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Measuring and explaining the everyday significance of fear of crime. Emily Gray, University of Keele; Jonathan Jackson, London School of Economics; Stephen Farrall, University of Sheffield. Outline of the presentation. Introduction to the fear of crime.

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Measuring and explaining the everyday significance of fear of crime

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Measuring and explaining the everyday significance of fear of crime

Emily Gray, University of Keele;

Jonathan Jackson, London School of Economics;

Stephen Farrall, University of Sheffield

Outline of the presentation

  • Introduction to the fear of crime.

  • Two new measurement strategies:

  • Experiential and expressive ‘streams’ of fear of crime.

  • Functional and dysfunctional aspects of the way people manage fear.

Introduction to the fear of crime

  • A highly topical area of interdisciplinary research, recognised as a significant ‘social problem’.

    • On the one hand, a relatively large minority worry about becoming a victim of crime

    • On the other hand, worries have effects:

      • Anxiety about crime erodes quality of life and well-being; it restricts movement, motivates costly precautions, and encourages ‘flight’ from deprived areas; it may even harm social trust and inter-group relations

Point of departure

  • Public thoughts & feelings about crime and crime-risk are multi-faceted

  • Psychological and sociological literature on everyday emotion – ways forward for criminology?

  • Social theory on cultural significance of crime

  • ‘Fear of crime feedback loop’ a la Murray Lee

  • Questionnaires inevitably struggle – e.g. Farrall et al. (1997)

Measuring the ‘experiential’ and ‘expressive’ dimensions of fear

  • Old questions; “how worried are you about….”

  • New questions:

    - “have you worried in the past 12 months?”

    - “how many times have you worried about… in the last 12 months”

    - “On the last occasion how fearful did you feel?’

Top-line findings ‘old’ question:

Top-line findings ‘new’ questions

Top-line findings – crosstab

Cross tabulation of old and new measures – Robbery

New categorisations of fear

The ‘unworried’: respondents who indicated (a) that they were ‘not at all’ or ‘not very’ worried, and (b) that they had experienced any worrying episodes in the past year;

The ‘anxious’: respondents who indicated (a) that they were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ worried, but (b) that they had not experienced any worrying episodes in the past year;

The ‘worried’: respondents who indicated that (a) they were worried and (b) had experienced worrying episodes in the past year.

Frequency of the four groups by offence type %


  • Much more fear when we use ‘expressive’ or standard based questions.

  • Much less when we look at ‘experiential’ measures of frequency of fear.

  • But also capturing a different type of subjective phenomena.

Thoughts and reflections

  • We think these new measures of ‘fear’ are useful in identifying distinct ‘streams’ of fear:

    • Correlates of experiential fear include victimisation (direct & indirect) living in areas of high crime and deprivation. Thus, for some the fear of crime is a more tightly defined issue, of high crime rates and frequent fears – and this is what the experiential dimension has captured.

    • Expressive fear meanwhile is not as highly correlated with everyday experiences of crime, fear and deprivation. But is a way of expressing a generalised sense of risk and concern about community breakdown – a more diffuse awareness of risk.

Functional and dysfunctional aspects of fear

  • Fear of crime is predicated on the idea that it is a singularly negative phenomena.

  • But might some worry about crime be a natural defence mechanism? Or prompt practical cautionary behaviours?

Testing whether some worry is ‘good for us’?

Exploring if worry about crime is ever ‘good for us,’ we asked about i) fear of crime; ii) precautions to minimise the risk of crime and iii)the impact on quality of life of (a) worries and (b) precautions.

1) We measure worry about crime using standard measures (or frequency measures);

2) If those who confirm they have worried about crime also admit that their quality of life is reduced either by their worries or their precautions against crime (if they take precautions), these individuals are assigned to the ‘dysfunctional’ fear group; and,

3) If the worried say instead that they take precautions that make them feel safer, and their quality of life is not reduced by either their worries or their precautions, then assign these individuals to the ‘helpful’ or ‘functional’ fear group.

Functional and dysfunctional fear

  • ‘Dysfunctional’ worry occurred when participants took precautions to protect themselves from crime, but reported that these actions reduced their quality of life.

  • By contrast, ‘functional’ worry was defined more narrowly: this group also stated that they took precautions, but confirmed that these behaviours made feel safer and did not reduce their quality of life.


Source: Unweighted data from the 2007 London Metropolitan Police Safer Neighbourhoods Survey. Total n = 2,784

Correlates of functional and dysfunctional worry

  • Dysfunctional worry was associated with higher levels of victimisation.

  • Perception of neighbourhood disorder and collective efficacy were important predictors of both functional and dysfunctional worry, compared to the unworried.

Thoughts and reflections

  • The new categorisation provides the first empirical differentiation of fear into something that it is dysfunctional (an experience that in and of itself damages quality of life) and something that is functional (an experience that motivates precaution).

  • We suggest that worry is often a habitual or routine activity and propose that worrying about crime may, in the view of some people at least, be a functional reaction.

  • Precaution or vigilance does not rid one of fear as such. But it does seem to provide protection and reassurance.


  • The benefits of these new measures are that they capture the more subtle, aspects of an individuals’ response to fear of crime at a quantitative level.

  • Such methods can be applied to large scale research, and thus provide genuinely unique opportunities to understand complex patterns of the public’s emotional and behavioural responses to crime.

  • Some of these responses contribute to fear as a ‘social problem’.

  • With improved precision, we believe it is possible to generate more dynamic and thoughtful considerations of this topic.


Farrall, S., Jackson, J., and Gray, E. (2009), Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Studies in Criminology.

Jackson, J. and Gray, E. (2009). 'Functional Fear and Public Insecurities about Crime', British Journal of Criminology, doi: 10.1093/bjc/azp059.

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