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Fear of Crime


The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Sociology 301: Research Methods

Spring 2010

[1832 words]
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The early 1990‟s saw the crime rate plummet to all-time lows, yet by 1994 the American

public‟s fear of crime had reached an all-time high. The fear of being a victim of crime is out of

proportion with the actual chances that one will have an act of crime committed on them. This

prompted sociologist Barry Glassner to explore what factors caused this rise in fear in his 1999

book “The Culture of Fear.” (Glassner, 1999) The literature review that follows seeks to examine

some of the peer-reviewed research that have come before and after Glassner‟s book, which

focus their lens on single or multiple variables. The articles were chosen to represent the three

variables that most impact fear of crime: race, gender and media consumption. The review of

these different variables hopes to give a clearer picture of what factors most impact societies fear

of crime.

By 1977, the bulk of criminological research focused on cause of crime, treatment of offenders,

victimology, and correlates of victimization. (Clemente and Bleiman, 1977) Frank Clemente and

Michael Blieman, sociologists at Penn State University, sought to make inroads into the fear of

crime by conducting a multivariate study. Clemente and Bleiman (1977) began by giving

background on the existing research that had been done up until that point. They identified five

key variables that had most been studied in relation to victimization: sex, race, age,

socioeconomic status and community size. By using these five variables in one study, Clemente

and Bleiman hoped to gain a better causal perspective. (Clemente and Bleiman, 1977) The data

used by Clemente and Bleiman in this study drew data from the 1973 and 1974 General Social

Surveys (GSS), a random sampling survey given to non-institutionalized adults by the National

Opinion Research Center, yielding a total sample size of 2,700. (Clemente and Bleiman, 1977)

Race, sex, age, socioeconomic status and community size were used as dependent variables, the

independent variable was ascertained by the following question from the GSS: „Is there any area
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right around here-that is, within a mile-where you would be afraid to walk at night? (Clemente

and Bleiman, 1977). Clemente comments that asking this question is limited in scope, but is

useful because it was consistent with previous fear of crime research. The findings of this study

support previous fear of crime research, which was expected by the researchers. „Females, blacks

and residents of large cities all display significant fear of crime...age, income, and education are

not as substantial predictors.‟ (Clemente and Bleiman, 527) The researchers felt that a limitation

of the study was the reluctancy of men to admit that they were afraid. They close the article by

recommending further detailed research into the objective and subjective situations that cause

fear of crime.

Twenty years after Clemente and Bleiman‟s study, Ted Chiricos, Michael Hogan and Marc Gertz

(Chiricos, et. al., 1997), professors at Florida State University‟s School of Criminology

undertook a study in fear of crime. Instead of a multivariate study, the researchers set out to test

whether there is a relationship between racial composition of a neighborhood and fear of crime.

Chiricos, et. al. believed that the greater population of blacks in a neighborhood, the greater the

fear of crime amongst white residents, and vice-versa. Most people‟s fear of victimization is

greater than their actual risk, therefore this study measures fear of victimization. A random

sample of 1,850 adults (18 years of age or older) were surveyed in Tallahassee, Florida between

January and March 1994. It should be noted that this survey was conducted at the peak of the

nations fear of crime, as mentioned in the introduction. Perceived victimization risk was the

intervening variable on the dependent variable of fear of crime and the independent variable of

neighborhood racial composition. The results concluded that „the more blacks that are perceived

to be living within a mile, the higher the fear of crime for whites.‟(Chiricos, et. al., 114).

However, for blacks fear of victimization does not increase when they believe that they are living
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in a predominantly white neighborhood. The researchers concluded that racial composition of a

neighborhood does matter, but only to whites who feel that they are the minority. The

researchers conclude by suggesting further research that tackles the more complex issue of

„whether the perception of more blacks living nearby leads to fear or that fear leads to the

perception of more blacks nearby.‟ (Chiricos, et. al., 125)

Cops and Pleysier (2011), a professor at K.U. Leuven Institute of Criminology and his research

assistant, turns to a different population in their analysis of the fear of crime. The study focuses

on what is considered the biggest predictor of fear of crime, sex. In almost every study conducted

within the topic of fear of crime, women have always been found to have more fear of crime than

do men. Cops and Pleysier‟s research takes a slight twist on the subject, however, by not simply

looking at whether women have more fear than men, but whether their fear, or lack their of, is

socialized, not biological. As mentioned above, Clemente and Bleiman felt that a limitation of

their multivariate study was the reluctancy of men to respond honestly about their fear of crime.

This type of deceptive responding could be due to what Cops and Pleysier call „doing gender‟.

Essentially, women are more prone to report fear of crime, while men are socialized to repress

their fears. The importance of this research is that it seeks to „interpret the gap in levels of fear of

crime between men and women as a social phenomenon, rather than a mere biological fact.‟

(Cops and Pleysier, 61) The data was collected in the fall of 2008 of 3, 248 respondents between

the ages of 14 and 30. They constructed a gender identity scale which determined to what degree

certain characteristics, such as sex, can be predicted based on certain indicators. They

hypothesized that if levels of crime are part of gender identity than the scale will account for

differences between boys and girls. What they discovered was that boys and girls who identified

as more „feminine‟ on the gender scale, reported more fear of crime. This suggests that fear of
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crime is not static, as traditionally thought, and that fear of crime may fluctuate with different

age groups. Though this lends credence to the hypothesis, more research is needed for a more

thorough understanding on the relation of fear of crime, sex and gender. The researchers do hope

that they have led to a more dynamic view of gender and fear of crime.

In the modern world we live in we almost constant availability to some sort of news source, in

fact their are multiple channels on cable television that are solely dedicated to delivering news

24/7. This assault by the media is the focus of a 2003 Journal of Communication article.

Research was conducted by Daniel Romer, Kathleen Jamieson and Sean Aday (Romer, et. al.,

2003). Romer is the research director at the Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication

Annenberg Public Policy Center, Jamieson is the Dean of the Annenberg School, and Aday is an

assistant professor at George Washington. Nearly 78% of the American population get their

news from local television, which presumes to give viewers stories about their local area, but in

reality „relies heavily on sensational coverage of crime and other mayhem with particular

emphasis on homicide and violence.‟ (Romer, et. al., 89) In their research Romer, et. al seek to

test the hypothesis that fear of crime is a by product of exposure to crime-saturated local

television news. The study reports results of three separate studies, the 1997 National Risk

Survey (NRS), for an examination of relation between exposure to various news sources and

assessments of crime risk, the General Social Survey (GSS) of 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994, for

assessment of perceptions of personal crime risk in major metropolitan areas, and a random

survey sample of Philadelphia residents in 1998, to examine variation in concerns about crime in

a large city. (Romer, et. al., 2003) The NRS study was conducted over the phone with 1,204

respondents, the GSS data examined fear of neighborhood crime in 36 of the 50 largest

metropolitan areas in which the survey was conducted, and 2,369 Philadelphia residents were
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interviewed using random-digit dialing. The results of all the studies strongly support the

hypothesis. Romer, et. al. also put forth that „crime coverage may not only condition viewers‟

fears of victimization but may also affect perceptions of places where crime is likely to occur and

the persons stereotyped as typical perpetrators.‟ (Romer, et. al., 103)

All the studies presented thus far have dealt with perceptions in defining fear of crime. A recent

study conducted in Britain seeks to present a new definition of fear of crime by differentiating

between worries and anxieties in emotional response to crime, and between productive and

counterproductive precautionary activities. The study was conducted by Emily Gray, Johnathan

Jackson and Stephen Farral (Grey, et. al. 2011), all researchers at the University of Keele

Institute of Law, Politics and Justice. To measure the abstract emotions of worry and anxiety,

Grey, et. al. set up a continuum that moved from positive to negative emotional responses,

setting „functional anxiety‟ at the positive and „dysfunctional worry‟ at the negative. Grey, et. al.

hypothesized that those who rarely, if ever, worried about crime would be able to successfully

manage their risk through precautionary activities. A survey was sent to random households

yielding a sample of 2,844 with a 43% response rate. Two-thirds of the sample described being

„unworried‟ about crime, 21% could be described as „worried‟ and 14 % were described as

„anxious‟. What they found was counter to their hypothesis. Equal proportions of „anxious‟ and

„worried‟ reported that taking precautions to guard themselves against crime had made them feel

safer, without diminishing their quality of life, in essence they displayed „functional fear‟. Grey,

et. al. summarize that „two different measures may not only capture different aspects of fear of

crime, but it is possible that these measures may also behave very differently over time.‟ (Grey,

et. al., 88) This correlates with the study on „doing gender‟, which also suggests that perceptions

of fear of crime change with age. (Cops and Pleysier 2011). The researchers suggest that this
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research is beneficial because it can apply to large scale research and provide other opportunities

to unpack complex patterns and behavioral responses to public insecurity.

The articles that are presented above help lay a foundation in understanding the myriad of factors

that impact fear of crime. When preparing for a research project it is important to begin with a

review of the existing research. This helps to set the table for the research that follows, and

establishes a jumping off point. The three variables that seem to have the biggest impact on fear

of crime are sex, gender and location. These variables will be explored in greater detail in the

research that follows.

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Chiricos, Ted, Michael Hogan and Marc Gertz. 1997. "Racial Composition of Neighborhood and

Fear of Crime." Criminology 35(1): 107-131.

Clemente, Frank and Michael B. Kleiman. 1977. "Fear of Crime in the United States: A

Multivariate Analysis." Social Forces 56(2): 519-531.

Cops, Diederik and Stefaan Pleysier. 2011. "„Doing Gender‟ in Fear of Crime." British Journal

of Criminology 51: 58-74.

Grey, Emily, Jonathan Jackson and Stephen Farrall. 2011. “Feeling and Functions in the Fear of

Crime." British Journal of Criminology 51: 75-94.

Romer, Daniel, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Sean Aday. 2003. "Television News and Cultivation

of Fear of Crime." Journal of Communication 53: 88-104.

Glassner, Barry. 1999. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

New York, New York: Basic Books.