Vulnerability: Towards a Better Understanding of a Key Variable in the Genesis of Fear of Crime

By Killias, Martin | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Vulnerability: Towards a Better Understanding of a Key Variable in the Genesis of Fear of Crime

Killias, Martin, Violence and Victims

Previous research on fear of crime has identified, among women and other sub-groups of the population, high fear levels which could not be adequately explained by measures of exposure to risk. Several authors have argued, therefore, that vulnerability may be the key variable behind the observed distribution of fear of crime. In this paper, three dimensions of vulnerability (exposure to risk, seriousness of consequences, loss of control) are identified and integrated into an analytical framework which also takes into account physical, social, and situational factors of vulnerability. A selective international review of research reveals considerable support for the suggested model.


Since early research on victimization and fear of crime, fear has been found to be, at best, weakly related to victimization. Although the cross-sectional design of current victimization surveys does not allow the assessment of change in attitudes over time, and may even mask a significant increase in fear among victims since they may have been less fearful than nonvictims before their victimization (Skogan, 1987), fear cannot be reasonably attributed to direct experience with crime since it is much more widespread than the latter in any population (Skogan & Maxfield, 1981). Later research has also shown fear not to be a direct consequence of media exposure (Skogan & Maxfield, 1981; Killias, 1989).

Virtually all surveys have identified much higher levels of fear among women, and frequently, although not consistently, the elderly turned out to be also more fearful. Fear has, therefore, been attributed to vulnerability (Skogan & Maxfield, 1981; Riger, Gordon, & Bailly, 1978), although a concurring explanation has been offered by Stafford and Galle (1984) who argued that, given their low exposure to risky situations, women and the elderly may face rather high victimization rates. Some evidence in that direction has come from the British (Maxfield, 1984a) and the Swiss crime surveys (Killias, 1989) concerning women and predatory crimes, but similar studies concerning the elderly have failed to identify such a correlation (Clarke, Ekblom, Hough, & Mayhew, 1985). It might, at best, offer a partial explanation of the much higher levels of fear among women and the elderly. Thus, vulnerability seems to remain a highly relevant variable in explaining fear of crime. It has, however, been used in many different ways, and some conceptual clarification may be in order.


Vulnerability has usually been measured using sex and age as proxy variables. Women have been said to be more fearful because they are vulnerable to sexual attacks (Riger et al., 1978), i.e., to a serious risk men do not normally encounter. In other contexts, the role of gender, age, and physical strength (Riger et al., 1978, Junger, 1987) has been observed in connection with the inferiority of women, the elderly and physically weak persons in comparison to young men as the modal assailants (Skogan & Maxfield, 1981); here the implicit variable seems to be lack of defense and protection, or loss of control (Skogan & Maxfield, 1981). Finally, physical attacks on elderly people and rape can produce particularly dramatic and longlasting consequences; in this case, seriousness of consequences seems to be a key variable.

In agreement with research on fear in social psychology (Bandura, 1977) and in military settings (where fear control is crucial, Pauchard, 1984), fear seems to depend on three key factors:

* Exposure to non-negligible risk,

* Loss of control, that is, lack of effective defense, protective measures and/or possibilities of escape,

* Anticipation of serious consequences.

These three factors are all necessary but, taken individually, are not sufficient conditions for the emergence of fear. Thus, there may be complex interaction effects such as those identified by Yin (1985) and Warr (1987) between risk and "sensitivity" (i.

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Vulnerability: Towards a Better Understanding of a Key Variable in the Genesis of Fear of Crime


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