Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Anxiety and Social Explanation: Some Anxieties about Anxiety

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Anxiety and Social Explanation: Some Anxieties about Anxiety

Article excerpt


Anxiety is invoked as an explanatory device in a wide variety of historical and sociological writing. The general form of such accounts is that the occurrence and timing of some social phenomena is explained by reference to the presence of some elevated state of anxiety which elicits social or political responses by an identifiable group of social agents. I will refer to this form of explanation as 'anxiety theory.' Anxiety analysis takes the general form of seeking to identify an underlying social anxiety or a combination of anxieties which can explain why some specific social response or social action occurred when and where it did. I place 'anxiety theory' in quotes to draw attention to the fact that those who employ this variety of explanatory strategy do not themselves use this label. There is no school of anxiety theorists. Yet it is my contention that it is a widely employed explanatory strategy, but that even its most polished and sophisticated exponents have not felt the need to explore its unspoken assumptions or to justify their reliance on it.

This essay explores some problematic aspects of this mode of explanation. It should be made clear at the outside that I neither want to condemn nor to recommend anxiety theory; as my sub-title suggests, I have some anxieties about such explanatory accounts.(1) will first establish the fact that anxiety theory is not only widely used, but that it is employed in diverse intellectual traditions which have contributed significantly over a wide range of inquiry. An attempt is made to demarcate some distinction between anxiety and a number of close associates such as 'worry' and 'fear.' I have selected some of the strongest exemplars of anxiety analysis in order to explicate why it has proved such an attractive mode of explanation in social and historical studies. I use these exemplary cases to tease out their inherently problematic features. Finally I address the implications of my problematization of anxiety theory; since I wish neither to condemn or to praise this style of scholarship I suggest some protocols that should be taken into account when use is made of anxiety theory.

Anxiety is a psychic condition of heightened sensitivity to some perceived threat, risk, peril or danger. A distinction between anxiety and fear seems both possible and attractive, but is not ultimately sustainable. One possibility is to define fear as a realistic anxiety, an immediate response to risk or danger, and anxiety as a generalized non-immediate apprehension. To illustrate, I am more apprehensive when starting a journey by plane than I am when commencing a car journey even though I know that all the statistics show that planes are significantly safer than cars. Do I fear air-travel or is it an anxiety? This line of inquiry is, I suggest, unhelpful because it requires an all too early normative judgment to distinguish between 'reasonable fear' and 'neurotic anxiety.' If people are concerned about the dangers of nuclear war or environmental degradation we only reveal our own normative position if we label such responses 'fears' or 'anxieties.'

It may be more promising to distinguish between individual anxiety and social anxiety. An individual anxiety has no social significance unless it is a shared or social anxiety and, additionally, it results in some discernible action by significant numbers. If I and others cancel vacations in Egypt because of fear of attacks by 'fundamentalists' this shared anxiety has social and economic consequences. Note that I avoid making any judgment about whether such apprehensions or fears are justified. It is sufficient to pose the question of whether or not the existence of a social anxiety can explain some observed social phenomenon.

However, it is important to insist that the most interesting situations are those where the shared anxiety does not appear to be a response to an immediate apprehension of harm. …

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