Crime Fears and Phobias

By Clark, Julie | Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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Crime Fears and Phobias

Clark, Julie, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law

Is fear-of-crime a crime phobia? Based on the results from the Feelings about Crime Study, it was hypothesised that fear-of-crime has a positive relationship with the anxiety disorders of social phobia, blood injury phobia and agoraphobia. This hypothesis was constructed on the basis that both types of phenomena are founded on the same emotional response of fear. No evidence was found to support this hypothesis, Instead, it is argued that the results highlight the inaccuracy of the largely unquestioned tradition in fear-of-crime research that the public is afraid of crime. Without a solid understanding of how the public responds emotionally to crime, it is considered inappropriate for fear-of-crime to be treated as a crime phobia.

Much of the research into fear-of-crime has been based on a largely untested tradition--that the public is afraid of crime. This has stemmed from the assumed link between fear and feelings of being unsafe. The progression from questioning respondents about feelings of safety to fear-of-crime is most easily seen through the changes made to the measuring tools. The global question (a variation on "how safe do you feel walking alone at night?") was the original measure for fear-of-crime. Criticisms were made on this measure that fear-of-crime was being extrapolated from reported feelings of being unsafe and that crime was not mentioned in the question (see [1] for review). There has since been a subtle shift to "how afraid ...?" rather than "how safe ...?" This change placed the emphasis on feelings of fear rather than feelings of safety. Additional questions are also being used that specify the type of crime to be considered when answering. These changes have created measures that are considered to indicate fear-of-crime specifically without the need for the assumed link with feelings of safety. The changes have also allowed results to be directed towards showing that the public is afraid of crime.

From the ensuing results, people have been reported as being at the mercy of a pervasive and detrimental fear. For example, originally there was concern that fear-of-crime "may well prove to be more difficult to treat than criminality itself' [2: 241]. Such concern has partly stemmed from the "... extraordinary number of precautions [that] are taken by residents of high crime areas to reduce their chances of victimization'[3: 608]. In addition "became of its intrinsically disturbing nature and its adverse consequences for the quality of community life, fear of crime has become a major social problem" [4: 341]. These quotes show the dramaticism with which fear-of-crime has sometimes been approached.

Academic research has pursued an explanation of this phenomenon from many angles ranging from demographic descriptors of people (e.g., age [4-6], gender [4, 7] and income [8, 9]) to perceptions of risk and likelihood of victimisation (e.g., [10, 11]). Political figureheads have also welcomed the concept of fear-of-crime, often instigating further work in this field of criminology (e.g., [12]; [13]).

Alongside this search for predictor variables, there has been a debate about the rationality of fear-of-crime. This debate stemmed from the fear-victimisation paradox--where those people who have been victimised are not necessarily those with the highest level of fear. Such a paradox has caused many researchers to see fear-of-crime as irrational because the level of fear is excessive relative to its stimulus. Underlying this debate is the unknown intensity of the fear in fear-of-crime. The different sides depend on their ability to satisfactorily explain away the intensity of fear relative to stimulus. This debate is continuing primarily because that intensity level is not known.

With the rationality debate still far from being resolved, many researchers have assumed that the fear is at an irrational intensity and progress ahead to developing strategies for reducing fear-of-crime in the community.

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