevidently impacts upon social action.Andrew Tudor consciousness’ is a form of theoretical short-hand that runs the risk of reifying society (‘society’s disposition to panic’) and so concealing the agent’s activity essential to transmute cultural resources into real patterns of social life. a systematic framework for analysing its relations with other features of social life. are the links between such a culture and everyday activity. is producing people who are fatalistically resigned to their circumstances – unwilling to take risks and given to celebrating suffering. and none the worse for that. It is a continuing ‘accommodation to powerlessness’. and cultural attributes. this history of constant use in the conceptual hinterland of 246 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . His primary project. social. is to offer a diagnosis of the ills of contemporary society. it should be possible to build upon Furedi’s insights with a view to developing a less culturalist model of the relation between the ‘culture of fear’ and other aspects of modern society. and critical strength. The tripartite distinction between personality. of course. However. was for many years a fundamental building block in otherwise diverse social theories. obvious relevance to many familiar features of modern life. What needs further examination. however. These Furedi does not provide. In its Parsonian variant – where the three became ‘systems’ – the categories were supplemented with a fourth. the ‘organismic’. This analysis has the virtue of directness. he argues. after all. Nevertheless. The ubiquity of the culture of fear. thus conveniently mirroring at the most macro of levels the two-by-two classifications around which Parsons built his elaborate theoretical edifice. it lacks analytic clarity and leaves both the sociology of fear and the related analysis of modern society with more problems than solutions. for example. summarising under those three convenient headings an array of features that came to an analytic focus in the concept of ‘status-role’. But that requires us to give rather more systematic consideration to the analytical elements from which our sociology of fear may be constructed. given his vivid descriptions and wide ranging analysis. I think that Furedi is quite right to claim that a ‘culture of fear’ is a prominent and important feature of late modern societies. and what is needed to understand those connections is both a more analytically grounded description of the culture of fear itself and. However. Let me be clear about what I am saying here. fundamentally. drawing together a number of loosely related themes into an argument about (in the words of his sub-title) ‘the morality of low expectation’.

cultures. ‘social subjects’. integrative or otherwise. My aim. Let me enlarge briefly on each. cultural. This. It makes no assumptions about functional relations among the parameters.A (macro) sociology of fear? structural-functionalism should not be allowed to disguise the more general heuristic virtues of these categories. such as tigers. then. duration and character of fear. cultures. The other. and imposes no hierarchy of determination upon them. the very consistency of that usage over the years should remind us of its genuine utility. cultural and social is particularly apparent. is perhaps less so. physical and built. in that they draw analytic boundaries where none may exist in the flux of social process. and social structures) macroscopic and structuring in their emphasis. does not seek to conceive them as ‘systems’. to frame the construction of fear in terms of six analytically distinct classes of variables or ‘parameters’. the first set (environments. personalities. mountains and storms) are clearly significant. In the nature of things. open to a variety of possible empirical configurations. To develop a more ordered understanding of the contexts within which fear is organised I propose to adopt such a set of categories here. many a puzzling situation has been clarified by sifting social. personalities. sometimes directly so where the environment is itself the occasion of danger. in one sense. Environments Physical environments (and features associated with them. hopefully that will become clearer in the discussion that follows. and social subjects) more focused upon the contribution of individual agents. 1. And while such distinctions are. of course. is probably selfexplanatory. arbitrary. however. Here I have distinguished six such analytical groupings. (see Figure 1) The parameters of fear given diagrammatic expression here are those discursively apparent in the various examples discussed above. One. The model proposes that the modes in which fearfulness is articulated and experienced are a consequence of complex interactions among sets of grouped variables. Urban streets or multi-storey car-parks may be just as © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 247 . social structures. and social subjects. bodies. they must be considered one at a time. The categories that I shall use are: environments. more often indirectly where its attributes may contribute in a variety of ways to the intensity. at which point the inevitable blurring between the physical. personality and organismic elements one from another. It should be noted that this usage is not conceived as a neo-functionalist development of the classical Parsonian scheme. the second set (bodies. This is a strictly classificatory enterprise. ‘environments’. concerned as it is with the fine but important analytic distinction between psychological and social selves. but with two additions. is above all heuristic. includes the built environment. Any concrete situation of fearfulness will involve all six in a variety of possible permutations and combinations. It is convenient to begin this task with a schematic representation of the interconnections among these elements.

be they ‘accidents’. In as far as cultures are the reservoirs on which 248 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . But ‘environments’ as moulders of fear also feature more indirectly than this in the form of perceived environmental threats. conducive to fear as forest paths. unanticipated environmental consequences of human activity. 2. or merely the result of our increasing ability to identify diseases and dangers and thus multiply occasions for fear.Andrew Tudor MACRO (structure) CULTURES SO CI AL EN VI P H Y S I C A L S S RE TU UC TR S NT E NM RO Modes of Institutional Fearfulness (constitution) S O C I A L D BJ IE U BO EC TS (negotiation) Modes of Individual Fearfulness S PER S O N A LITIE S SO C L IA S MICRO (agency) Figure 1 Parameters of Fear. as perceptions of crime risks in our cities might suggest. Cultures Cultural environments too are of obvious significance in the ways in which we construct states of fearfulness.

with the extraordinary ‘Satanic Abuse’ scares of the late 1980s in the US and the UK (La Fontaine. for example. then that is as much a matter of definition as of empirical observation. In the case of fear there is a well established physiological pattern of response which. the hunter. ideas and beliefs that are stored and circulated within and through cultural institutions. presumptions. 1998: 171–88).A (macro) sociology of fear? we draw to make our everyday lives make sense. is deeply dependent upon the social structures within which everyday life is conducted. may also have various possible consequences in combination with other aspects of the individual’s constitution and with more general features of the structuring environments of fear. as © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 249 . though it may sometimes be debilitating. for example. then this provides the soil in which fearfulness may grow. Showalter. 1984. as it is in those authoritarian forms of social organization most common in police-states where fear is an institutionalised feature of social divisions and power hierarchies. produce circumstances in which old people experience more social isolation with concomitant increased potential for anxiety about crime (Maxfield. our awareness of our own bodily attributes will feed into potentially fearful situations. and how we find it so. That is particularly apparent where ‘new’ fears emerge and become widespread in relatively short periods of time – as. stereotypes. or that sort of situation is likely to lead to trouble. If our cultures repeatedly warn us that this kind of activity is dangerous. Social mobility and changing patterns of kinship relations. We are constantly choosing from the array of attitudes. To put it at its crudest. smaller or simply physically weaker counterpart. values. impinge on the construction of fear just as they do on every other aspect of human endeavour. The routinised and repeated patterns of social activity that form our social structures. Sometimes that may be deliberate. Indeed. 3. Social sructures What we find fearful. a 6ft 6in. often experience their emotional and bodily states as closely related. it is more indirect. More generally. 1998. routines. learns to channel the physiological response in the service of goal-directed activity. when the unanticipated consequences of changing social structures may generate potential for fear. 1995) and violence more generally. Bodies Individuals. Gender too will play a part here. 4. Hough. and the relations among social actors that they presuppose. Often. the practitioner of dangerous sports. through whom fear as emotion is articulated. the very constitution of the ways in which we experience and articulate fear is significantly dependent upon the channels of expression made available to us by our cultures. memories. however. The climber. well built young male in good health is likely to be less fearful in a potentially violent situation than is an older.

In figure 1 this is the purpose of the circle linking the six and of the symbolic arrow heads on that circle. Take a structuring pattern such as the life-cycle routines of modern societies. of age. And our social being – our position within the elaborate nexus of structured social interactions – will differentially impact upon our modes of fearfulness. Some types of personality are given to anxiety. old person. That is to say.Andrew Tudor may the bodily attributes of ethnic difference. Social subjects As well as being physical and psychological subjects we are also social subjects. it would be a contingent consequence of particular circumstances. this account is designed to avoid the temptation of reductionism – postulating one or another of the six parameters as dominant. there may be situations in which one or another might predominate. They are a part of what is brought to bear in the application of agency in human activity. will influence the character of our potential and actual fearfulness. as does our perception of the dangers implicit in various situations. As will be apparent from the above. 6. cultures. Environments. At different points in the life-cycle (infant. cultural and physical to generate the specific construction of fear at an individual level. social structures. This is not just a simple function of age. In our daily lives we move among a whole series of such social positions derived from different social routines. Personalities An individual placed in a situation of fear will bring to bear a set of psychological dispositions established in the course of previous experience. personalities and social subjects are only analytically distinguishable. Of course. But for the most part individual personality traits interact with the social. some are apparently fearless. As already observed. these parameters can usefully be grouped in terms of the level at which they contribute to the construction of fear. but reflects rather the social circumstances in which individuals at different points in the cycle typically find themselves. family member. 5. But that would not be a product of some pre-supposed ontological primacy. All of them. and so on) our propensity to be fearful differs. cultures. severally and collectively. young adult. We are not just a certain kind of personality and body. we are also a certain kind of social being. social structures – refer to macroscopic features of 250 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . child. In a concrete situation they will mutually modify each other’s effects in the elaborate flow of social action. adolescent. and of physicality more generally. bodies. a significant element in the cluster that makes up our sense of ourselves as individuals derives from our social circumstances. Some exhibit phobic fears of various kinds which in the limiting case may come to predominate over the other environments of fear. Three of them – environments.

psychological and social identity. as they do. and in which that activity itself is grounded in bodily. Cultures of fear We are now in a position to return to the analytical limits that need to be set upon cultural constructionist approaches to fear. cultures are an essential starting point for analysis storing. as agents. there is no a priori reason to suppose that their terms will predominate over the other parameters in constituting fearfulness. We may relate to them selectively. Fear. and. They are. In addition. indeed. cultures or social structures. we fear it because a concatenation of factors. but it is nonetheless a vital moment in any such investigation. the self-identified focus of Furedi’s and Glassner’s studies. The reason for that. In as much as cultures are central to particular modes of fearfulness. Central to this conception is an image of social activity in which active agents establish various modes in which they relate to their structuring environments. and we are certainly not out-and-out ‘dupes’ of our environments. Our bodily. unless they are without any concept of fear © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 251 . Nevertheless. physical. producing different individual responses to similar situations. is a product of interlocking relations between what I have called the ‘modes of institutional fearfulness’ (given by the structuring environments) and the ‘modes of individual fearfulness’ (deriving from the formations of individual identity). We do not fear X simply because our culture tells us to. but they play a broadly constitutive and trans-individual role in the construction of fear. individual consistency over time and space in response to different situations. the capacity of agents to choose among and interpret the resources offered by their cultural environments opens a gap between the terms of the culture and its instantiation in social activity. To explore our cultures of fear is definitionally incomplete as an account of the societal construction of fear. although clearly important. social subjects) are more microscopic in emphasis. of course. not because the very existence of a particular set of cultural dispositions necessarily leads to fixed patterns of social activity. or. lead us to do so. The second group (bodies. as one of the structuring environments of fear. the terms in which we routinely give expression to our fears. Cultures constitute only one parameter of fear among the six. cultural and non-cultural. Thus far I have been careful to use the plural – ‘cultures of fear’ – rather than suggest that sociology should presume to attend to the culture of fear.A (macro) sociology of fear? the fear environment. then. They are structuring factors to which we. They provide the bases upon which we as social agents negotiate the terms of our fearfulness. as it were. is that human societies. relating to agency rather than to structure. are obliged to relate. psychological and social characteristics impact upon the experience of fear. psychological and social. of course. personalities. they will be so because of their temporal and socially specific conjunction with the other parameters. the collective resources on which agents are bound to draw in feeling fearful.

On the other hand. the pre-modern world. say. our cultures may also encourage a general level of fearfulness. for instance. always have ‘cultures of fear’ at least in the sense that they provide their members with the cultural materials out of which fear and fearfulness are constituted. It would not be too difficult a task to document the expression and amplification of such a belief in the various news and current affairs media. for instance. They may also differ in the social range over which they are effective and in the degree of specificity with which they identify that which is to be feared. specifying criteria against which such sets are constituted. In a given society these may appear to an observer and.Andrew Tudor at all. • Descriptions of. discrete phenomena that are to be counted as fearful. our cultures may offer us ghosts. the common claim that recent years have seen the growth of a widespread belief – perhaps even a ‘moral panic’ – that young children are likely to become victims of paedophiles. there is still in modern societies some fearfulness surrounding the supernatural. suggesting that there has been a rise in the general potential for fearfulness – that our cultures are predisposing us to be frightened but without any necessary focus on specific phenomena. may promote a generalised climate of fear. that is. There are a number of ways in which this cultural variation might be conceptualised. by and large such fears are deemed unfounded and superstitious in comparison with what was the case in. the multiplicity of cultural patterns that exist within a given society may well be inconsistent with each other. and will also be differentially utilised by the various social groups whose ‘property’ they are. although relatively unrecognised before that. • Descriptions of. and prescriptions about. As well as identifying specific phenomena of which we should be frightened. Although. black cats. and prescriptions about. fears about the hidden dangers of environmental pollution have become widespread in many western societies in the latter quarter of the twentieth century. and prescriptions about. to a member of that society to be ad hoc and disconnected from each other – for example. However. Cultures. but for present purposes it is enough to suggest that a culture of fear will provide resources to agents at any or all of the following three levels. • Descriptions of. and proposing appropriate fear responses. fearfulness in general. When Furedi (and others) suggest that the ‘precautionary principle’ has become a widespread guide to action in modern societies they are. poisonous snakes. and still waters as things of which we should be frightened without in any way linking those phenomena together into a general cosmology of fear. indeed. 252 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . How might this tripartite distinction aid us in further developing a sociological approach to cultures of fear? Consider. Our cultures may group together particular sets of phenomena as potentially frightening. Over time these classes will change. in effect. classes of phenomena that are to be counted as fearful.

then. as would any interactions between the culture’s account of paedophilia and the various other parameters impinging upon the construction of fear. etc. public violence. Such claims are not borne out by the evidence. The specific fear of paedophile attack. it is arguably also a member of a distinctive class of similarly disposed fears. La Fontaine. in Britain and elsewhere. etc. Showalter. 1998: 693). priests as routine abusers.A (macro) sociology of fear? to find evidence of altered social routines based upon it (changing patterns of children’s play. campaigns and demonstrations based upon alleged identification. draws some of its cogency for those disposed to act on its basis from its position within a network of such fears. then. 1997).). is focused at the first of the three levels sketched out above – that of discrete fears. ‘recovered memory’ of hitherto unrecognised familial abuse. and to find dramatic instances of public concern (policies to identify convicted paedophiles resident in local communities. © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 253 . A publicly articulated and apparently interconnected set of fears constitutes a potentially much more powerful cultural resource than a single fearful disposition. of course. the apparent ‘facts’ of the matter do not impinge on the plausibility of the mutually reinforcing cluster of fearful beliefs (cf Scott et al. systematically organised in terms of the parameters of fear summarised in figure 1. As so often in such cases. By establishing distinctive classes of fearful dispositions. our cultures of fear provide us with the materials for closing the circle of self-confirmation. yet another self-evident confirmation of more widespread sexually motivated exploitation of children by adults. alleged ‘satanic abuse’.. In what physical environments is fear of paedophile attacks most acute? What kinds of social subjects are most likely to embrace and act upon such a cultural predisposition? In what kinds of social structures is such fear most likely to become a routinised feature of social activity? Under what circumstances will this fear be articulated in one way rather than another? Answers to such questions. much media and public attention has been paid to a range of child sexual abuse: systematic abuse in children’s residential institutions. 1997: 73–105. Thus it was that participants in the Portsmouth anti-paedophile demonstrations of summer 2000 were widely reported in newspapers and on television repeating the charge that child abduction was now common. could be analysed as a discrete cultural pattern articulated in a variety of contexts and acted upon by agents in distinct social circumstances. but their status as part of the larger cultural set of child-abuse fears lends them additional force. would provide the basis for a more comprehensive characterisation of the manner in which fear of paedophile attack enters into the daily pattern of social life via specific categories of social agents and in empirically specifiable circumstances. The ‘paedophile threat’. 1998. But fear of paedophile attack is not merely a singular element within late modern culture.). Those social circumstances would have to be specified. and so on (for summarising accounts see: Furedi. All that. It is. from the point of view of the accepting agent. parental and educators’ warnings. In the last two decades of the 20th century. stricter modes of transport to school.

however. have attracted attention in terms of the distinctive fears articulated in their cultures. Accordingly. also. and that this feature of our cultures significantly impacts upon the constitution of specific fears. although clearly a prominent recent feature in some areas of British culture. on his account. Simply to document the considerable range of fears given currency in our cultures is not enough. however striking that may be in itself. In effect. to borrow Furedi’s metaphor. Other periods. In documenting his array of specific fears – a range which encompasses all the abuse-related cases mentioned above. does not simply specify for us a wide range of things to be feared. a kind of ‘free-floating anxiety’ embodied in the culture of fear. 1979. fearfulness in general? Is there a case to argue that fear of paedophile attack in the late modern period is not only embedded in a larger set of such child-related fears but is also the product of a culture which simply encourages anxiety and fearfulness? This is certainly the tenor of Furedi’s account in as much as he lays claim to there being a distinctive culture of fear characteristic of the late 20th century. Late modern society. there is. it cannot be assumed that a particular cultural predisposition to be frightened will uniformly be implicated in social action. both modern and pre-modern. as well as a wide variety of others – he also suggests that taken together these fears constitute a significant pattern. In part. It also encourages us to be fearful across the full range of our activities. the popular cultures of fear found in 1950s America in the context of invasion anxiety and concerns about the risks of nuclear energy (Biskind. 254 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . and even allowing for agents’ greater inclination to accept fears that belong to an already established class. Jancovich. such a case might be mounted on an account of the spread of the language of ‘risk’ in late 20th century public discourse. One might consider. widespread fears about child abuse – where they would not otherwise be found. However widespread and however deeply embedded within an extensive class of such fears.Andrew Tudor As before. We are frightened per se. We would also have to demonstrate that late modern conceptions of fear are distinctive in their fundamental character when compared with other periods and societies. Fear of paedophile attack. But what of the third level. and fear on behalf of young children more generally remains unevenly distributed across the social landscape. The difficulty with this kind of view lies in establishing what kind of evidence would compel us to accept that there is indeed such a generalised culture of fear. it would require comparative and historical analysis. In part. 1996) or the well documented history of 17th century English witch trials (Macfarlane. is by no means a universal fear even among parents of young children. 1983. the precise form in which fears are actually utilised in social activity will depend on the overall modes of institutional and individual fearfulness. or of child abuse more generally. We are not simply frightened of paedophiles. to show that we have developed a ‘new’ conception of fearfulness which leads us to find fears – for example. for example. a sociological analysis would have to examine empirically the interaction of the various parameters within which culturally articulated sets of fears are realised.

(1985). we need to refine the theoretical resources that we have available for understanding fear sociologically. if anything.). J. A. Beck. (1986). London. (1983). S. Ecological Politics in the Age of Risk. Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory.. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 1979). G. M. Douglas. we cannot simply assume that the much remarked diversity and spread of modern fears is enough to justify their elevation into a distinctive culture.. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Berkeley: Los Angeles. New York: Basic Books. M. P. That. U.. Social Theory. Thousand Oaks. (1992). (1994). I am sympathetic to the claim that there is a distinctive culture of fear in late modern societies. (1998). Harré. will need a more refined and systematic analysis before we can be justified in speaking of the contemporary world in terms of an all pervasive culture of fear. S.. Cambridge: Polity Press. Emotion. Beck. (1982). Steve Yearley. University of York Received 17 April 2002 Finally accepted 3 December 2002 Acknowledgements I am grateful to Janet Heaton. and Wildavsky. Furthermore. (1998). (ed. London and New York: Routledge. (eds). Morals. New Delhi: Sage.). and the Etiquette of Democracy. pp 32–56 in R. Douglas.. To do so.M. London: Pluto Press. U. as I have sought to show in this paper. Civility: Manners.. too. Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues. serves to distinguish our ‘culture of fear’ from such historic episodes as these? As it happens. Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences. Douglas.. Cambridge: Polity Press. and Williams. and Lash. it does not seem to me that this claim has been adequately substantiated in the existing literature. The Social Construction of Emotions. Barbalet. U. Bendelow. Giddens. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.. and Social Structure: A Macrosociological Approach. S.. (ed. Carter. (1992).. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers.. However. M. A. Beck. Real Civil Societies: Dilemmas of Institutionalization. and that its proper comprehension is essential to a macro-sociology of the period. ‘The Thesis of Constructionism’.L. (1998). References Alexander.A (macro) sociology of fear? Thomas. (1998). © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 255 .J. (1995). London. Reflexive Modernization: Politics. University of California Press.C. New Delhi. J. Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. London: Newbury Park. What. and members of the University of York Sociology Department seminar for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. Sage.. C. Biskind. Armon-Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. London and New York: Routledge.. Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties.

Scott. Sage.E. Tam. Scruton. (1999). London: Macmillan. Anxiety about crime: findings from the 1994 British Crime Survey. New York.. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. The Emotions: Social. A. (1979). New York. Fear of Crime in England and Wales. R. (1996). W. and Davidson. (1995).. G..Andrew Tudor Ekman. Furedi. The Nature of Emotions: Fundamental Questions. New York and London: Plenum Press. Religion and the Decline of Magic.. and Parrott. The Psychology of Emotions.. The Social Construction of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study. Lupton. Jackson. Young. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.). The Social Construction of Emotions. (1979). London: Home Office. (ed. The Spirit of Community. A. Izard. K. Trust and Power. B. pp 7–49 in D. (1997). (1991). (1998). S.. Brisbane.. London. Giddens. N.. Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. (ed.. London: HMSO. pp 2–14 in R.. (1986b).S. (1997).. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press. ‘The Anthropology of an Emotion’. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. H. Cultural and Biological Dimensions. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s....). A. London. P.. London: Picador. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation. London and Washington: Cassell. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues. pp 39–59 in Bendelow. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Chichester. New Delhi: Sage.. ‘The limitations of cultural constructionism in the study of emotion’. Cambridge: Polity Press.. Misztal... (1996). Thousand Oaks. A. Boulder and London: Westview Press.). (1998). New Delhi: Sage. Harré. (1998). 4: 689–705. and Backett-Milburn. (1996). Harré. M. The Emotional Self: A Sociocultural Exploration. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. M. London.. Macfarlane. (1979). Fontana. (1994). London and New York: Routledge..A. (1998). K.. ‘An Outline of the Social Constructionist Viewpoint’. Cambridge: Polity Press. Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship. Hough. (eds).J. D.. London. James. Toronto: John Wiley and Sons.. (1986a). D. (1998). The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion. La Fontaine. F. R. Maxfield. Jancovich. and Williams.L. (1999). ‘Swings and Roundabouts: Risk Anxiety and the Everyday Worlds of Children’. W.. Lyon. Giddens. (eds). S... New York: Basic Books. (1990).L. Harré. M. Thousand Oaks: New Delhi.J. 256 © The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2003 . (1970). E. C. (ed. 32. (1998). Modernity and Self-Identity. Crime and Difference in Late Modernity. Showalter.. (eds). A. R. M.G.. The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Etzioni. R. Thomas. New York: Basic Books. Thousand Oaks. S. Scruton. Etzioni.L. Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England. Luhmann. (1984). J. Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Bases of Social Order. The Consequences of Modernity. J. (1986). The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Glassner. (1995). (1991).G. Sociology. B. Sociophobics: The Anthropology of Fear. Harré.