Skip to content

Culture Of Fear Definition Essay

For the Thievery Corporation album, see Culture of Fear.

Popularized by the American sociologist Barry Glassner, culture of fear (or climate of fear) is the concept that people may incite fear in the general public to achieve political or workplace goals through emotional bias.[1]

A largely unrelated concept in sociology is the "fear culture" on the Guilt-Shame-Fear spectrum of cultures.

In the workplace[edit]

Main articles: Organizational culture, Toxic workplace, and Workplace bullying

Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants: leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace.[2] Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt.[3] When employees get the sense that bullies are tolerated, a climate of fear may be the result.[4] Several studies have confirmed a relationship between bullying, on one hand, and an autocratic leadership and an authoritarian way of settling conflicts or dealing with disagreements, on the other. An authoritarian style of leadership may create a climate of fear, with little or no room for dialogue and where complaining being considered futile.[5]

In a study of public-sector union members, approximately one in five workers reported having considered leaving the workplace as a result of witnessing bullying taking place. Rayner explained the figures by pointing to the presence of a climate of fear in which employees considered reporting to be unsafe, where bullies had been tolerated previously despite management knowing of the presence of bullying.[4]

Individual differences in sensitivity to reward, punishment and motivation have been studied under the premises of reinforcement sensitivity theory and have also been applied to workplace performance.

A culture of fear at the workplace runs contrary to the "key principles" established by W. Edwards Deming for managers to transform business effectiveness. One of his fourteen principles is to drive out fear in order to allow everyone to work effectively for the company.[6]

In politics[edit]

Main article: Fear mongering

Nazi leader Hermann Göring explains how people can be made fearful and to support a war they otherwise would oppose:

The people don't want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.[7]

In her book "State and Opposition in Military Brazil," Maria Helena Moreira Alves found a "culture of fear" was implemented as part of political repression since 1964. She used the term to describe methods implemented by the national security apparatus of Brazil in its effort to equate political participation with risk of arrest and torture.[8]

Cassação (English: cassation) is one such mechanism used to punish members of the military by legally declaring them dead. This enhanced the potential for political control through intensifying the culture of fear as a deterrent to opposition.[9]

Alves found the changes of the National Security Law of 1969, as beginning the use of "economic exploitation, physical repression, political control, and strict censorship" to establish a "culture of fear" in Brazil.[10] The three psychological components of the culture of fear included silence through censorship, sense of isolation, and a "generalized belief that all channels of opposition were closed." A "feeling of complete hopelessness," prevailed, in addition to "withdrawal from opposition activity."[11]

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the use of the term War on Terror was intended to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it "obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue".[12][13]

Frank Furedi, a former professor of Sociology and writer for Spiked magazine, says that today's culture of fear did not begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center. Long before September 11, he argues, public panics were widespread – on everything from GM crops to mobile phones, from global warming to foot-and-mouth disease. Like Durodié, Furedi argues that perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability. Furedi say that "we need a grown-up discussion about our post-September 11 world, based on a reasoned evaluation of all the available evidence rather than on irrational fears for the future.[14]

See also: list of health scares

British academics Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate argue that following terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon, Madrid, and London, government agencies developed a discourse of "new terrorism" in a cultural climate of fear and uncertainty. UK researchers argued that this processes reduced notion of public safety and created the simplistic image of a non-white "terroristic other" that has negative consequences for ethnic minority groups in the UK.[15]

In his 2004 BBC documentary film series, The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, the journalist Adam Curtis argues that politicians have used our fears to increase their power and control over society. Though he does not use the term "culture of fear", what Curtis describes in his film is a reflection of this concept. He looks at the American neo-conservative movement and its depiction of the threat first from the Soviet Union and then from radical Islamists.[16] Curtis insists there has been a largely illusory fear of terrorism in the west since the September 11 attacks and that politicians such as George W Bush and Tony Blair had stumbled on a new force to restore their power and authority; using the fear of an organised "web of evil" from which they could protect their people.[17] Curtis's film castigated the media, security forces and the Bush administration for expanding their power in this way.[17] The film features Bill Durodié, then Director of the International Centre for Security Analysis, and Senior Research Fellow in the International Policy Institute, King's College London, saying that to call this network an "invention" would be too strong a term, but he asserts that it probably does not exist and is largely a "(projection) of our own worst fears, and that what we see is a fantasy that's been created."[18]

Impact of the media[edit]

The consumption of mass media has had a profound effect on instilling the fear of terrorism in the United States, though acts of terror are a rare phenomenon.[19] Beginning in the 1960s, George Gerbner and his colleagues have accelerated the study of the relationship that exists between media consumption and the fear of crime. According to Gerbner, television and other forms of mass media create a worldview that is reflective of “recurrent media messages”, rather than one that is based on reality.[20] Many Americans are exposed to some form of media on a daily basis, with television and social media platforms being the most used methods to receive both local and international news, and as such this is how most receive news and details that center around violent crime and acts of terror. With the rise in use of smartphones and social media, people are bombarded with constant news updates, and able to read stories related to terrorism, stories that come from all corners of the globe. Media fuels fear of terrorism and other threats to national security, all of which have negative psychological effects on the population, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia.[21] Politicians conduct interviews, televised or otherwise, and utilize their social media platforms immediately after violent crimes and terrorist acts, to further cement the fear of terrorism into the minds of their constituents.


Sorted upwards by date, most recent last.

  • The Formation of the National Security State: the State and the Opposition in Military Brazil, Volume 2 (1982) by Maria Helena Moreira Alves
  • Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity (1989), by Ulrich Beck, ISBN 978-0-8039-8346-5 [the term was coined in German by the same author in Risikogesellschaft. Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit (this subtitle means in English: "Organized irresponsibility"), a speech given at St. Gallen College, Switzerland, 16pp., in 1989, then published as full-length book with the title: Risikogesellschaft, Suhrkamp, 1989, 391pp., ISBN 3-518-11365-8]
  • The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (2000), by Barry GlassnerISBN 0-465-01490-9
  • Creating Fear: News and the Construction of a Crisis (2002), by David L. Altheide, Aldine de Gruyter, 223pp., ISBN 978-0-202-30660-5
  • Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (2003), by Hunter S. Thompson, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-87324-9
  • The Climate of Fear (2004), by Wole Soyinka, BBC Reith Lectures 2004, London, Profile Books, 155pp., ISBN 1-86197-783-2
  • State of Fear (2004), Michael Crichton, ISBN 0-06-621413-0
  • Culture of Fear: Risk taking and the morality of low expectation (1997[22]), by Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-7616-3
  • Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2005), by Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-8728-9
  • You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear (2005), by Frances Moore Lappe and Jeffrey Perkins, ISBN 978-1-58542-424-5
  • Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City (2006), by Steve Macek, ISBN 0-8166-4361-X
  • Cultures of Fear: A Critical Reader (2009), by Uli Linke, Danielle Smith, Anthropology, Culture and Society, ISBN 978-0-7453-2965-9
  • Witnesses to Terror (2012), by Luke Howie, Baskinstoke, Palgrave MacMillan ISBN 978-0-8232-2434-0
  • Social Theory of Fear: terror, torture and death in a post Capitalist World (2010), by Geoffrey Skoll, New York, Palgrave MacMillan ISBN 978-0-230-10349-8

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  1. ^Klaehn, Jeffery (2005). Filtering the news: essays on Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model. Black Rose Books. pp. 23–24. 
  2. ^Petty tyranny in organizations, Ashforth, Blake, Human Relations, Vol. 47, No. 7, 755–778 (1994)
  3. ^Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 0-07-144672-9. 
  4. ^ abHelge H, Sheehan MJ, Cooper CL, Einarsen S "Organisational Effects of Workplace Bullying" in Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice (2010)
  5. ^Salin D, Helge H "Organizational Causes of Workplace Bullying" in Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice (2010)
  6. ^Acquate. "The W. Edwards Deming Institute". Retrieved 2017-10-19. 
  7. ^Gustave Gilbert (1947) Nuremberg Diary.
  8. ^Alves, Maria (1985). State and Opposition in Military Brazil. Brazil: University of Texas Press. p. 352. 
  9. ^State and Opposition in Military Brazil. p. 43. 
  10. ^State and Opposition in Military Brazil. p. 125. 
  11. ^State and Opposition in Military Brazil. p. 126. 
  12. ^"Terrorized by 'War on Terror' by Brzezinski". March 25, 2007. Retrieved 2010-11-23. 
  13. ^Zbigniew Brzezinski While the true nature of the threat can't be established: it can be less it can be worse. (March 25, 2007). "Terrorized by 'War on Terror' How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America". Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-12-03.  
  14. ^Frank Furedi. "Epidemic of fear". Retrieved 2010-11-23. 
  15. ^Communicating the terrorist risk: Harnessing a culture of fear? Gabe Mythen Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, Sandra Walklate University of Liverpool, UK
  16. ^"The Power of Nightmares: Your comments". BBC. London. August 3, 2005. Retrieved November 27, 2010. 
  17. ^ abJeffries, Stuart (May 12, 2005). "The film US TV networks dare not show". The Guardian. London. Retrieved July 14, 2010. 
  18. ^
  19. ^Nellis, Ashley Marie; Savage, Joanne (2012-09-10). "Does Watching the News Affect Fear of Terrorism? The Importance of Media Exposure on Terrorism Fear". Crime & Delinquency. 58 (5): 748–768. doi:10.1177/0011128712452961. 
  20. ^Callanan, Valerie J. (2012-03-01). "Media Consumption, Perceptions of Crime Risk and Fear of Crime: Examining Race/Ethnic Differences". Sociological Perspectives. 55 (1): 93–115. doi:10.1525/sop.2012.55.1.93. 
  21. ^Nellis, Ashley Marie; Savage, Joanne (2012-09-10). "Does Watching the News Affect Fear of Terrorism? The Importance of Media Exposure on Terrorism Fear". Crime & Delinquency. 58 (5): 748–768. doi:10.1177/0011128712452961. 
  22. ^

The terms ‘fear’ and ‘risk’ have been used pretty much interchangeably in many studies of risk in recent years. Yet where the sociology of risk has become an important and ever-growing field of inquiry, the theorisation of fear remains underdeveloped and immature.

Norbert Elias has made perhaps the most significant contribution to the sociological study of fear. In his 1982 book The Civilising Process Vol 2: State Formation and Civilization, Elias argued that fear is one of the most important mechanisms through which ‘the structures of society are transmitted to individual psychological functions’. He argued that the ‘civilized character’ is partly constructed by people’s internalisation of fears. This is a striking and important insight into the history of fear and society (18). Unfortunately, Elias’ insights have not been developed in relation to the contemporary experience of fear. Indeed, today writers and thinkers tend to use the term ‘fear’ as a taken-for-granted concept that needs little explanation or elaboration.

The aim of this essay is to examine the various elements of fear in the here and now. It will explore how fear works, and isolate the key elements of today’s culture of fear. According to David Garland, in his 2001 book The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, when it comes to fear of crime ‘our fears and resentments, but also our commonsense narratives and understandings, become settled cultural facts that are sustained and reproduced by cultural scripts’.

The idea of ‘cultural scripts’ can help to reveal much about emotions such as fear. A cultural script communicates rules about feelings, and also ideas about what those feelings mean. Individuals interpret and internalise these rules according to their circumstances and temperament, while always remaining very much influenced by the rules. As Elias notes, ‘the strength, kind and structures of the fears and anxieties that smoulder or flare in the individual never depend solely on his own “nature”’. Rather they are ‘always determined, finally by the history and the actual structure of his relations to other people’ (19).

So the impact of fear is determined by the situation people find themselves in, but it is also, to some extent, the product of social construction (20). Fear is determined by the self, and the interaction of the self with others; it is also shaped by a cultural script that instructs people on how to respond to threats to their security. So getting to grips with fear in contemporary society will require an assessment of the influence of culture. Instead of treating fear as a self-evident emotion, a taken-for-granted concept, we should explore the meaning attached to fear and the rules and customs that govern the way in which fear is experienced and expressed.

Sociologists need to ask questions such as ‘what may be the meaning of emotional events?’ when they are examining fear today (21). One of the most perceptive studies of the history of emotions says we must distinguish between the ‘collective emotional standards of a society’ and the subjective feelings of the individual (22). While the emotional experience of the individual is, of course, an important aspect of the problem of fear, we must also try to conceptualise fear as a social phenomenon. Cultural norms that shape the way in which we manage and display our emotions also influence the way that fear is experienced.

For example, experience tells us that the intensity of fear is not directly proportional to the objective character of the specific threat. Adversity, acts of misfortune and threats to personal security do not directly produce fear. Rather, our responses to specific circumstances are mediated through cultural norms, which inform people of what is expected of them when they are confronted with a threat; how they should respond, how they should feel.

Arlie Hochschild, in her pathbreaking study in 1979 of the sociology of emotions, described these informal expectations of how we should respond to things as ‘feeling rules’ (23). These ‘feeling rules’ influence behaviour; they instruct us on what we ought to fear, and how we ought to fear it. According to Anthony Giddens, ‘people handle dangers and the fears associated with them in terms of emotional and behavioural formulae which have come to be part of their everyday behaviour and thought’ (24). But the transformation of anxious responses into fear also requires the intervention of social forces, of what I have labelled ‘fear entrepreneurs’ (25).

As the sociologist David Altheide has argued, ‘fear does not just happen; it is socially constructed and then manipulated by those who seek to benefit’ (26). While this description of socially constructed fear tends to inflate the role of self-interest – the extent to which fear entrepreneurs exploit fear in order to gain some direct benefit – its emphasis on the role of human agency in the making of fear is nonetheless a useful counterpoint to the idea that fear is something natural or purely psychological.

So, the meaning and experience of fear are continually shaped by cultural and historical factors. The historical fear of famine is very different, for example, to today’s ‘powerful fear’ of being fat (27). The meaning that societies once attached to fear of God or the fear of Hell is not quite the same as today’s fear of pollution or of cancer. And fear does not always have negative qualities. The sixteenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes regarded fear as being essential for the realisation of the individual and of a civilised society (28). For Hobbes, and others, fear could be seen as a fairly reasonable response to new events and big changes. In the individual, too, fear has not always been viewed as a negative emotion. As David Parkin argued in his 1986 essay ‘Toward an apprehension of fear’, as late as the nineteenth century the sentiment of fear was linked to ‘respect’, ‘reverence’, ‘veneration’. ‘Fearing the Lord’, for example, was culturally celebrated and valued. In contrast, the act of fearing God today sits far more uneasily with the prevailing cultural outlook.

Matters are complicated further by the fact that the words and phrases used to describe fear are culturally and historically specific. Today, we talk about fear as something unspecific, diffuse, and intimately tied to the therapeutic view of the individual. In her important study of the cultural history of fear, published in 2005, Joanna Bourke points to the importance of the recent ‘conversion of fear into anxiety through the therapeutic revolution’ (29). Anxieties about being ‘at risk’ or feeling ‘stressed’ or ‘traumatised’ or ‘vulnerable’ show very clearly that today’s individualised therapeutic vocabulary influences our sensibility of fear.

Contemporary fear culture

In an important contribution to the debate about how culture impacts on the population, Ann Swidler argued that ‘people vary greatly in how much culture they apply to their lives’ (30). But in the very act of using culture, people ‘learn how to be, or become, particular kinds of persons’.

Swidler argues that this ‘self-forming’ continually calls upon the symbolic resources of the wider culture. ‘Through experience with symbols, people learn desires, moods, habits of thought and feeling that no one could invent on her own’, she observes. And these habits of thought and feeling influence the way that individuals make sense of their experiences, and also how they perceive of threats and how they respond to threats. As Norbert Elias stated, the strength and form of ‘shame, fear of war and fear of God, guilt, fear of punishment or of loss of social prestige, man’s fear of himself, of being overcome by his own affective impulses’ depend upon ‘the structure of his society and his fate within it’.

Threats are mediated through the cultural outlook. And today, the role of culture is arguably more significant than it was in previous times. According to Stefanie Grupp, in her paper on the ‘Political implications of a discourse of fear’, individual fears are cultivated through the media and are less and less the outcome of direct experience. ‘Fear is decreasingly experienced first-hand and increasingly experienced on a discursive and abstract level’, concludes Grupp. She also suggestively notes that ‘there has been a general shift from a fearsome life towards a life with fearsome media’ (31).

This point is echoed by Altheide, who claims that ‘popular culture has been the key element in promoting the discourse of fear’ (32). Even Osama bin Laden seems to have grasped this trend. In an interview in October 2001, when asked ‘why is the Western media establishment so anti-humane’, bin Laden replied: ‘[Because] it implants fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States.’ The legal theorist Christopher Guzelian argues that this indirect aspect of fear is the most distinctive feature of contemporary fear culture. He believes that ‘most fears in America’s electronic age’ are the results of ‘risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society’. He concludes that it is ‘risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days’ (33).

However, the influence of fear today cannot be explained as a direct outcome of the power of the media. The very real dynamic of individuation means that fear is experienced in a fragmented and atomised form. That is why fear is rarely experienced as a form of collective insecurity, as it often was in earlier times. This shift from collective fears to individuated fear is captured well by Nan Elin, who argued in the 1999 book Postmodern Urbanism that the fear we sense today is no longer the fear of ‘dangerous classes’; rather, fear has ‘come home’ and become privatised (34). The sensibility of fear is internalised in an isolated fashion, for example as a fear of crime or as a rather banal ‘ambient fear’ (as Hubbard describes it) towards life in general. Hubbard notes that this is a kind of fear that ‘requires us to vigilantly monitor every banal minutia of our lives’, since ‘even mundane acts are now viewed as inherently risky and dangerous’ (35).

Low-grade fears and risks seem to be flourishing and capturing people’s imaginations. The real significance of this development, however, of this move towards a more individuated form of fear, is the highly personalised, even customised way in which fear is experienced now. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, postmodernity has privatised the fears of modernity. ‘With fears privatized…there is no hope left that human reason, and its earthly agents, will make the race a guided tour, certain to end up in a secure and agreeable shelter’, Bauman writes (36).

John Keane has drawn attention to another aspect of the privatisation of fear – namely, today’s growing tendency to transform private fears into public ones. The privatisation of fear encourages an inward orientation towards the self. According to one interesting study, when members of the public are interviewed about the personal risks they face they tend to represent ‘crisis, fears and anxieties as self-produced and individual problems, the products of “personal biography”’ (37).

Fear as a problem in its own right

A recurring question in public debates on contemporary risk consciousness is whether society is more fearful today than it was in the past. Some believe that today’s ‘magnitude and nature of fear’ is different to the past, since ‘it seems that fear is everywhere’ (38). Studies on the fear of crime argue that there has been a growth of fear in everyday life. For Elin: ‘The fear factor has certainly grown, as indicated by the growth in locked car and house doors and security systems, the popularity of gated or secure communities for all age and income groups, and the increasing surveillance of public space…not to mention the unending reports of dangers emitted by the mass media.’ (39)

However, an increase in the quantity of fear is difficult to measure, since the very meaning of fear is itself continually changing. That is why, as Andrew Tudor argues, ‘simply to document the considerable range of fears given currency in our cultures is not enough’ (40). We must remember, says Tudor, that ‘late modern conceptions of fear are distinctive in their fundamental character when compared with other periods and societies’. The starting point to gaining an insight into the socio-cultural nature of contemporary fear is to emphasise the quality and meaning of fear, rather than its quantity.

Fear is often said to be the defining cultural mood in contemporary society. Yet the institutionalisation of fear through the issuing of health warnings, through risk management, through media stories and so on, should not be interpreted as proof that the quantity of fears has increased. Maybe it has; maybe it has not. Nor can we conclude on the basis of existing evidence that people feel fear more intensely than did earlier generations. The prominent role of fear today merely indicates that it serves as a framework through which we interpret a variety of experiences.

The prominence of fear in contemporary culture also suggests that fear works as a problem in its own right. In recent years, particularly as a result of risk theory, fear has become objectified. Alan Hunt has noted that ‘risk discourse transposes anxieties into an objectivist problematic’ (41). As a result, fear is increasingly perceived as an autonomous problem. Consequently, ‘fear becomes a discourse’, which ‘expands beyond a specific referent and is used instead as a more general orientation’ (42).

A distinguishing feature of contemporary fear is that it appears to have an independent existence. In this respect, it resembles the way in which social anxiety was discussed and understood in the 1940s and 50s (43). But whereas anxiety was viewed as a diffuse intangible condition, fear today seems to exist in an objectified form as a clearly identifiable social problem. Fear in itself, rather than the thing that we have become fearful in response to, is a distinct problem of our times.

Classically, societies associated fear with a clearly formulated threat: the fear of death, the fear of a specific enemy, the fear of hunger. The threat was defined as the object of fear; the problem was not the feeling of fear, but the things that were feared: death, illness, hunger. Today, many see the very act of fearing as a threat in itself. Consider the debate about the fear of crime. Nowadays fear of crime is seen as a serious problem that is to some extent distinct from real acts of crime. As Garland observes: ‘Fear of crime has come to be regarded as a problem in and of itself, quite distinct from actual crime and victimization, and distinctive policies have been developed that aim to reduce fear levels, rather than reduce crime.’ (44). Indeed, it seems that the fear of crime is ‘now recognised as a more widespread problem than crime itself’ (45).

It is far from clear what has been measured when statistics point to an increase or decrease of the fear of crime. As Chris Hale has suggested, it seems that often what is measured is not so much the fear of crime as ‘some other attribute, which might be better characterised as “insecurity with modern living”, “quality of life”, “perception of disorder” or “urban unease”’ (46).

However, this process of trying to quantify a cultural mood means that the fear of crime becomes objectified, and thus can acquire a force of its own. Its objectification may turn it into a ‘fact of life’, and this can help to legitimate, if not even encourage the fear response.

Often today, public anxiety and concerns are discussed as material factors that can have a decisive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Many in contemporary medical culture claim that stress and fear are likely to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and chronic lung disease (47). In Britain, the conclusion of an inquiry into the alleged health effects of using a mobile phone is now regarded as a model for how to respond to contemporary health fears, particularly those related to environmental health. The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP), set up ‘to keep ahead of public anxiety’, concluded that there was no known health threat posed by mobile telephony – yet it argued that the anxieties stirred up simply by the presence of mobile-phone masts need to be taken seriously, since public fear in itself could lead to ill-health (48).

There is always a potential for people’s health anxieties to turn into a major problem. Phil Strong, the medical sociologist, has written about an ‘epidemic of suspicion’ that can cause serious public health problems (49). However, it is only fairly recently that fear has also been discussed as an autonomous cause of illness.

When we witness the autonomisation of fear, then the question becomes not simply what is causing fear, but what are the potential negative consequences of fear? This can lead to strategies that focus on managing feelings of fear, in order to offset their damaging impact, rather than focusing on the source of the problem. If people fear that their health is at risk, than this fear is often seen as actually posing a risk to their health (50). The legal systems in the US and the UK have internalised this view of fear; courts are now moving towards compensating people for their feelings of fear, even when there is an absence of a perceptible physical threat. As Guzelian has noted, in the past ‘fright’ – that is, a reaction to an actual event – was compensated, whereas now the fear that something negative might happen is also seen as grounds for making a compensation claim (51).

The autonomisation of fear is linked to the view of risk as an independent variable. Risk communication today is informed by the idea that ‘fear itself is a risk and must be part of risk-management policymaking’ (52). The transformation of fear into a risk runs alongside the transformation of risk into a negative experience. Terms like a ‘good risk’ or a ‘risk worth taking’ are noteable by their absence in contemporary debate. Risk is not even represented as being neutral today; instead risk is almost always associated with negative outcomes which people are expected to fear.

Through risk management, fear is institutionalised and the fear response is further encouraged and culturally affirmed.

The free-floating and raw character of fear

The volatility of fear today is captured well by Parkin. He says there has been a shift from a concept of fear that ‘encompassed…respect’ to what he calls ‘raw fear’. He describes the former as an ‘institutionally controlled fear’, while ‘raw fear’ has more of a free-floating and unpredictable character (53). Bourke claims that this move towards more ‘nebulous anxiety states’ is due to the decline of tangible threats to corporeal existence that were brought about by war, for example, in earlier eras (54). However, as I noted previously, it is likely to be the privatisation of fear that makes it so arbitrary and fluid today.

In contemporary societies, fear is unpredictable and free-floating. It is volatile, often because it is unstable and not focused on any specific threat. So today, fear can migrate freely from one problem to the next without any causal or logical connection. When in June 2002 the Southern Baptist leader Reverend Jerry Vines declared that Mohammed was a ‘demon-possessed paedophile’, and that Allah leads Muslims to terrorism, he was simply taking advantage of the free-floating fear narrative. Strikingly, he latched on to two big fears in contemporary culture: paedophilia and terrorism (55). This arbitrary association of paedophilia and terrorism has the effect of amplifying the fear of both. In the same way, constant claims that this or that hurricane, flood or other natural disaster is a symptom of global warming impacts on people’s perceptions and fears of such events.

Fear today has a free-floating dynamic. It can attach itself to a wide variety of events and phenomena. Consider the fear of terrorism. Since 9/11, this fear has continually expanded to cover almost all aspects of modern life. ‘Corporations must re-examine their definition of risk and take seriously the possibility of scenarios that only science fiction writers could have imagined possible one year ago’, argues a leading economist (56). In the five years since 9/11, what were previously seen as fairly normal hazards have been turned into exceptional threats by their association with the action of terrorists. So we no longer worry about the apparently everyday hazard posed by a nuclear power station; we also fear that it may be used as a weapon of mass destruction against us by terrorists.

The fact that more and more areas of life are seen as targets for terrorists – buildings, power stations, the economy and so on – has little to do with the increased capabilities of terrorists; rather it reflects the growth in competitive claims-making around fear and terror.

Today’s free-floating fear is sustained by a culture that is anxious about change and uncertainty, and which continually anticipates the worst possible outcome. This ‘culture of fear’, as I and others have called it, tends to see human experience and endeavour as a potential risk to our safety. Consequently, every conceivable experience has been transformed into a risk to be managed. Garland writes of the ‘rise of risk’ – that is, the explosion in the growth of risk discourse and risk literature. He notes that little connects this literature together, other than the use of the word ‘risk’ (57).

The very fact that risk is used to link together a variety of otherwise unconnected experiences highlights today’s mood of uncertainty. Fear, like risk, has become a taken-for-granted concept, even a cultural affectation for expressing confusion and doubt. For the French social theorist Francois Ewald, the ascendancy of the fearful and precautionary culture is underwritten by a ‘crisis of causality’, by a feeling of uncertainty towards the relationship between action and effect. Ewald suggests that the institutionalisation of precaution ‘invites one to consider the worst hypothesis (defined as the “serious and irreversible” consequence) in any business decision’. The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear, and therefore to anticipate the worst possible outcome, can be understood as a crisis of causality.

Kurt Riezler, in his early attempt to develop a psychology of fear, similarly drew attention to the influence of ideas about causality on the way that people respond to threats. ‘They have been taken for granted – and now they are threatened’ is how Riezler describes a situation where ‘“causes” are hopelessly entangled’ (58).

The question of causation is inextricably bound up with the way that communities try to make sense of acts of misfortune. Questions such as ‘was it God?’ or ‘was it nature?’ or ‘was it an act of human error?’ have important implications for how we understand acts of misfortune, and how we deal with them. Confusion about causation encourages speculation, rumours, mistrust. And as a result, events often appear to be incomprehensible and beyond human control.

The new identity of vulnerability

‘Whom and what we fear, and how we express and act upon our fearing, is in some quite important sense, as Durkheim long ago realized, constitutive of who we are.’ (59)

Today, the autonomisation of fear has important implications for identity, for how we see and understand ourselves. The idea that we are the subject of threats – threats which have an independent existence – has given rise to the concept of generally being ‘at risk’. The emergence of this ‘at risk’ category ruptures the traditional relationship between individual action and the probability of a hazard (60). To be ‘at risk’ is no longer just about the probability of some hazard impacting on you; it is also about who you are as a person. ‘At riskness’ has become a fixed attribute of the individual, like the size of your feet or hands. Public officials frequently categorise whole groups of people as being at risk.

The perception of being at risk encourages the emergence of what we might call a fearful subjectivity. According to Ulrich Beck: ‘The movement set in motion by the risk society…is expressed in the statement I am afraid!’ Therefore, says Beck, the ‘commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need’. In the process, fear has become something which shapes and makes our identities.

To be ‘at risk’ clearly assigns to the individual a passive and dependent role. Increasingly, someone defined as being at risk is seen to exist in a permanent condition of vulnerability – and this informs the way that we make sense of the threats we face. As a metaphor, vulnerability expresses the idea that communities lack the emotional and psychological resources necessary to deal with change, to make choices, or to deal with adversity.

‘Vulnerability’ is now seen as the natural state for most people. As a label it is used to describe entire groups in society. Officials and community groups now frequently use the recently-constructed concept of ‘vulnerable groups’. The term vulnerable group does not simply refer to groups of psychologically distraught people or to those minorities who are economically insecure. Instead, we are all seen as being vulnerable in one way or another. Children, most strikingly, are automatically assumed to be vulnerable. A study into the emergence of the concept of ‘vulnerable children’ found that, in most published literature, the concept is treated as ‘a relatively self-evident concomitant of childhood which requires little formal exposition’: ‘Children are considered vulnerable as individuals by definition, through both their physical and other perceived immaturities.’ Moreover, this state of vulnerability is presented as an intrinsic attribute. It is ‘considered to be an essential property of individuals, as something which is intrinsic to children’s identities and personhoods, and which is recognisable through their beliefs and actions, or indeed through just their appearance’ (61).

And it isn’t just children who are defined as a vulnerable en masse. So are women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, disabled people, the poor. Indeed, if all the groups designated as vulnerable by experts and policymakers were added together, they would probably constitute nearly 100 per cent of the population!

The sense of vulnerability is so deeply ingrained today that it is easy to overlook the fact that, relatively speaking, it is a recently-invented concept. The term ‘vulnerable group’ first started to be used in the 1980s. One study notes that the tendency to frame children’s problems through the metaphor of vulnerability first emerged in the 80s, but really took off in the 90s (62). The authors of the study searched a major bibliographical database, BIDS, and found that over 800 refereed papers between 1986 and 1998 focused on the relationship between vulnerability and children. The authors noted that ‘while in the first four years of this period there were under 10 references each year to vulnerability and children, an exponential increase to well over 150 papers a year occurred from 1990 onwards’. They believe that this figure underestimates the tendency to discuss children’s lives in terms of vulnerability, since it does not take into account the substantial non-academic literature on the subject.

A survey of the LexisNexis database of newspapers confirms the findings of that academic study. It shows that ‘vulnerable group’ is a relatively recent concept. An analysis of articles in the New York Times suggests the term began to be used in the 1980s. Between 1973 and 1979 there were no references to vulnerable groups in New York Times articles. A similar pattern is evident in the UK. Before the mid-1980s, use of the term ‘vulnerable group’ was rare. It began to be widely used from 1985 to 1987.

More significantly, it appears that in the late 1980s the word ‘vulnerable’ started being used to describe people’s intrinsic identities. Vulnerability was no longer seen as something that springs from specific circumstances, for example poverty; rather it was considered to be an inherent condition of an individual. This shift is best captured by the newly emerging term ‘the vulnerable’. The move from the idea that people are ‘vulnerable to…’ various problems to the use of the noun ‘The Vulnerable’ captures the sense of powerlessness and fragility that underpins the rising use of the v-word today. Vulnerability is a state of mind, an identity, rather than a description of your relationship to a specific threat.

The emergence of vulnerability as an identity is linked with the objectification of fear discussed above, which first started occurring in the 1980s. A heightened consciousness of threats and risks is ‘experienced as an ordeal of unexpected vulnerability’, argues Ewald. His claim that the expression ‘to be “vulnerable”’ is a newly constructed ‘sacred term’ is an important insight into contemporary fear identity. From this point onwards, fear ceases to be just an emotion; it is also an important part of the construction of identity. This was captured well in a report from the International Labour Union, which warned about ‘fear in the workplace’. Guy Standing, one of the authors of the report, argued that ‘unless [fear in the workplace] is reversed, the vulnerable will become more vulnerable’ (63). Here we can see that even the supporters of trade unions self-consciously describe their members as ‘vulnerable’.

Through ideas about vulnerability, a sense of fear starts to be seen as a normal state of being. The flipside of this deflation of the status of human subjectivity is the inflation of the threat that external forces pose to the individual self. In public debate today, the alleged vulnerability and impotence of the individual stands in sharp contrast to the formidable powers attributed to the everyday challenges we face. Through the constant amplification of the risks facing humanity – pollution, global warming, catastrophic flu epidemics, weapons of mass destruction, and various health scares – even the limited exercise of individual choice appears to be restricted by today’s harsh regime of uncertainty.

The identity of vulnerability is the flipside of the autonomisation of fear.


A proper sociological understanding of fear requires further research into the way in which this emotion is mediated through today’s cultural outlook. We must address not simply the emotion of fear and the threats to which it is a response, but also the crisis of causality that shapes the fearful subject. As indicated previously, twenty-first century fear culture is increasingly being normalised as a force in its own right. In such circumstances, fear is a means through which people respond to and make sense of the world.

This stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken by US President Franklin D Roosevelt in his inaugural address in 1933, when he stated that the ‘only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. Roosevelt was trying to assure the public that it is both possible and necessary to minimise the impact of fear. His was a positive vision of a future where fear would be put in its place by a society that believed in itself. Today, politicians are far more likely to advise the public to fear everything, including fear itself.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website here. This essay is based on a talk delivered at the NY Salon debate, ‘Living in a state of fear’ at the New School on 20 March 2007.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi argued that fear has become a powerful force that dominates the public imagination, and that politics has become a contest of doom-mongering. After 9/11, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick reported on how the culture of fear spread to his health centre in east London. Rob Lyons called bird flu an infectious panic. For a measured approach to the latest scare stories, read our Don’t Panic column. Or read more at: spiked issue Risk.

(1) May, R. (1950) The Meaning of Anxiety, (The Ronald Press Company: New York).

(2) Hubbard, P. (2003) ‘Fear and loathing at the multiplex: everyday anxiety in the post-industrial city’, Capital & Class, no.80.

(3) Massumi, B. (ed.) (1993) The Politics of Everyday Fear, (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis).

(4) Slovic, P. (1987) ‘Perception of Risk’, Science, no.236.

(5) Ellin, N. (2001) ‘Thresholds of Fear: Embracing the Urban Shadow’, Urban Studies, vol.38, nos 5-6.

(6) Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control; Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

(7) Renata Salecl, On Anxiety, London: Routledge 2004,

(8) Altheide, D.L. (2002) Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York).

(9) Grupp, S. (2003) Political Implications Of A Discourse Of Fear; The Mass Mediated Discourse Of Fear In the Aftermath Of 9/11, (unpublished paper: Berlin).

(10) Guzelian, C. P. (2004) Liability and Fear, (Stanford Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series: Stanford Law School, Stanford, Cal.).

(11) Furedi, F. (2006) The Politics of Fear; Beyond Left and Right, (Continuum Press: London); Robin, C. (2004) Fear: The History of A Political Idea, (Oxford University Press: New York).

(12) Furedi, F. (1997) The Culture of Fear; Risk Taking And The Morality Of Low Expectations, (Cassell : London); Glassner, B. (1999) The Culture of Fear; Why Americans Are Afraid Of The Wrong Things, (Basic Books: New York).

(13) Tudor, A., A (macro) sociology of fear?, Sociological Review, Volume 51 Issue 2 Page 238 - May 2003

(14) Hankiss, E. (2001) Fears And Symbols; An Introduction To The Study of Western Civilisation, (Central European Press: Budapest).

(15) Lupton, D. (1999) Risk, (Routledge: London).

(16) Cohen, S. (2002) (3rd ed.) Folk devils and Moral Panics, (Routledge: London).

(17) Raco, M. (2002) ‘Risk, Fear and Control: Deconstructing the Discourses of New Labour’s Economic Policy’, Space and Polity, vol.6, no.1.

(18) Elias (1982) The Civilizing Process, vol. 2 State Formation and Civilization, (Basil Blackwell: Oxford): 300 & 326

(19) Elias (1982) The Civilizing Process, vol. 2 State Formation and Civilization, (Basil Blackwell: Oxford): 327

(20) Altheide, D.L. (2002) Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York).: p.24

(21) Scruton, D.L. (1986) (ed). Sociophobics: The Anthropology of Fear, (Westview Press: Boulder): 15

(22) Peter N. Stearns and Jan Lewis, editors. An Emotional History of the United States. (The History of Emotions Series.) New York: New York University Press. 1998: 7

(23) Hochschild, A.R. (1979) ‘Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure’, American Journal of Sociology, 85, November

(24) Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Polity: Cambridge): 44

(25) Furedi, F. (2006) The Politics of Fear; Beyond Left and Right, (Continuum Press: London).

(26) Altheide, D.L. (2002) Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York): 24

(27) Beardsworth, A. (1997) Sociology on the Menu; An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society, (Routledge; London): 173

(28) Robin, C. (2004) Fear: The History of A Political Idea, (Oxford University Press: New York).

(29) Bourke, J. (2005) Fear; a Cultural History, (Virago Press: London): 191

(30) Swidler, A. (2001) Talk of Love: How Culture Matters, (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago): 46

(31) Grupp, S. (2003) Political Implications Of A Discourse Of Fear; The Mass Mediated Discourse Of Fear In the Aftermath Of 9/11, (unpublished paper: Berlin): 43

(32) Altheide, D.L. (2002) Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York): 177

(33) Guzelian, C. P. (2004) Liability and Fear, (Stanford Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series: Stanford Law School, Stanford, Cal.): 712 & 767

(34) Elin, N. (1999) Postmodern Urbanism, (Princeton Architectural Press: New York).

(35) Hubbard, P. (2003) ‘Fear and loathing at the multiplex: everyday anxiety in the post-industrial city’, Capital & Class, no.80: 72

(36) Bauman, Z.,  Intimations of Postmodernity. London, New York: Routledge.1992 : xviii

(37) Tulloch, J. & Lupton, D. (2003) Risk and Everyday Life, (Sage Publications: London).: 38

(38) Altheide, D.L. (2002) Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York): 175

(39) Elin, N. (1999) Postmodern Urbanism, (Princeton Architectural Press: New York): 26

(40) Tudor, A., A (macro) sociology of fear?, Sociological Review, Volume 51 Issue 2 Page 238 - May 2003: 254

(41) Hunt, A. (2003) ‘Risk and Moralization in Everyday Life’ in Ericson, R.V. & Doyle, A. (2003) (ed) Risk and Morality, (University of Toronto Press: Toronto).: 174

(42) Grupp, S. (2003) Political Implications Of A Discourse Of Fear; The Mass Mediated Discourse Of Fear In the Aftermath Of 9/11, (unpublished paper: Berlin): 18

(43) May, R. (1950) The Meaning of Anxiety, (The Ronald Press Company: New York).

(44) Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control; Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, (Oxford University Press: Oxford).:10

(45) Bannister, J. and Fyfe, N. (2001) ‘Introduction: Fear and the City’, Urban Studies, vol.38, nos. 5-6.: 808

(46) Hale, 1996: 84

(47) Siegel: 2005

(48) Furedi, F. (2003) ‘Book Review of Constructing Fear’, American Journal of Sociology, vol.102: 4

(49) Strong, P. (1990) ‘Epidemic psychology: a model’, Sociology of Health & Illness, vol.12, no.3: 253

(50) Furedi 2004:137

(51) Guzelian, C. P. (2004) Liability and Fear, (Stanford Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper Series: Stanford Law School, Stanford, Cal.): 771

(52) Gray, M. George & Ropeik, D.P. (2002) ‘Dealing With The Dangers of Fear: the Role of Risk Communication’, Health Affairs, vol. 21, no 6.: 106

(53) Parkin, D. (1986) ‘Toward an Apprehension of Fear’ in Scruton (1986) (ed). Sociophobics: The Anthropology of Fear, (Westview Press: Boulder): 158&159

(54) Bourke, J. (2005) Fear; a Cultural History, (Virago Press: London): 293

(55) Filler, D.M. (2003) ‘Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia’, Journal of Social Policy and the Law, Spring Issue: 345

(56) Hale 2002

(57) Garland, D. (2003) ‘The Rise of Risk’ in Ericson, R.V. & Doyle, A. (2003) (ed) Risk and Morality, (University of Toronto Press: Toronto): 52

(58) Riezler, K. (1944) ‘The Social Psychology of Fear’, The American Journal of Sociology. Vol.49, no.6: 497

(59) Sparks, R., Girling, E. & Loader, I. (2001) ‘Fear and Everyday Urban Lives’, Urban Studies, vol. 38, nos. 5-6, 2001; 885

(60) Furedi 2002

(61) Frankenberg, R., Robinson, I. and Delahooke, A. (2000) ‘Countering essentialism in behavioural social science: the example of the “vulnerable child” ethnographically examined’, The Sociological Review: 588-589

(62) Frankenberg, R., Robinson, I. and Delahooke, A. (2000) ‘Countering essentialism in behavioural social science: the example of the “vulnerable child” ethnographically examined’, The Sociological Review, 2000

(63) Guardian (2004) ‘Fear infects flexible workplaces’ 2 September 2004.


For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.