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Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

Women’s fear of crime: A rural perspective

Jo Littlea,, Ruth Panellib, Anna Kraackb
Department of Geography, University of Exeter, Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter, Devon Ex4 4RJ, UK
Department of Geography, University of Otago, New Zealand


This paper examines women’s experience of fear of crime in rural areas. It argues that much existing research on issues of gender,
fear and safety have focused on urban areas and that as a result we know relatively little about women’s experience of fear in a rural
context. As well as arguing that we need to redress the balance and respond to the dearth of knowledge about rural women’s fear,
the paper asserts the importance of a rural perspective in understanding the relationship between fear and the social and cultural
construction of place. The rural in particular provides an important site for such an understanding since, as is argued here, the
notion of safety is central to constructions of rurality. The paper presents data on rural women’s experience of fear and crime from
research carried out in New Zealand and the UK. It draws on work undertaken in four rural communities and begins to identify the
extent and nature of women’s fears and how these relate to their experience of rurality. The paper shows how while popular
constructions of the rural as friendly, safe and largely crime free endure, there is a recognition amongst rural women of the growing
problems surrounding personal safety. It also demonstrates the importance of social constructions of the rural community in
identifying the relevance of the ‘stranger’ and the marginalised ‘other’ to women’s feelings of fear.
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1. Introduction construction, or as a way of life, influences the actual

relationship between gender and fear. A simple belief or
The intention of this paper is to present a rural expectation that rural communities are ‘safer’ for all
‘perspective’ on debates surrounding women’s experi- people has not been exposed to sustained critical
ence and fear of crime. It seeks to further both the examination. Moreover, the contemporary challenges
theoretical understanding of the relationship between to the idea that all people experience the countryside in
place and fear of crime and empirical knowledge the same way have yet to examine the differential
surrounding rural women’s fears. Despite a broad experiences of fear and safety.
acknowledgement within the literature of the impor- We argue in this paper that a rural perspective on the
tance of space in the relationship between crime, fear gendered experience of fear and safety is overdue. Such
and gender (Day, 2001; Koskela, 1997; Namaste, 1996; a perspective is important not only in redressing the
Pain, 1997) both theoretical discussion and practical balance of research interest and drawing attention to a
research have tended to focus on the urban sphere. Little diversity of experience but also in enhancing under-
direct reference has been made to the variation in standing by providing an alternative focus on the issues.
women’s experience of crime or fears about personal Rural areas constitute a different kind of environment in
safety specifically between urban and rural areas nor to which to examine crime and fear; clearly they are more
the wider ways in which rurality, either as a social sparsely populated, they often lack the sorts of ‘run
down’, dangerous and alienating spaces associated with
Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 1392 263351; crime in urban areas and are also less well (or less
fax: +44 1392 263342. visibly) resourced in terms of police provision and other
E-mail address: (J. Little). services (Yarwood, 2001). More importantly, here,

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152 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

however, is the potential influence of cultural construc- During the 1980s and early 1990s the idea that fear
tions of rurality to the gendered experience and under- was caused or enhanced by certain characteristics of
standing of fear and safety. Specifically, we argue that the built environment gained considerable academic
strong ideas and expectations about the nature of and political currency. Fear was linked to particular
rurality, and the meaning of rural community in environments—commonly those that were unattractive,
particular, will strongly shape how women experience poorly maintained, dark and lonely. Work by research-
and respond to fear of crime in rural areas. The ers such as Newman (1973) and Coleman (1985) utilised
importance of space is not simply as a container for the notion of ‘defensible space’ to emphasise the role
particular experiences of fear but as an actual influence played by design in the creation of fear. Such work
on the nature, direction and level of that fear. As such, a argued that fear could be ‘designed out’ of public spaces
rural focus can add much, both empirically and and that sensitive planning could increase people’s sense
theoretically, to attempts to understand the dynamics of safety by ensuring that environments were attractive,
of women’s fear and its relationship with space and well lit and occupied and that any potential hiding
place. The study of fear in rural communities can also places for attackers were removed at the design stage.
contribute to an understanding of the idea of commu- Later work moved away from such a strong focus on the
nity and questions surrounding the social and cultural physical aspects of environmental design but was still
construction of the rural community. dominated by the belief that fear and safety are issues
To demonstrate the contribution of a rural dimension derived from people’s use and experience of the built
to the study of women’s fear of crime, this paper environment and that they are concerns of public space
draws on original data collected from case study (Oc and Tiesdell, 1997).
research in the UK and New Zealand. The study was Although, as Koskela and Pain (2000) point out,
not designed to be directly comparative in the manner feminist criminologists have been amongst the sternest
of old style cross-national case study work in social critics of these mainstream, physical environment
geography. Instead, the use of these two localities approaches, work specifically on women’s fear has also
provides a range of different ‘types’ of rural environ- been dominated by an emphasis on urban form. It has
ment and community and allows an examination of been argued that the design of the city has traditionally
both the diversity of rural experience and also the reflected patriarchal power relations and that the zoning
durability and wide spatial and cultural applicability of different land uses, especially the separation of spaces
of notions of ‘safety’ within lay understandings of of production and reproduction, has created areas in
the rural. Before turning to the presentation of case which women feel excluded or alienated (see Darke,
study methodology and results, however, the paper 1996). Feminist planners and policy makers have
critically examines the two key areas of academic described how the creation of the city by men and for
debate within which the study is situated, namely men has consistently ignored women’s needs and
women’s fear of crime and the construction of the rural concerns resulting in environments within which women
community. We draw out some of the main academic feel threatened and unsafe and over which they feel a
developments in each area while demonstrating how, in lack of control. For some, ‘solutions’ are again linked to
the context of our study, the two are fundamentally physical factors in the creation of ‘safer cities’, environ-
related. ments in which attempts are made to design out those
aspects of the city that are believed to reinforce women’s
sense of insecurity.
2. Rural women and fear of crime: A theoretical In criticism of these environmental, urban design
framework centred approaches, other authors have advocated
focusing more closely on the social causes of women’s
2.1. Gender, place and fear fear (Burgess, 1998; Koskela, 1997; Pain, 1997; Valen-
tine, 1990). In her review Pain (2000, p. 372) notes how
In a comprehensive review of geographical and geographers, and feminist geographers in particular,
environmental literature on the fear of crime, Pain have started to look much more closely at the ‘‘links
(2000) outlines the main directions that have been between social structure, identity, power relations and
adopted in previous academic research. She structures fear of crime’’. Such work stems partly from a
her review around a major theoretical and empirical recognition that certain groups in society, for example
divide in studies of fear of crime between approaches women, older people and minority ethnic groups may be
that see fear as a by-product of the physical environment more vulnerable to certain types of crime. Fear is,
and those that have emphasised the social and political according to this approach, implicated in broader
nature of fear. As Pain notes, it is the former that has power relations that exist within society and through
tended to dominate debates, especially amongst those which some groups routinely, and in a variety of
working in a policy context. ways, dominate others. Pain (2000, p. 373) and others
J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163 153

(see Sibley, 1995) have suggested that ideas about the importance of looking at different sorts of spaces.
fear experienced by particular social groups can usefully Criticism of the physical environment and design
be drawn together within a ‘‘common theoretical approaches to understanding women’s fear and of the
framework which centres on social exclusion.’’ ‘safer cities’ policy responses included the focus on
Emphasis on social causes of fear and on marginalised public space inherent in such approaches. A neglect of
groups has reinforced the importance of gender and the the home as a (potential) space of fear is believed to have
different experiences of men and women. It has long obscured much fear felt by women and detracted
been recognised that women are more fearful than men attention away from gender relations within the
in terms of crimes against both property and person family/household as central to that fear (see Warring-
although some studies have suggested that ways of ton, 2001).
measuring fear may lead to the significant underestima-
tion of fear amongst men (Gilchrist et al., 1998). The 2.2. Constructions of rurality
conceptualisation of women’s fear in the context of
gender inequality and women’s marginalisation, how- Ideas concerning the relationship between space and
ever, has allowed the nature of their fears to be women’s fear are highly significant to this paper in its
acknowledged. As Koskela (1999, p. 111) writes: examination of fear in rural areas. Although not
specifically in relation to fear and safety, considerable
(W)omen’s fear is crucially different from men’s fear:
attention has been given by rural geographers in recent
it differs in its extent, its nature as well as its effects
years to the construction and representation of rural
on women’s livesy. One reason for this is that
space and to the ways in which ideas about the nature of
women perceive a unique and serious threat barely
rurality inform and shape social relations. There are two
felt by men—sexual violence.
specific areas of such work that are important in the
Although the need to move away from a physical construction of a theoretical framework for this paper;
environment led approach to the study of women’s fear firstly the notion of the rural idyll and the association
of crime has been stressed, it is important to recognise between safety and rurality in constructions of the rural
that those advocating an alternative social exclusion community and, secondly, the interest in social identity
perspective do not dismiss the importance of space and exclusion and the construction of the rural stranger
and place to the experience of fear. What has been as ‘other’.
criticised is the idea that fear may be caused by Rural social scientific research has a long history of
particular features of the built environment, not that it ‘community studies’ which have unpacked the key
has some sort of spatial manifestation. As Koskela and characteristics of rural social relations and community
Pain (2000, p. 273) sum up, ‘‘fears about attack may be formation at the local level (for a review see Liepins,
transferred onto specific environments which become 2000). While early work tended to simply examine the
makers of unsafety, but this does not mean that they social composition of rural society and the everyday
cause or produce fear’’. These authors stress that experiences of rural life, more recent studies have
women’s fear cannot be removed from space and talk sought, in addition, to situate the material realities of
about the ‘situatedness’ of women’s fear, arguing that rural community life within broader explorations of
attempts to understand women’s fear must be based on the social and cultural constructions of rurality which
a linking of ideas about marginalisation and social underpin and shape such realities. A central theme
exclusion with the identity of places. Thus, as Pain within this examination has been the notion of the ‘rural
(2000, p. 379) explains: idyll’ and the idea that strongly held beliefs about the
rural community, society and landscape underpin the
In this context situatedness refers to the ways in
lives of those who live in rural areas and indeed shape
which place, as a site where historical and contem-
the expectations and understandings of those who do
porary economic changes interplay with social
not (Bell, 1994; Halfacree, 1994; Little and Austin,
identities and relations, has an influence upon the
1996). The beliefs and values which constitute the rural
fear of crime of people living locally.
idyll have been articulated in some detail elsewhere (see,
Geographers, unsurprisingly, have been particularly for example, Bunce, 2003; Short, 1991) and it is not the
interested in developing approaches to understanding intention here to include a lengthy discussion of these
the spatiality of women’s fear. As noted above, such characteristics. It is important, however, for the
approaches, must be based on a conceptualisation of purposes of this paper, to note the place of ideas of
space that goes beyond its role as a medium for safety as a key component of the rural idyll.
interaction and sees space as an active element in the A key and constant feature of the rural idyll is a belief
construction of social relations and in the everyday in friendliness of rural people and in the honesty,
practices of individuals. In relation to women’s fear genuineness and integrity of rural society. Rural
in particular, geographers have also stressed the communities have in the past, and continue to be, seen
154 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

as naturally self-supporting and co-dependent; the uncanny and Kristeva’s work on the abject to show
interrelatedness of people’s lives necessitating a power- conceptual linkages between psyche, body and society.
ful sense of honesty and mutual trust. Rural commu- The uncanny can be used, Wilton suggests, to indicate
nities are thought to engender and nurture a strong something that is unsettling but that has origins within
emotional attachment. Rural social relationships are the self. What comes to be defined as uncanny ‘‘can only
believed to be stronger and more durable as a result of be understood as the product of the internalisation of
the greater need for self-sufficiency and a dependence on broader social forces such as sexism, racism and
neighbours. As with other aspects of the rural idyll, a ableism’’ (Wilton, 1998, p. 177). According to Freud,
crucial feature of rural social relations is that they are uncanniness could be traced to infantile complexes and
superior to those found in the town and city and thus primitive beliefs which remain within the individual and
the genuineness and honesty of rural people is enhanced generate anxiety towards the different or strange from
in comparison to the corruption of urban society. within. Kristeva, so Wilton suggests, has an alternative
Central to the idyllic construction of community reading of the pre-symbolic influences on fear of the
found in dominant understandings of rurality is the other. She uses the concept of the abject, as experienced
notion of safety. The harmonious, tight knit and in relation to individual bodies and the emergence of
authentic social relations ascribed to the rural commu- taboos of purification to suggest how boundaries emerge
nity are strongly linked to feelings of security. The safety between the self and the other and groups and
of the countryside is seen as partly a function of the scale individuals excluded (see Kristeva, 1991). As Sibley
and nature of social relations but also because of its (1998, p. 119) has suggested, abjection can be applied to
separation from the city. Importantly, these compar- show how some ‘others’ (for example racialised mino-
isons between the ‘safe’ countryside and the ‘dangerous’ rities) ‘‘are introjected as bad objects, that is, they enter
city are increasingly reflected in the representation of the the psyche as objects which cause unease and discom-
urban as a threat to the rural. The safety of rural fort’’.
communities is at risk not from those who belong but Ahmed (2000) has taken up Kristeva’s ideas on
from ‘outsiders’ from urban areas. ‘Crime’ in rural areas abjection in discussion, specifically, of responses to
is seen as the result of urban encroachment, the and fears about strangers. The stranger, as abject,
imposition of urban society on a rural way of life and threatens the boundaries of identity and needs to be
the presence of ‘strangers’ who do not understand or expelled. The stranger produces physical emotions of
share rural values (see Yarwood, 2001). As well as horror and disgust; they are strange bodies that threaten
physical security, the rural is seen to provide an the ‘clean body’ of the subject. As Ahmed writes:
emotional security for those who belong (see Panelli
Kristeva’s approach to abjection emphasises the
et al., 2004).
physicality of emotions that threaten to pulverise
The sense in which strangers have been seen to
the subject and cross the boundary line. Such
threaten the security and purity of rural communities is
physicality is directed towards filth, defilement and
an important element in understanding the power of the
pollution, though these are not themselves abject.
rural idyll and of safety within it. While rural social
Rather, they define the crisis posed by abjection
scientists have engaged with issues surrounding the
between the inside and outside. (Ahmed, 2000, p. 51)
marginalisation and exclusion of groups of ‘others’ (and,
indeed, in the theoretical debates concerning the Both Sibley and Wilton stress the spatial nature of the
identification of such groups), they have not, with uncanny and the abject. According to these authors, the
certain exceptions (see Sibley, 1997; Valentine, 1997) production of social difference in the identification of
closely interrogated the idea of the stranger as a direct the other is inevitably spatial involving the formation of
challenge to the rural community. Here ‘the stranger’ boundaries between those who belong and those who do
provides an important link between ideas about fear, not. Sibley argues that spaces may be avoided when
community and identity. The stranger or outsider associated with the stereotype of a displaced group and
becomes the personification of anti-community and of suggests that the categorisation of particular groups or
the threat to the security and stability of rural society. individuals as non-conforming or dangerous results in
Theoretical discussions around the existence of the rural the purification of spaces which then increases the
stranger make an important contribution to the visibility of those who are strangers or outsiders.
conceptualisation of the relationship between fear and This notion of the stranger’s otherness as abject has a
the rural community as a purified space. particular resonance in rural communities because of
In attempting to understand the identification and fears about the maintenance of boundaries between the
fear of difference, Wilton (1998) argues that insufficient urban and the rural and the strength of beliefs
attention has been paid to the origins of people’s concerning the moral superiority and purity of rural
behaviour—their individual psyches and their spatiality. space. As Valentine (1997) has shown in relation to fears
He draws on Freud’s notion of the unheimlich or about children’s safety, ‘strangers’ are more easily
J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163 155

identifiable within the rural community, reinforcing the have influenced theoretical approaches to the study of
sense in which they are out of place and therefore to be fear. The section then moves on to examine the specific
feared. This use of the abject also has the effect, as issues relating to the methodology of the current
Kristeva argues, of centralising the body within notions research and including the management of the practi-
of otherness. As recent writing has noted (see Liepins, calities of data collection.
2000; Little and Leyshon, 2003), highly conventional
responses to the body tend to reinforce traditional
constructions of difference in rural communities, parti- 3. Methodologies and researching gender fear and safety
cularly in relation to sexuality and ethnicity. Fear of the
other as rooted in the abject body of the stranger clearly 3.1. Defining fear
has importance for this research and for the way rural
women construct and experience danger. Despite the academic interest in fear and safety
Examining the importance of the other in the amongst geographers, planners and other social scien-
construction of rural community and the experience tists there have been few attempts to unpack the terms
and expectation of fear, is not intended to ignore or or even to acknowledge the complexity and confusion
downplay the existence of areas of women’s fear which surrounding their use. Emphasis has remained firmly on
may relate not to the stranger but to the known and the the practical aspects of fear. While some discussion of
familiar. It has long been recognised in studies of fear the failure to acknowledge women’s fear or to take some
that the greatest danger, statistically, to women’s safety aspects of that fear seriously has taken place, this has
comes from those with whom they live and we take not developed into a broader concern with the differing
seriously the point raised earlier concerning the lack of ways in which fear is experienced and its meaning to
research attention on the household and immediate individuals. More recently, however, geographers have
family. It has also been recognised that such fears are started to consider the relevance of emotions and
the hardest to research and published data concerning feelings to spatial behaviour—work that has clear
domestic violence and abuse within the family, highly relevance to the study of fear (see Anderson and Smith,
unreliable. Although not involving strangers, domestic 2001). Such work has begun to appreciate the localised
violence is also, we argue here, influenced by the nature of fear and the complex responses to it.
dominant constructions of rurality that see the commu- Importantly it has reinforced the idea that fear is not
nity as safe and any threat imposed from outside. These something that happens out of context but ‘‘is situated
constructions make the recognition and reporting of in the local details of individuals’ circumstances and
domestic violence even more problematic for rural life courses’’ (Pain, 2000, p. 369). Thus the idea that fear
women—a feeling that they have in some way disrupted of crime is a fixed and measurable entity has been
the community by being involved in violence may replaced in many studies by an acknowledgement of the
reinforce existing fears about anonymity. The reluctance complexity of fear as a response to crime and of its
to disclose violence and fear within the family also feeds variability between individuals. Recognising this com-
into/on beliefs about the self-sufficiency of the rural plexity is particularly important in understanding
community, another element of the rural idyll. The women’s responses as Koskela (1999) has demonstrated.
belief that rural communities can look after themselves She describes the findings of research amongst Scandi-
has been seen as highly positive in relation to, for navian women and shows the different kinds of fear
example, the care of elderly or the willingness to help that occur amongst different women in different
neighbours. Less positive, as Scheper-Hughes (2000) places. Koskela (1999, p. 121) concludes that despite
discusses in her ethnographic study of an Irish rural an external view that Scandinavian women are ‘‘coura-
community, is the way this belief can be used to hide geous and spatially confident’’, many are fearful as a
problems and conceal the breakdown of social relations. result of their ‘‘subjective feelings (which) participate in
She draws on Bourdieu’s ideas of ‘the best and worst the inter-subjective power-related production of space’’.
kept secrets’ to show how rural communities mobilise Research has also more recently recognised that as an
discourses of independence and self-sufficiency to emotional reaction to a set of circumstances, fear can
conceal the darker and more dangerous aspects of take a range of different forms and can be transitory.
rural life. Different people have been seen as vulnerable to
In the remaining part of the paper we discuss these different types and levels of fear depending on their
ideas on the links between constructions of rurality personal situation—feminist research has stressed the
and women’s experience of fear in the context of the particular dimensions of women’s fear, for example,
original research material. Before doing so, however, we caused by the unique and specific threat of sexual attack.
look in some detail at issues of methodology, beginning With such research is an increasing acceptance that
with a brief discussion of debates on defining fear—in fear may not be directly related to chances of attack.
particular the ways in which methodological problems Thus while some groups of people may have, according
156 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

to ‘official’ measurements, little risk of experiencing by the experience (see McDowell, 1992). At a practical
crime/attack, they may still be fearful. Such work has level we took care in our research to be constantly aware
argued for studies of fear to be situated within wider of the power relations involved in the process of
discussions of power, again highlighting the relationship gathering data and the sensitivity of the topic. We made
between fear and social marginalisation. careful preparations before undertaking the question-
Clearly, these definitional difficulties compound the naires, discussing our research with relevant actors from
practical problems surrounding the measurement of community organisations (including women’s groups,
fear of crime. As recognition of the complexity of health officials, the police and Victim Support). All
fear as a response to crime has developed within aspects of the questionnaire and subsequent interviews
research so has a dissatisfaction with methods of data were entirely voluntary with women opting in to the
collection which simplify and seek to quantify fear. In research process as opposed to having to opt out.
general recent research has relied on a combination of Respondents were told in detail what was involved in
questionnaires and in depth interviews to gather the questionnaire before being asked to complete it
information on people’s feelings of fear and safety. together with how any information they provided would
While preference is starting to be given to qualitative be used. Contact numbers for women’s support services
methods in which more detailed stories and histories of and victim support were provided in case the ques-
people’s experiences are recorded as opposed to simple tionnaire raised issues or sparked memories which made
‘tick box’ answers, in some instances questionnaires women anxious or fearful.
still provide a useful method of collecting data from The questionnaire and interviews were carried out in
large numbers of respondents, especially where less two separate rural locations in both the UK and New
sensitive and personal issues concerning fear and Zealand. This was to provide a spread of different sorts
safety are concerned. With this observation we turn to of rural community—in particular to look at differences
the methods of including data collection used in this between the accessible and well-populated rural centres
research. and the scattered, outlying communities. Neither the
inter or intra country studies were set up to be directly
3.2. Research findings—methods and methodological comparative and, where differences in our data occur
issues between communities, we are careful not to assume that
it is a function of either nationality or remoteness. We
The present research has used both questionnaires were keen to go beyond the one case study and believe
and interviews. A questionnaire survey of women in that the use of material from the differing locations
villages in the UK and New Zealand (which yielded a provides us with rich and robust data which helps to
total of 269 responses) was followed up by in depth demonstrate both variety and sameness. It allows us to
interviews with selected respondents (19 in total). Here, put into context the commonly held assumptions about
because the emphasis is on the broader patterns of the rural community to test their widespread use and
women’s responses to the rural community and to issued applicability in very differing physical and cultural
of fear and danger, we draw mainly on the results of the contexts. We set up the studies to provide us with
questionnaire. Further papers explore the detailed different examples of the way ‘community’ is done and
interview responses (see Panelli et al., 2004; Panelli fear is encountered. We started from the recognition that
et al., forthcoming). In addition to those with rural experiences of rurality differ between people and places
women, interviews were also conducted with key but that there are common elements in understandings of
informants from a range of different organisations the countryside that may provide common threads in
working in areas relevant to rural women’s safety explaining and dealing with those experiences. This paper
(including the police, Victim Support, Women’s Aid examines findings of the research, both place specific and
and Rape Crisis). In total 18 interviews with key more general, and some of these findings we relate to
informants were completed and while they are not what we have observed as frequently observed academic
discussed in detail here, material from some of the and lay constructions of rurality. We do not, however,
interviews has been used to support the questionnaire attempt to explain in detail the reasons behind these
data. findings or account for the way they may vary over space.
Questioning people about sensitive issues such as
personal safety raises concerns about the relationship 3.3. The case study communities
between researcher and respondent. Feminist research
has generally been conducted within a methodological ‘Otago Town’1 is a small rural township in central
framework which recognises the power relations in- south Island, New Zealand, surrounded by orchards
herent in such a relationship and has discussed ways of
negotiating the research process such that the respon- 1
‘Otago Town’ and ‘Otago Valley’ are used to distinguish between
dent can not only feel comfortable but also empowered the two New Zealand case study communities as ‘accessible’ and
J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163 157

and hillside pastoral properties, about one hour’s drive felt to be a friendly place and to have a strong sense of
from a regional centre. The population is approximately ‘community’ and there are active community groups and
650 people, however, this number fluctuates a great deal well-supported children’s activities. There is no resident
seasonally. In summer large numbers of itinerant ‘community’ police officer in the village and the lack of a
workers move into the community to work in the fruit police presence seen as significant in terms of changing
orchards. This community has a large percentage of levels of crime in the area, as is discussed later.
retired people (23.7%—nearly double the national The ‘remote’ Devon community is in an area
average of 12.1%). There is very little ethnic diversity, dominated by sheep and dairy farming. It is a smaller
with the vast majority of people being New Zealand village with a total of about 850 residents. Commuting
Europeans. Maori make up only 9.4% of the popula- into the regional centres does, increasingly, take place
tion. The township has been experiencing some eco- from the village but a greater proportion of the work
nomic hardship in recent years with only 12.4% of the force work locally, many in agriculturally related jobs.
population earning over $30,000 in 2001 (compared to The village is more strung out than the ‘accessible’
30.7% nationally). There is generally a strong sense of community, lying along a small but well-used secondary
community within the township with many residents road. There are some limited services; a few shops, a
participating in the local school, churches, and commu- post office, primary school and pub but for health
nity organisations. There are two community police services, supermarket and more specialist shops, villa-
officers based in the town. gers need to travel for about 45 minutes by car. There is
‘Otago Valley’ is a more remote sheep farming a sense of community in the village although it does tend
community situated within a long narrow valley to divide into two parts, both geographically and
bordered by two ranges that are part of the foothills socially. Again, there is no regular or permanent police
of the Southern Alps. The majority of residents live on presence in the village, the appearance of the police
farms that are stretched out over the large valley, with being almost entirely confined to responding to specific
two main communities clustered at either end. There calls for assistance.
are some seasonal variation in population with an In the following section we discuss the findings from
influx in the shearing season, but generally the popula- the research; first we consider women’s views of rurality
tion is stable. Again the valley is mainly New Zealand and, in particular, the place of safety within dominant
European , with a smaller Maori population than Otago constructions of the countryside as they were expressed
Town. There are also fewer retired people living in the by those responding to the questionnaire. We then go on
valley. Recently there has been a growth of holiday to examine women’s actual experience of rural crime
homes. The valley is approximately half way between and their feelings of fear in various rural spaces. Finally
two regional centres and thus relatively isolated from we explore the actual source(s) of women’s fear, drawing
service providers; there is no resident police officer and attention, in particular to the concerns emerging about
there are also no medical facilities or shops. There is a ‘outsiders’ in the rural community and about young
primary school but older students go away to boarding people. As well as providing a rural dimension to the
school. Despite the physical isolation ‘community’ is issue of women’s fear of crime, the discussion aims to
actively constructed in the valley. There is a roster of contribute specifically to an understanding of the social
local women, who provide assistance to any family in causes of fear and its links to social exclusion and
need. There is also a lot of social contact made through marginality and to the relationship between construc-
the school. tions of place and the situatedness of fear.
The ‘accessible’ rural community in Devon lies just 5
miles from one of the county’s major towns. Most of
those in paid employment commute to this, or another 4. Research findings
more distant local centre. The village is relatively large
with a growing population of around 1860. There has 4.1. Safety and the construction of the rural community
been some recent house building including some ‘low
cost’ housing. Numbers of retired are slightly higher As the research sought explicitly to examine the
than the average for the county although, unlike many relationship between the cultural construction of rur-
of the region’s villages, is not generally seen as a ality and issues of fear and safety, it was important to
‘retirement community’. The village is relatively well- identify the kinds of beliefs and understandings women
serviced with a school, a post office and several shops, had about the countryside and, specifically, their own
community centre and two pubs. The village is generally communities. The questionnaire revealed highly tradi-
tional views of rurality amongst both the New Zealand
(footnote continued)
and the UK women questioned. Rural communities
‘remote’, used in the Devon case, have rather different meanings to the were seen as friendly places by the vast majority of those
UK and were not felt to be appropriate here. questioned (96.6% of the New Zealand respondents and
158 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

86.6% of those in the UK used the word ‘friendly’ in particular the notion of a tight-knit, caring and watchful
describing their village/community). Positive aspects of community, as in the following quotes from women
living in the countryside were stressed including the living in Otago and Devon
existence of a strong sense of community, peace and
quiet, lifestyle and climate. Typical comments about the In a sense we are protected by one another. As most
positive aspects of living in the countryside included: people know one another and the community they
notice if something does not seem right. (Otago
It’s a very friendly village, even the shopkeepers are Valley, middle aged woman, living with partner and
helpful. Lovely neighbours that will do anything for children)
you. People talk in the street and there is a relaxed
atmosphere. (Devon accessible village, older woman While another respondent summed up her reasons for
who lives alone) saying the countryside is safer:
Everybody knows everybody. Post Office is excellent, I believe women are safer in rural communities
superb church. You never need to be short of because: (a) you are identified by the community,
anything—everyone shares everything. We started a (b) anyone arriving in the community with a suspect
scheme to visit people with problems- death, illness, past is quickly identified and this soon goes round the
bereavement, financialy no one need ever need ‘bush telegraph’ (and) (c) a much more caring
anything. My apple pies are well-known in the area. atmosphere than the city where people look out/after
(Devon accessible village, middle aged woman, lives others. (Otago Town, middle aged woman living with
with partner) partner)
The belief that the countryside was a safe place also While it is true to say that the women questioned in
featured in respondents’ views of rurality in general. the study retained, for the most part, traditional ideas
Although few respondents identified safety specifically about the friendliness and safety of the rural commu-
in answer to questions about the countryside and their nity, some also acknowledged a degree of change. Just
reasons for moving there (3.2% of New Zealand and under a third of all respondents believed the countryside
2.6% of UK respondents), it was mentioned in the wider to be less safe than it was five years ago, suggesting that
discussions with respondents about the research gen- the construction of rurality as ‘safe’ may be shifting
erally. In certain cases a discourse of safety and rurality (at least in relative terms). This is not conclusive,
was present in relation to women’s reasoning for moving however, and, importantly, the actual source of danger
to these country areas in the context of specific and is generally perceived as external to the rural community
personal experience of crime (normally violent crime). and, as we discuss later, more a case of the growing
For example: influence of the city rather than of change in the intrinsic
I was a victim of a violent crime in Ry and wanted character of rural places and people.
to live somewhere safer. (Otago Town, middle aged These findings resonate with rather generalised under-
woman living alone) standings of crime rates in rural areas in both the UK
[I moved] to have some peace, to get away from the and New Zealand. A recent report from the British
fear of being hounded by the person who brutally Crime Survey (Aust and Simmons, 2002), for example,
assaulted me. (Otago Town, middle aged woman, claims that both actual and perceived levels of crime
living with partner) (including burglary and violent crime) remain lower in
rural areas. It goes on to note, however, that fear of
When asked directly, the overwhelming majority of crime in rural areas has increased markedly over the last
respondents in both countries (78.6% in NZ and 80.2% ten years. While the report documents the fears
in the UK) said that they thought the countryside was associated with different forms of crime it provides little
safer than the city. Of the rest, most believed the by way of explanation for the figures observed—such
countryside and the city to be equally safe. Elaborating omissions reinforce the importance attached in this
on her answer, one respondent claimed: research of attempting to look behind the responses to
As some-one who has lived in both big cities, small fear and safety and to highlight the spatial specificity of
urban areas and now in the middle of nowhere I feel explanations as well as the patterns themselves.
most safe here. I leave the keys in my car, sleep with There were many comments on the questionnaire
the windows open and enjoy the informal checking relating to the increasing security risks involved in living
up by neighbours—i.e. waving as they drive by or just in the countryside (especially in terms of crimes against
calling if they know I am home alone at all. (Otago property) and the need to be more vigilant now about
Valley, middle aged woman, living with partner) locking doors and watching out for ‘strangers’.
Other respondents also suggested reasons for their I assume the countryside is safe but everybody has to
views, linking safety to other aspects of the rural idyll, be careful these days. I never used to lock the door
J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163 159

but now I would not go to the shop next door Table 1

Rural women who had felt afraid
without locking everything. You can’t trust anyone
these days. (Devon remote village, older woman Place where they NZ respondents UK respondents
living with partner) were afraid
.. I am aware of dangers, take precautions when
Home 25 (21.4%) 6 (3.9%)
alone—and have a dog inside with me at night.
Community 17 (14.5%) 22 (14.4%)
(Otago Town, older woman living alone) Open countryside 15 (12.8%) 21 (13.8%)
For some respondents reduced safety in the country-
side was linked to more practical aspects of rural service
provision and not to the particular ‘qualities’ of rurality.
pattern of women’s fear; more women in New Zealand
A noted decline in police presence was seen as highly
said that they felt afraid in their homes than in the
significant in the UK with 35.5% of respondents
community or open countryside, while in the UK
commenting on the absence of police within their
villages fear was much less commonly experienced in
community. In both New Zealand and the UK the
the home than outside. This is possibly a function of
concentration of emergency services in larger towns and
the remoteness of the New Zealand study area and the
cities had led to a greater feeling of vulnerability
fears associated with a lack of surveillance and close
amongst rural women according to some respondents.
neighbours although the breakdown of figures between
In some ways its (the countryside) is safer. Less crime the two New Zealand communities, however, does cast
because of the isolation but more dangerous if it does doubt on this explanation with only marginally more
happen (as it) takes too long for the emergency women in the remoter ‘Otago Valley’ community stating
services to get here. (Otago Valley, middle aged that they felt afraid within the home.
woman living with partner and children) As well as asking about feelings of fear, the
questionnaire also enquired about women’s actual
While the remoteness and lack of services may have
experience of or involvement in criminal or other ‘scary’
been cited as reasons for the growing feelings of
incidents. Overall there was little evidence that specific
insecurity amongst rural people, the declining gap
experience of more minor crimes had led to higher levels
between town and country was seen by some as
of fear amongst the rural women questioned. Being a
increasing the vulnerability of rural people. Respon-
victim of crime or witnessing scary incidents did not
dents in both countries believed increased access to
appear to correlate directly with levels of fear amongst
media coverage of crimes to be partly responsible for the
the women questioned, although in the UK both
fears experienced by some rural women. The fact that
experience of crime and feelings of fear were consider-
rural areas are no longer isolated from urban areas
ably higher in the accessible village. In general, then,
means that people are more aware of and exposed to
fears seemed to be related to more general perceptions
criminal behaviour. Again, as discussed below, this
about the existence of threats in the area rather than to
point draws on the association of fear with the ‘other’ or
direct experience. As discussed in the literature and
illustrated by the following quote, such fears may be
We hear about it a lot. Police don’t do anything. transitory and difficult to link to one specific incident
Crime is everywhere today, nowhere is any different. (Koskela, 1997).
You only have to see TV. Children as young as 5
create crime—what’s the world coming to? (Devon I would never walk at night anywhere—isolated cases
accessible village, older woman, lives alone) in the South West but too many unsolved murders
etc. in the world today. You just can’t be too careful
4.2. Women’s experience of crime anywhere. (Devon accessible village, older woman
living with partner)
Despite the strong belief that the countryside repre-
sented a safer environment than the town, there was Some women reported having been scared by threats
clear evidence from both NZ and the UK that some fear to themselves personally, however. In such cases their
did exist amongst the women living in the rural fears were related to specific incidents and not simply to
communities studied. Women were asked whether they more general ideas about danger.
ever felt afraid in either their home, the rural community
or in the countryside beyond. Table 1 shows that not [We] had an altercation with a neighbour regarding
insignificant numbers of women did claim to feeling his wandering stock. He trespassed onto our property
scared at times. in the middle for the day and verbally abused myself
Interestingly, as the table indicates, there is a clear and my husband and tried to physically abuse my
difference between the two countries in the spatial husband. This happened about 18 months ago.
160 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

(Otago Town, young woman living with partner and quite, sort of, dispersed, whereas around here there’s
children) a lot of family—aunties, uncles, cousins, you know,
and there is all that side of things—which can make it
In the case of more serious threats to individuals,
difficult to actually admit what’s going on, but if you
however, the questionnaire is unlikely to reveal the
do and leave, then you’re losing all those people, so
complex reality of women’s fears and it is dangerous to
there’s an element of it I think. (Women’s Aid,
draw firm conclusions on the basis of the questionnaire
returns. The reluctance of women to reveal that they
have experienced domestic violence, for example, is very The link between constructions of rurality and the
well known and there is still a paucity of research on nature of women’s fear is also important in discussions
domestic violence in rural areas in particular. It is of the causes of rural crime, our final section in this
possible that the fears expressed by some rural women examination of research findings. Here, in recognition of
are directly related to the experience or threat of the arguments raised earlier in the consideration of
violence that has not been disclosed. Some indication debates surrounding the conceptualisation of women’s
as to the extent of hidden fear and violence with the fear, we draw attention to social exclusion and the
rural community came, however, from key informants relationship between crime, fear and the marginalisation
interviewed as part of the research. In both the UK and of particular groups in rural society.
NZ those working for organisations such as the police,
the health service and women’s support groups believed
4.3. Women, fear and the rural ‘other’
that despite the lower levels of recorded crime in rural
areas, there is significant hidden violence in rural
As discussed earlier, the notion of the stranger has
communities. While recognising that violent crimes
been seen as critical to an understanding of social
against people often go unreported, particularly where
marginalisation. Constructions of the countryside serve
this involves domestic violence against women, some
specifically to exclude ‘the other’, suggesting that
informants believed that levels of under reporting in
strangers are to be avoided, distrusted and feared. Rural
rural areas were higher due not only to more practical
women’s fears are, we argue here, bound up with ideas
considerations such as the size of the rural community,
of invasion and threat and concerns about ‘outsiders’
the lack of anonymity and the absence of support
undermining security. They are seen to unsettle the close
services, but also to the existence of strong expectations
knit nature of the community by their very presence and
surrounding the safety of rural communities and the
to challenge accepted values and expectations by
harmony of rural social relations. The following quotes
behaving differently.
from key informants in New Zealand and the UK
Two clear sources of fear emerged from the survey,
confirm the view that there are particular constructions
both reflecting concerns about the threats from ‘others’;
of the rural community that serve to reinforce a culture
either people from outside the rural area in the case of
of non-recognition and under reporting.
New Zealand or local marginalised groups seen to be
One of the big issues that I hear in terms of rural behaving inappropriately in the case of the UK. In the
women is that, it is very difficult for them to actually, Otago accessible area seasonal workers (involved in the
because their community is so small. I mean you fruit industry) are mainly itinerant groups or indivi-
don’t, you know, everybody knows everything and so duals. These were seen as the cause of much local
it makes it more difficult for them to actually get criminal activity and were feared in relation to both
away from that. (Ministry of Social Policy, Well- crimes against property and people. In the remoter New
ington) Zealand case study area fears were linked not to a
Probably not talked about or bought out as much specific group of workers but more generally to
because everybody knows everybody and the fear of ‘outsiders’ from urban areas – those moving in search
your neighbour finding out or someone down the of cheap housing, for example or those looking for
street who’s a real gossip, you know, it’s just I think casual employment. In the UK, in each of the study
it’s probably a different type of fear to what there villages, fear was often attributed to groups of ‘youth’
would be in the city. I mean, I don’t know that like all who were described as behaving in threatening or
the neighbours and everybody in the street knows intimidating ways or simply ‘hanging out’, causing
each other in the city. Whereas here, you just about alarm to some residents. These young people were
know everyone in town really, don’t you? (Women’s identified as being mainly from the village itself although
Support Link, Otago) reference was made by some residents to ‘outsiders’
(T)here’s still quite a lot more family around—in coming out from the towns to hang around in the
towns and cities there seems to be a lot more village.
movement, I know some families still all live in the The identification of the itinerant fruit picker was the
area they were brought up in, but most families are clearest example of the association between the outside
J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163 161

‘other’ and the source of criminal activity and thus fear. I’m scared at night because the kids all seem to hang
Reference was made by women to increases in burglary around in gangs. The bus shelter seems to be the
during the fruit picking season and to the social prime place. Look at all the graffiti and litter. Its just
problems (fights, drunken behaviour and domestic not good enough. (Devon accessible village, older
violence) that were more common during this time. woman living with partner)
Comments included:
The labelling of a particular village family as ‘trouble
In Central the crime rates go up in summer due to the makers’ by residents of the accessible Devon village
influx of seasonal workers. It can be a bit daunting if showed a similar process of othering from within. In
walking alone at night and street lighting could be other words crime and fear were associated with a
better. In general quite safe. Although I could feel known family rather than with outsiders or strangers.
unsafe on my own at night in summer. (Otago Town, While this family was technically a village family,
middle aged woman living with partner) however, it was othered by residents as some kind of
rogue element and one which did not belong to the
Most of the crime committed in our area seems to be village. The family was described as temporary and its
by outsiders. Fruit pickers, pruners, packers etc. eventual disappearance from the village natural and
More and more of these people are employed as the understandable, in keeping with its disruptive influence.
orchards are growing to full maturity. (Otago Town, Again, the behaviour of this family was felt to be at odds
woman living with partner) with what was expected of a rural or village way of life.
While the women often acknowledged that ‘local men’ This year seems better as I understand the family
were also involved in disturbances and fights, it was the have moved away from the village and with it most of
disruption in social relations caused by the ‘influx’ of our troubles. (Devon accessible village, middle aged
outsiders that was seen as responsible. The idea of the woman living with partner and children)
rural community as harmonious and somehow ‘in A friend’s son got beaten up really badly. All seemed
balance’ was clearly very strong and outsiders were seen to be with this one family who lived in the council
as threatening that balance simply by being present in houses. Daily trouble makers but they have been
the spaces of the village. Although most of the women moved from the village. (Devon accessible village,
who referred to the disruption caused by the itinerant older woman living alone)
workers rarely used the same spaces as these outsiders
(the pub, the orchard bunk houses etc), their fear was
based not so much on a feeling of personal vulnerability 5. Conclusion
but on an awareness of a change in the social mix and
the atmosphere of the rural community during the fruit In this paper we have argued that the spatiality of
picking season. The itinerant outsiders’ challenge to women’s fear of crime needs to be further investigated
notions of ‘community’ parallels previous findings and that debates around the nature and causes of
involving the ‘threat’ posed by travellers in UK village women’s fear can be usefully extended by a rural
communities (Halfacree, 1996; Sibley, 1995). In both perspective. In doing so we are not arguing for a return
cases the itinerant others are constructed as abject to an environmentally determinist perspective whereby
and threatening to the order of the sedentary/settled fear is explained entirely through the identification of
population. ‘dangerous’ or ‘scary’ places. Rather we are suggesting
In the UK it was the ‘otherness’ of groups of rural that our understanding of women’s fear will be
youth that seemed to cause most fear and anxiety improved by broadening our inquiry beyond those areas
amongst the women respondents. These young people that have tended to be associated with crime and fear in
were not as often strangers as in the case of the itinerant the past. More importantly we argue that the study of
workers in New Zealand, yet they were seen as acting as fear needs to pay greater attention to the social and
outsiders; marginal within dominant constructions of cultural construction of space and place, specifically,
community as reported elsewhere (Matthews et al., how constructions of place can influence the ways in
2000; Panelli, 2002). Comments by respondents in- which fear is perceived and experienced. The country-
cluded: side, with its strong associations of safety and commu-
nity provides an important socio-spatial construction
I used to be afraid when we had trouble with within which to position an attempt to understand the
youngsters. (Devon accessible village, older women, spatiality of women’s fear. The paper has provided a
lives with partner) broad-based discussion of a number of areas that need
Gangs of youth at night in dimly lit places can be to be developed further within research on gender, fear
very intimidating. (Devon accessible village, young of crime, safety and the countryside and we recognise
woman living with parents) the somewhat general and inconclusive nature of our
162 J. Little et al. / Journal of Rural Studies 21 (2005) 151–163

arguments here. A number of conclusions can, however, crucial to the experience of fear as it is shaped within the
be drawn which provide foundations for future inves- rural community. Clearly there is not a simple relation-
tigation. ship between the perceived ‘qualities’ of rurality and
Our research demonstrates the enduring importance issues of fear and safety amongst rural women and there
of notions of community, friendship, caring and safety remains considerable potential for research to further
to women’s understandings of rurality. This parallels investigate the complexities that have started to emerge
previous research documenting lay discourses of rural in this paper.
communities as idyllic, harmonious, safe places (Half-
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