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Fear-20070404 Frank Furedi Essay Fear Risk

 
 
Wednesday 4 April 2007
The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself 
 
NEW ESSAY: How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty.
 
Frank Furedi
Fear plays a key role in twenty-first century consciousness. Increasingly, we seem to
engage with various issues through a narrative of fear. You could see this trend
emerging and taking hold in the last century, which was frequently described as an ‘Age
of Anxiety’ (1). But in recent decades, it has become more and better defined, as
specific fears have been cultivated.
 
The rise of catchphrases such as the ‘politics of fear’, ‘fear of crime’ and ‘fear of the future’ is
testimony to the cultural significance of fear today. Many of us seem to make sense of our
experiences through the narrative of fear. Fear is not simply associated with high-profile
catastrophic threats such as terrorist attacks, global warming, AIDS or a potential flu pandemic;
rather, as many academics have pointed out, there are also the ‘quiet fears’ of everyday life.
According to Phil Hubbard, in his 2003 essay ‘Fear and loathing at the multiplex: everyday anxiety
in the post-industrial city’, ambient fear ‘saturates the social spaces of everyday life’ (2). Brian
Massumi echoes this view with his concept of ‘low-grade fear’ (3). In recent years, questions
about fear and anxiety have been raised in relation to a wide variety of issues: the ascendancy of
risk consciousness (4), fear of the urban environment (5), fear of crime (6), fear of the Other (7),
the amplification of fear through the media (8), fear as a distinct discourse (9), the impact of fear
on law (10), the relationship between fear and politics (11), fear as a ‘culture’ (12), and the
question of whether fear constitutes a ‘distinctive cultural form’ (13).
Fear is often examined in relation to specific issues; it is rarely considered as a sociological
problem
in its own right 
. As Elemer Hankiss argues, the role of fear is ‘much neglected in the
social sciences’. He says that fear has received ‘serio
s attention in philosophy, theology and
psychiatry, less in anthropology and social psychology, and least of all in sociology’ (14). This
under-theorisation of fear can be seen in the ever-expanding literature on risk. Though sometimes
used as a synonym for risk, fear is treated as an afterthought in today’s risk literature; the focus
tends to remain on risk theory rather than on an interrogation of fear itself. Indeed, in sociological
debate fear seems to have become the invisible companion to debates about risk.
And yet, it is widely acknowledged by risk theorists that fear and risk are closely related. As
Deborah Lupton notes in her 1999 book
Risk 
, risk ‘has come to stand as one of the focal points of
feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty’ (15). Stanley Cohen makes a similar point in
Folk Devils
and Moral Panics
, published in 2002, where he argues that ‘reflections on risk are now absorbed
into a wider culture of insecurity, victimization and fear’ (16). A study of New Labour’s economic
policies argues that they are couched in the ‘language of change, fear and risk’ (17).
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
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