Friday, July 25, 2008

Life cycle

The human life cycle is similar to that of other placental mammals. The fertilized egg divides inside the female's uterus to become an embryo, which over a period of thirty-eight weeks (9 months) of gestation becomes a human fetus. After this span of time, the fully-grown fetus is birthed from the woman's body and breathes independently as an infant for the first time. At this point, most modern cultures recognize the baby as a person entitled to the full protection of the law, though some jurisdictions extend personhood earlier to human fetuses while they remain in the uterus.

Compared with other species, human childbirth is dangerous. Painful labors lasting twenty-four hours or more are not uncommon and often leads to the death of the mother, or the child.[38] This is because of both the relatively large fetal head circumference (for housing the brain) and the mother's relatively narrow pelvis (a trait required for successful bipedalism, by way of natural selection).[39][40] The chances of a successful labor increased significantly during the 20th century in wealthier countries with the advent of new medical technologies. In contrast, pregnancy and natural childbirth remain relatively hazardous ordeals in developing regions of the world, with maternal death rates approximately 100 times more common than in developed countries
In developed countries, infants are typically 3 – 4 kg (6 – 9 pounds) in weight and 50 – 60 cm (20 – 24 inches) in height at birth.[43] However, low birth weight is common in developing countries, and contributes to the high levels of infant mortality in these regions.[44] Helpless at birth, humans continue to grow for some years, typically reaching sexual maturity at 12 to 15 years of age. Females continue to develop physically until around the age of 18, whereas male development continues until around age 21. The human life span can be split into a number of stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood and old age. The lengths of these stages, however, have varied across cultures and time periods. Compared to other primates, humans experience an unusually rapid growth spurt during adolescence, where the body grows 25% in size. Chimpanzees, for example, grow only 14%.[45]
There are significant differences in life expectancy around the world. The developed world is generally aging, with the median age around 40 years (highest in Monaco at 45.1 years). In the developing world the median age is between 15 and 20 years. Life expectancy at birth in Hong Kong, China is 84.8 years for a female and 78.9 for a male, while in Swaziland, primarily because of AIDS, it is 31.3 years for both sexes.[46] While one in five Europeans is 60 years of age or older, only one in twenty Africans is 60 years of age or older.[47] The number of centenarians (humans of age 100 years or older) in the world was estimated by the United Nations at 210,000 in 2002.[48] At least one person, Jeanne Calment, is known to have reached the age of 122 years; higher ages have been claimed but they are not well substantiated. Worldwide, there are 81 men aged 60 or older for every 100 women of that age group, and among the oldest, there are 53 men for every 100 women.

Humans are unique in the widespread onset of female menopause during the latter stage of life. Menopause is believed to have arisen due to the Grandmother hypothesis, in which it is in the mother's reproductive interest to forgo the risks of death from childbirth at older ages in exchange for investing in the viability of her already living offspring.[49]

The philosophical questions of when human personhood begins and whether it persists after death are the subject of considerable debate. The prospect of death causes unease or fear for most humans, distinct from the immediate awareness of a threat. Burial ceremonies are characteristic of human societies, often accompanied by beliefs in an afterlife or immortality.


Physiology and genetics
Human body types vary substantially. Although body size is largely determined by genes, it is also significantly influenced by environmental factors such as diet and exercise. The average height of an adult human is about 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 feet) tall, although this varies significantly from place to place.[28][29] The average weight for a human is 76-83 kg (168-183 lbs) for males and 54-64 kg (120-140 lbs) for females.[30] Weight can also vary geographically (see also; obesity, overweight, underweight). Unlike most other primates, humans are capable of fully bipedal locomotion, thus leaving their arms available for manipulating objects using their hands, aided especially by opposable thumbs.

Although humans appear relatively hairless compared to other primates, with notable hair growth occurring chiefly on the top of the head, underarms and pubic area, the average human has more hair follicles on his or her body than the average chimpanzee. The main distinction is that human hairs are shorter, finer, and less heavily pigmented than the average chimpanzee's, thus making them harder to see.[31]

The hue of human hair and skin is determined by the presence of pigments called melanins. Human skin hues can range from very dark brown to very pale pink, while human hair ranges from blond to brown to red to, most commonly, black,[32] depending on the amount of melanin (an effective sun blocking pigment) in the skin. Most researchers believe that skin darkening was an adaptation that evolved as a protection against ultraviolet solar radiation. More recently, however, it has been argued that particular skin colors are an adaptation to balance folate, which is destroyed by ultraviolet radiation, and vitamin D, which requires sunlight to form.[33] The skin pigmentation of contemporary humans is geographically stratified, and in general correlates with the level of ultraviolet radiation. Human skin also has a capacity to darken (sun tanning) in response to exposure to ultraviolet radiation.[34][35] Humans tend to be physically weaker than other similarly sized primates, with young, conditioned male humans having been shown to be unable to match the strength of female orangutans which are at least three times stronger.[36]

Humans have proportionately shorter palates and much smaller teeth than other primates. They are the only primates to have short 'flush' canine teeth. Humans have characteristically crowded teeth, with gaps from lost teeth usually closing up quickly in young specimens. Humans are gradually losing their wisdom teeth, with some individuals having them congenitally absent.[37]

The average sleep requirement is between seven and eight hours a day for an adult and nine to ten hours for a child; elderly people usually sleep for six to seven hours. Experiencing less sleep than this is common in modern societies; this sleep deprivation can lead to negative effects. A sustained restriction of adult sleep to four hours per day has been shown to correlate with changes in physiology and mental state, including fatigue, aggression, and bodily discomfort.

Humans are an eukaryotic species. Each diploid cell has two sets of 23 chromosomes, each set received from one parent. There are 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. By present estimates, humans have approximately 20,000 – 25,000 genes. Like other mammals, humans have an XY sex-determination system, so that females have the sex chromosomes XX and males have XY. The X chromosome is larger and carries many genes not on the Y chromosome, which means that recessive diseases associated with X-linked genes, such as haemophilia, affect men more often than women.

Habitat and population

Early human settlements were dependent on proximity to water and, depending on the lifestyle, other natural resources, such as arable land for growing crops and grazing livestock, or seasonally by hunting populations of prey. However, humans have a great capacity for altering their habitats by various methods, such as through irrigation, urban planning, construction, transport, manufacturing goods, deforestation and desertification. With the advent of large-scale trade and transport infrastructure, proximity to these resources has become unnecessary, and in many places these factors are no longer a driving force behind the growth and decline of a population. Nonetheless, the manner in which a habitat is altered is often a major determinant in population change.

Technology has allowed humans to colonize all of the continents and adapt to all climates. Within the last few decades, humans have explored Antarctica, the ocean depths, and space, although long-term habitation of these environments is not yet possible. With a population of over six billion, humans are among the most numerous of the large mammals. Most humans (61%) live in Asia. The remainder live in the Americas (14%), Africa (14%), Europe (11%), and Oceania (0.5%).

Human habitation within closed ecological systems in hostile environments, such as Antarctica and outer space, is expensive, typically limited in duration, and restricted to scientific, military, or industrial expeditions. Life in space has been very sporadic, with no more than thirteen humans in space at any given time. Between 1969 and 1972, two humans at a time spent brief intervals on the Moon. As of early 2008, no other celestial body has been visited by human beings, although there has been a continuous human presence in space since the launch of the initial crew to inhabit the International Space Station on October 31, 2000. Other celestial bodies have, however, been visited by human-made objects.

Since 1800, the human population increased from one billion to over six billion.[21] In 2004, some 2.5 billion out of 6.3 billion people (39.7%) lived in urban areas, and this percentage is expected to continue to rise throughout the 21st century. In February 2008, the U.N. estimated that half the world's population will live in urban areas by the end of the year.[22] Problems for humans living in cities include various forms of pollution and crime,[23] especially in inner city and suburban slums. Benefits of urban living include increased literacy, access to the global canon of human knowledge and decreased susceptibility to rural famines.

Humans have had a dramatic effect on the environment. It has been hypothesized that human predation has contributed to the extinction of numerous species. As humans stand at the top of the food chain and are not generally preyed upon, they have been described as superpredators.[24] Currently, through land development and pollution, humans are thought to be the main contributor to global climate change.[25] This is believed to be a major contributor to the ongoing Holocene extinction event, a mass extinction which, if it continues at its current rate, is predicted to wipe out half of all species over the next century

Rise of civilization

The most widely accepted view among current anthropologists is that Homo sapiens originated in the African savanna around 200,000 BP (Before Present), descending from Homo erectus, had inhabited Eurasia and Oceania by 40,000 BP, and finally inhabited the Americas approximately 14,500 years ago.[20] They displaced Homo neanderthalensis and other species descended from Homo erectus (which had inhabited Eurasia as early as 2 million years ago) through more successful reproduction and competition for resources.

Until c. 10,000 years ago, most humans lived as hunter-gatherers. They generally lived in small nomadic groups known as band societies. The advent of agriculture prompted the Neolithic Revolution, when access to food surplus led to the formation of permanent human settlements, the domestication of animals and the use of metal tools. Agriculture encouraged trade and cooperation, and led to complex society. Because of the significance of this date for human society, it is the epoch of the Holocene calendar or Human Era.

About 6,000 years ago, the first proto-states developed in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Military forces were formed for protection, and government bureaucracies for administration. States cooperated and competed for resources, in some cases waging wars. Around 2,000–3,000 years ago, some states, such as Persia, India, China, Rome, and Greece, developed through conquest into the first expansive empires. Influential religions, such as Judaism, originating in the Middle East, and Hinduism, a religious tradition that originated in South Asia, also rose to prominence at this time.

The late Middle Ages saw the rise of revolutionary ideas and technologies. In China, an advanced and urbanized economy promoted innovations such as printing and the compass, while the Islamic Golden Age saw major scientific advancements in Muslim empires. In Europe, the rediscovery of classical learning and inventions such as the printing press led to the Renaissance in the 14th century. Over the next 500 years, exploration and colonialism brought much of the Americas, Asia, and Africa under European control, leading to later struggles for independence. The Scientific Revolution in the 17th century and the Industrial Revolution in the 18th – 19th centuries promoted major innovations in transport, such as the railway and automobile; energy development, such as coal and electricity; and government, such as representative democracy and Communism.

As a result of such changes, modern humans live in a world that has become increasingly globalized and interconnected. Although this has encouraged the growth of science, art, and technology, it has also led to culture clashes, the development and use of weapons of mass destruction, and increased environmental destruction and pollution, affecting not only themselves but also most other life forms on the planet.


The scientific study of human evolution encompasses the development of the genus Homo, but usually involves studying other hominids and hominines as well, such as Australopithecus. "Modern humans" are defined as the Homo sapiens species, of which the only extant subspecies - our own - is known as Homo sapiens sapiens. Homo sapiens idaltu (roughly translated as "elder wise human"), the other known subspecies, is now extinct.[6] Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 130,000 years ago, although studies of molecular biology give evidence that the approximate time of divergence from the common ancestor of all modern human populations was 200,000 years ago.[7][8]

The closest living relatives of Homo sapiens are the two chimpanzee species: the Common Chimpanzee and the Bonobo. Full genome sequencing has resulted in the conclusion that "after 6.5 [million] years of separate evolution, the differences between chimpanzee and human are just 10 times greater than those between two unrelated people and 10 times less than those between rats and mice". Suggested concurrence between human and chimpanzee DNA sequences range between 95% and 99%.[9][10][11][12] It has been estimated that the human lineage diverged from that of chimpanzees about five million years ago, and from that of gorillas about eight million years ago. However, a hominid skull discovered in Chad in 2001, classified as Sahelanthropus tchadensis, is approximately seven million years old, which may indicate an earlier divergence.[13]
The Recent African Origin (RAO), or "out-of-Africa", hypothesis proposes that modern humans evolved in Africa before later migrating outwards to replace hominids in other parts of the world. Evidence from archaeogenetics accumulating since the 1990s has lent strong support to RAO, and has marginalized the competing multiregional hypothesis, which proposed that modern humans evolved, at least in part, from independent hominid populations.[14] Geneticists Lynn Jorde and Henry Harpending of the University of Utah propose that the variation in human DNA is minute compared to that of other species. They also propose that during the Late Pleistocene, the human population was reduced to a small number of breeding pairs – no more than 10,000, and possibly as few as 1,000 – resulting in a very small residual gene pool. Various reasons for this hypothetical bottleneck have been postulated, one being the Toba catastrophe theory.

Human evolution is characterized by a number of important morphological, developmental, physiological and behavioural changes, which have taken place since the split between the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. The first major morphological change was the evolution of a bipedal locomotor adaptation from an arboreal or semi-arboreal one,[15] with all its attendant adaptations, such as a valgus knee, low intermembral index (long legs relative to the arms), and reduced upper-body strength.

Later, ancestral humans developed a much larger brain – typically 1,400 cm³ in modern humans, over twice the size of that of a chimpanzee or gorilla. The pattern of human postnatal brain growth differs from that of other apes (heterochrony), and allows for extended periods of social learning and language acquisition in juvenile humans. Physical anthropologists argue that the differences between the structure of human brains and those of other apes are even more significant than their differences in size.

Other significant morphological changes included: the evolution of a power and precision grip;[16] a reduced masticatory system; a reduction of the canine tooth; and the descent of the larynx and hyoid bone, making speech possible. An important physiological change in humans was the evolution of hidden oestrus, or concealed ovulation, which may have coincided with the evolution of important behavioural changes, such as pair bonding. Another significant behavioural change was the development of material culture, with human-made objects becoming increasingly common and diversified over time. The relationship between all these changes is the subject of ongoing debate.[17][18]

The forces of natural selection have continued to operate on human populations, with evidence that certain regions of the genome display directional selection in the past 15,000 years.


Human beings, or humans (Homo sapiens — Latin: "wise human" or "knowing human"[2]) are bipedal primates in the family Hominidae.[3][4] DNA evidence indicates that modern humans originated in Africa about 250,000 years ago. Humans have a highly developed brain, capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and emotion. This mental capability, combined with an erect body carriage that frees the forelimbs (arms) for manipulating objects, has allowed humans to make far greater use of tools than any other species. Humans now permanently inhabit every continent on Earth, except Antarctica (although several governments maintain permanently- and seasonally-staffed research stations there). Humans also now have a continuous presence in low Earth orbit, occupying the International Space Station. The human population on Earth amounts to over 6.7 billion, as of July, 2008.[5]

Like most primates, humans are social by nature. However, they are particularly adept at utilizing systems of communication for self-expression, exchanging of ideas, and organization. Humans create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families to nations. Social interactions between humans have established an extremely wide variety of traditions, rituals, ethics, values, social norms, and laws, which together form the basis of human society. Humans have a marked appreciation for beauty and aesthetics, which, combined with the desire for self-expression, has led to innovations such as culture, art, literature and music.

Humans are notable for their desire to understand and influence the world around them, seeking to explain and manipulate natural phenomena through science, philosophy, mythology and religion. This natural curiosity has led to the development of advanced tools and skills; humans are the only currently known species known to build fires, cook their food, clothe themselves, and manipulate and develop numerous other technologies. Humans pass down their skills and knowledge to the next generations through education.


The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself
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 ‘serious 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 ‘fear’ as a taken-for-granted concept that needs little explanation or elaboration.

The aim of this essay is to examine the various elements of fear in the here and now. It will explore how fear works, and isolate the key elements of today’s culture of fear. According to David Garland, in his 2001 book The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, when it comes to fear of crime ‘our fears and resentments, but also our commonsense narratives and understandings, become settled cultural facts that are sustained and reproduced by cultural scripts’.

The idea of ‘cultural scripts’ can help to reveal much about emotions such as fear. A cultural script communicates rules about feelings, and also ideas about what those feelings mean. Individuals interpret and internalise these rules according to their circumstances and temperament, while always remaining very much influenced by the rules. As Elias notes, ‘the strength, kind and structures of the fears and anxieties that smoulder or flare in the individual never depend solely on his own “nature”’. Rather they are ‘always determined, finally by the history and the actual structure of his relations to other people’ (19).

So the impact of fear is determined by the situation people find themselves in, but it is also, to some extent, the product of social construction (20). Fear is determined by the self, and the interaction of the self with others; it is also shaped by a cultural script that instructs people on how to respond to threats to their security. So getting to grips with fear in contemporary society will require an assessment of the influence of culture. Instead of treating fear as a self-evident emotion, a taken-for-granted concept, we should explore the meaning attached to fear and the rules and customs that govern the way in which fear is experienced and expressed.

Sociologists need to ask questions such as ‘what may be the meaning of emotional events?’ when they are examining fear today (21). One of the most perceptive studies of the history of emotions says we must distinguish between the ‘collective emotional standards of a society’ and the subjective feelings of the individual (22). While the emotional experience of the individual is, of course, an important aspect of the problem of fear, we must also try to conceptualise fear as a social phenomenon. Cultural norms that shape the way in which we manage and display our emotions also influence the way that fear is experienced.

For example, experience tells us that the intensity of fear is not directly proportional to the objective character of the specific threat. Adversity, acts of misfortune and threats to personal security do not directly produce fear. Rather, our responses to specific circumstances are mediated through cultural norms, which inform people of what is expected of them when they are confronted with a threat; how they should respond, how they should feel.

Arlie Hochschild, in her pathbreaking study in 1979 of the sociology of emotions, described these informal expectations of how we should respond to things as ‘feeling rules’ (23). These ‘feeling rules’ influence behaviour; they instruct us on what we ought to fear, and how we ought to fear it. According to Anthony Giddens, ‘people handle dangers and the fears associated with them in terms of emotional and behavioural formulae which have come to be part of their everyday behaviour and thought’ (24). But the transformation of anxious responses into fear also requires the intervention of social forces, of what I have labelled ‘fear entrepreneurs’ (25).

As the sociologist David Altheide has argued, ‘fear does not just happen; it is socially constructed and then manipulated by those who seek to benefit’ (26). While this description of socially constructed fear tends to inflate the role of self-interest – the extent to which fear entrepreneurs exploit fear in order to gain some direct benefit – its emphasis on the role of human agency in the making of fear is nonetheless a useful counterpoint to the idea that fear is something natural or purely psychological.

So, the meaning and experience of fear are continually shaped by cultural and historical factors. The historical fear of famine is very different, for example, to today’s ‘powerful fear’ of being fat (27). The meaning that societies once attached to fear of God or the fear of Hell is not quite the same as today’s fear of pollution or of cancer. And fear does not always have negative qualities. The sixteenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes regarded fear as being essential for the realisation of the individual and of a civilised society (28). For Hobbes, and others, fear could be seen as a fairly reasonable response to new events and big changes. In the individual, too, fear has not always been viewed as a negative emotion. As David Parkin argued in his 1986 essay ‘Toward an apprehension of fear’, as late as the nineteenth century the sentiment of fear was linked to ‘respect’, ‘reverence’, ‘veneration’. ‘Fearing the Lord’, for example, was culturally celebrated and valued. In contrast, the act of fearing God today sits far more uneasily with the prevailing cultural outlook.

Matters are complicated further by the fact that the words and phrases used to describe fear are culturally and historically specific. Today, we talk about fear as something unspecific, diffuse, and intimately tied to the therapeutic view of the individual. In her important study of the cultural history of fear, published in 2005, Joanna Bourke points to the importance of the recent ‘conversion of fear into anxiety through the therapeutic revolution’ (29). Anxieties about being ‘at risk’ or feeling ‘stressed’ or ‘traumatised’ or ‘vulnerable’ show very clearly that today’s individualised therapeutic vocabulary influences our sensibility of fear.

Contemporary fear culture

In an important contribution to the debate about how culture impacts on the population, Ann Swidler argued that ‘people vary greatly in how much culture they apply to their lives’ (30). But in the very act of using culture, people ‘learn how to be, or become, particular kinds of persons’.

Swidler argues that this ‘self-forming’ continually calls upon the symbolic resources of the wider culture. ‘Through experience with symbols, people learn desires, moods, habits of thought and feeling that no one could invent on her own’, she observes. And these habits of thought and feeling influence the way that individuals make sense of their experiences, and also how they perceive of threats and how they respond to threats. As Norbert Elias stated, the strength and form of ‘shame, fear of war and fear of God, guilt, fear of punishment or of loss of social prestige, man’s fear of himself, of being overcome by his own affective impulses’ depend upon ‘the structure of his society and his fate within it’.

Threats are mediated through the cultural outlook. And today, the role of culture is arguably more significant than it was in previous times. According to Stefanie Grupp, in her paper on the ‘Political implications of a discourse of fear’, individual fears are cultivated through the media and are less and less the outcome of direct experience. ‘Fear is decreasingly experienced first-hand and increasingly experienced on a discursive and abstract level’, concludes Grupp. She also suggestively notes that ‘there has been a general shift from a fearsome life towards a life with fearsome media’ (31).

This point is echoed by Altheide, who claims that ‘popular culture has been the key element in promoting the discourse of fear’ (32). Even Osama bin Laden seems to have grasped this trend. In an interview in October 2001, when asked ‘why is the Western media establishment so anti-humane’, bin Laden replied: ‘[Because] it implants fear and helplessness in the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States.’ The legal theorist Christopher Guzelian argues that this indirect aspect of fear is the most distinctive feature of contemporary fear culture. He believes that ‘most fears in America’s electronic age’ are the results of ‘risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society’. He concludes that it is ‘risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days’ (33).

However, the influence of fear today cannot be explained as a direct outcome of the power of the media. The very real dynamic of individuation means that fear is experienced in a fragmented and atomised form. That is why fear is rarely experienced as a form of collective insecurity, as it often was in earlier times. This shift from collective fears to individuated fear is captured well by Nan Elin, who argued in the 1999 book Postmodern Urbanism that the fear we sense today is no longer the fear of ‘dangerous classes’; rather, fear has ‘come home’ and become privatised (34). The sensibility of fear is internalised in an isolated fashion, for example as a fear of crime or as a rather banal ‘ambient fear’ (as Hubbard describes it) towards life in general. Hubbard notes that this is a kind of fear that ‘requires us to vigilantly monitor every banal minutia of our lives’, since ‘even mundane acts are now viewed as inherently risky and dangerous’ (35).

Low-grade fears and risks seem to be flourishing and capturing people’s imaginations. The real significance of this development, however, of this move towards a more individuated form of fear, is the highly personalised, even customised way in which fear is experienced now. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, postmodernity has privatised the fears of modernity. ‘With fears privatized...there is no hope left that human reason, and its earthly agents, will make the race a guided tour, certain to end up in a secure and agreeable shelter’, Bauman writes (36).

John Keane has drawn attention to another aspect of the privatisation of fear – namely, today’s growing tendency to transform private fears into public ones. The privatisation of fear encourages an inward orientation towards the self. According to one interesting study, when members of the public are interviewed about the personal risks they face they tend to represent ‘crisis, fears and anxieties as self-produced and individual problems, the products of “personal biography”’ (37).

Fear as a problem in its own right

A recurring question in public debates on contemporary risk consciousness is whether society is more fearful today than it was in the past. Some believe that today’s ‘magnitude and nature of fear’ is different to the past, since ‘it seems that fear is everywhere’ (38). Studies on the fear of crime argue that there has been a growth of fear in everyday life. For Elin: ‘The fear factor has certainly grown, as indicated by the growth in locked car and house doors and security systems, the popularity of gated or secure communities for all age and income groups, and the increasing surveillance of public space…not to mention the unending reports of dangers emitted by the mass media.’ (39)

However, an increase in the quantity of fear is difficult to measure, since the very meaning of fear is itself continually changing. That is why, as Andrew Tudor argues, ‘simply to document the considerable range of fears given currency in our cultures is not enough’ (40). We must remember, says Tudor, that ‘late modern conceptions of fear are distinctive in their fundamental character when compared with other periods and societies’. The starting point to gaining an insight into the socio-cultural nature of contemporary fear is to emphasise the quality and meaning of fear, rather than its quantity.

Fear is often said to be the defining cultural mood in contemporary society. Yet the institutionalisation of fear through the issuing of health warnings, through risk management, through media stories and so on, should not be interpreted as proof that the quantity of fears has increased. Maybe it has; maybe it has not. Nor can we conclude on the basis of existing evidence that people feel fear more intensely than did earlier generations. The prominent role of fear today merely indicates that it serves as a framework through which we interpret a variety of experiences.

The prominence of fear in contemporary culture also suggests that fear works as a problem in its own right. In recent years, particularly as a result of risk theory, fear has become objectified. Alan Hunt has noted that ‘risk discourse transposes anxieties into an objectivist problematic’ (41). As a result, fear is increasingly perceived as an autonomous problem. Consequently, ‘fear becomes a discourse’, which ‘expands beyond a specific referent and is used instead as a more general orientation’ (42).

A distinguishing feature of contemporary fear is that it appears to have an independent existence. In this respect, it resembles the way in which social anxiety was discussed and understood in the 1940s and 50s (43). But whereas anxiety was viewed as a diffuse intangible condition, fear today seems to exist in an objectified form as a clearly identifiable social problem. Fear in itself, rather than the thing that we have become fearful in response to, is a distinct problem of our times.

Classically, societies associated fear with a clearly formulated threat: the fear of death, the fear of a specific enemy, the fear of hunger. The threat was defined as the object of fear; the problem was not the feeling of fear, but the things that were feared: death, illness, hunger. Today, many see the very act of fearing as a threat in itself. Consider the debate about the fear of crime. Nowadays fear of crime is seen as a serious problem that is to some extent distinct from real acts of crime. As Garland observes: ‘Fear of crime has come to be regarded as a problem in and of itself, quite distinct from actual crime and victimization, and distinctive policies have been developed that aim to reduce fear levels, rather than reduce crime.’ (44). Indeed, it seems that the fear of crime is ‘now recognised as a more widespread problem than crime itself’ (45).

It is far from clear what has been measured when statistics point to an increase or decrease of the fear of crime. As Chris Hale has suggested, it seems that often what is measured is not so much the fear of crime as ‘some other attribute, which might be better characterised as “insecurity with modern living”, “quality of life”, “perception of disorder” or “urban unease”’ (46).

However, this process of trying to quantify a cultural mood means that the fear of crime becomes objectified, and thus can acquire a force of its own. Its objectification may turn it into a ‘fact of life’, and this can help to legitimate, if not even encourage the fear response.

Often today, public anxiety and concerns are discussed as material factors that can have a decisive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Many in contemporary medical culture claim that stress and fear are likely to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and chronic lung disease (47). In Britain, the conclusion of an inquiry into the alleged health effects of using a mobile phone is now regarded as a model for how to respond to contemporary health fears, particularly those related to environmental health. The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP), set up ‘to keep ahead of public anxiety’, concluded that there was no known health threat posed by mobile telephony – yet it argued that the anxieties stirred up simply by the presence of mobile-phone masts need to be taken seriously, since public fear in itself could lead to ill-health (48).

There is always a potential for people’s health anxieties to turn into a major problem. Phil Strong, the medical sociologist, has written about an ‘epidemic of suspicion’ that can cause serious public health problems (49). However, it is only fairly recently that fear has also been discussed as an autonomous cause of illness.

When we witness the autonomisation of fear, then the question becomes not simply what is causing fear, but what are the potential negative consequences of fear? This can lead to strategies that focus on managing feelings of fear, in order to offset their damaging impact, rather than focusing on the source of the problem. If people fear that their health is at risk, than this fear is often seen as actually posing a risk to their health (50). The legal systems in the US and the UK have internalised this view of fear; courts are now moving towards compensating people for their feelings of fear, even when there is an absence of a perceptible physical threat. As Guzelian has noted, in the past ‘fright’ – that is, a reaction to an actual event – was compensated, whereas now the fear that something negative might happen is also seen as grounds for making a compensation claim (51).

The autonomisation of fear is linked to the view of risk as an independent variable. Risk communication today is informed by the idea that ‘fear itself is a risk and must be part of risk-management policymaking’ (52). The transformation of fear into a risk runs alongside the transformation of risk into a negative experience. Terms like a ‘good risk’ or a ‘risk worth taking’ are noteable by their absence in contemporary debate. Risk is not even represented as being neutral today; instead risk is almost always associated with negative outcomes which people are expected to fear.

Through risk management, fear is institutionalised and the fear response is further encouraged and culturally affirmed.

The free-floating and raw character of fear

The volatility of fear today is captured well by Parkin. He says there has been a shift from a concept of fear that ‘encompassed…respect’ to what he calls ‘raw fear’. He describes the former as an ‘institutionally controlled fear’, while ‘raw fear’ has more of a free-floating and unpredictable character (53). Bourke claims that this move towards more ‘nebulous anxiety states’ is due to the decline of tangible threats to corporeal existence that were brought about by war, for example, in earlier eras (54). However, as I noted previously, it is likely to be the privatisation of fear that makes it so arbitrary and fluid today.

In contemporary societies, fear is unpredictable and free-floating. It is volatile, often because it is unstable and not focused on any specific threat. So today, fear can migrate freely from one problem to the next without any causal or logical connection. When in June 2002 the Southern Baptist leader Reverend Jerry Vines declared that Mohammed was a ‘demon-possessed paedophile’, and that Allah leads Muslims to terrorism, he was simply taking advantage of the free-floating fear narrative. Strikingly, he latched on to two big fears in contemporary culture: paedophilia and terrorism (55). This arbitrary association of paedophilia and terrorism has the effect of amplifying the fear of both. In the same way, constant claims that this or that hurricane, flood or other natural disaster is a symptom of global warming impacts on people’s perceptions and fears of such events.

Fear today has a free-floating dynamic. It can attach itself to a wide variety of events and phenomena. Consider the fear of terrorism. Since 9/11, this fear has continually expanded to cover almost all aspects of modern life. ‘Corporations must re-examine their definition of risk and take seriously the possibility of scenarios that only science fiction writers could have imagined possible one year ago’, argues a leading economist (56). In the five years since 9/11, what were previously seen as fairly normal hazards have been turned into exceptional threats by their association with the action of terrorists. So we no longer worry about the apparently everyday hazard posed by a nuclear power station; we also fear that it may be used as a weapon of mass destruction against us by terrorists.

The fact that more and more areas of life are seen as targets for terrorists – buildings, power stations, the economy and so on – has little to do with the increased capabilities of terrorists; rather it reflects the growth in competitive claims-making around fear and terror.

Today’s free-floating fear is sustained by a culture that is anxious about change and uncertainty, and which continually anticipates the worst possible outcome. This ‘culture of fear’, as I and others have called it, tends to see human experience and endeavour as a potential risk to our safety. Consequently, every conceivable experience has been transformed into a risk to be managed. Garland writes of the ‘rise of risk’ – that is, the explosion in the growth of risk discourse and risk literature. He notes that little connects this literature together, other than the use of the word ‘risk’ (57).

The very fact that risk is used to link together a variety of otherwise unconnected experiences highlights today’s mood of uncertainty. Fear, like risk, has become a taken-for-granted concept, even a cultural affectation for expressing confusion and doubt. For the French social theorist Francois Ewald, the ascendancy of the fearful and precautionary culture is underwritten by a ‘crisis of causality’, by a feeling of uncertainty towards the relationship between action and effect. Ewald suggests that the institutionalisation of precaution ‘invites one to consider the worst hypothesis (defined as the “serious and irreversible” consequence) in any business decision’. The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear, and therefore to anticipate the worst possible outcome, can be understood as a crisis of causality.

Kurt Riezler, in his early attempt to develop a psychology of fear, similarly drew attention to the influence of ideas about causality on the way that people respond to threats. ‘They have been taken for granted – and now they are threatened’ is how Riezler describes a situation where ‘“causes” are hopelessly entangled’ (58).

The question of causation is inextricably bound up with the way that communities try to make sense of acts of misfortune. Questions such as ‘was it God?’ or ‘was it nature?’ or ‘was it an act of human error?’ have important implications for how we understand acts of misfortune, and how we deal with them. Confusion about causation encourages speculation, rumours, mistrust. And as a result, events often appear to be incomprehensible and beyond human control.

The new identity of vulnerability

‘Whom and what we fear, and how we express and act upon our fearing, is in some quite important sense, as Durkheim long ago realized, constitutive of who we are.’ (59)

Today, the autonomisation of fear has important implications for identity, for how we see and understand ourselves. The idea that we are the subject of threats – threats which have an independent existence – has given rise to the concept of generally being ‘at risk’. The emergence of this ‘at risk’ category ruptures the traditional relationship between individual action and the probability of a hazard (60). To be ‘at risk’ is no longer just about the probability of some hazard impacting on you; it is also about who you are as a person. ‘At riskness’ has become a fixed attribute of the individual, like the size of your feet or hands. Public officials frequently categorise whole groups of people as being at risk.

The perception of being at risk encourages the emergence of what we might call a fearful subjectivity. According to Ulrich Beck: ‘The movement set in motion by the risk society…is expressed in the statement I am afraid!’ Therefore, says Beck, the ‘commonality of anxiety takes the place of the commonality of need’. In the process, fear has become something which shapes and makes our identities.

To be ‘at risk’ clearly assigns to the individual a passive and dependent role. Increasingly, someone defined as being at risk is seen to exist in a permanent condition of vulnerability – and this informs the way that we make sense of the threats we face. As a metaphor, vulnerability expresses the idea that communities lack the emotional and psychological resources necessary to deal with change, to make choices, or to deal with adversity.

‘Vulnerability’ is now seen as the natural state for most people. As a label it is used to describe entire groups in society. Officials and community groups now frequently use the recently-constructed concept of ‘vulnerable groups’. The term vulnerable group does not simply refer to groups of psychologically distraught people or to those minorities who are economically insecure. Instead, we are all seen as being vulnerable in one way or another. Children, most strikingly, are automatically assumed to be vulnerable. A study into the emergence of the concept of ‘vulnerable children’ found that, in most published literature, the concept is treated as ‘a relatively self-evident concomitant of childhood which requires little formal exposition’: ‘Children are considered vulnerable as individuals by definition, through both their physical and other perceived immaturities.’ Moreover, this state of vulnerability is presented as an intrinsic attribute. It is ‘considered to be an essential property of individuals, as something which is intrinsic to children’s identities and personhoods, and which is recognisable through their beliefs and actions, or indeed through just their appearance’ (61).

And it isn’t just children who are defined as a vulnerable en masse. So are women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, disabled people, the poor. Indeed, if all the groups designated as vulnerable by experts and policymakers were added together, they would probably constitute nearly 100 per cent of the population!

The sense of vulnerability is so deeply ingrained today that it is easy to overlook the fact that, relatively speaking, it is a recently-invented concept. The term ‘vulnerable group’ first started to be used in the 1980s. One study notes that the tendency to frame children’s problems through the metaphor of vulnerability first emerged in the 80s, but really took off in the 90s (62). The authors of the study searched a major bibliographical database, BIDS, and found that over 800 refereed papers between 1986 and 1998 focused on the relationship between vulnerability and children. The authors noted that ‘while in the first four years of this period there were under 10 references each year to vulnerability and children, an exponential increase to well over 150 papers a year occurred from 1990 onwards’. They believe that this figure underestimates the tendency to discuss children’s lives in terms of vulnerability, since it does not take into account the substantial non-academic literature on the subject.

A survey of the LexisNexis database of newspapers confirms the findings of that academic study. It shows that ‘vulnerable group’ is a relatively recent concept. An analysis of articles in the New York Times suggests the term began to be used in the 1980s. Between 1973 and 1979 there were no references to vulnerable groups in New York Times articles. A similar pattern is evident in the UK. Before the mid-1980s, use of the term ‘vulnerable group’ was rare. It began to be widely used from 1985 to 1987.

More significantly, it appears that in the late 1980s the word ‘vulnerable’ started being used to describe people’s intrinsic identities. Vulnerability was no longer seen as something that springs from specific circumstances, for example poverty; rather it was considered to be an inherent condition of an individual. This shift is best captured by the newly emerging term ‘the vulnerable’. The move from the idea that people are ‘vulnerable to…’ various problems to the use of the noun ‘The Vulnerable’ captures the sense of powerlessness and fragility that underpins the rising use of the v-word today. Vulnerability is a state of mind, an identity, rather than a description of your relationship to a specific threat.

The emergence of vulnerability as an identity is linked with the objectification of fear discussed above, which first started occurring in the 1980s. A heightened consciousness of threats and risks is ‘experienced as an ordeal of unexpected vulnerability’, argues Ewald. His claim that the expression ‘to be “vulnerable”’ is a newly constructed ‘sacred term’ is an important insight into contemporary fear identity. From this point onwards, fear ceases to be just an emotion; it is also an important part of the construction of identity. This was captured well in a report from the International Labour Union, which warned about ‘fear in the workplace’. Guy Standing, one of the authors of the report, argued that ‘unless [fear in the workplace] is reversed, the vulnerable will become more vulnerable’ (63). Here we can see that even the supporters of trade unions self-consciously describe their members as ‘vulnerable’.

Through ideas about vulnerability, a sense of fear starts to be seen as a normal state of being. The flipside of this deflation of the status of human subjectivity is the inflation of the threat that external forces pose to the individual self. In public debate today, the alleged vulnerability and impotence of the individual stands in sharp contrast to the formidable powers attributed to the everyday challenges we face. Through the constant amplification of the risks facing humanity – pollution, global warming, catastrophic flu epidemics, weapons of mass destruction, and various health scares – even the limited exercise of individual choice appears to be restricted by today’s harsh regime of uncertainty.

The identity of vulnerability is the flipside of the autonomisation of fear.


A proper sociological understanding of fear requires further research into the way in which this emotion is mediated through today’s cultural outlook. We must address not simply the emotion of fear and the threats to which it is a response, but also the crisis of causality that shapes the fearful subject. As indicated previously, twenty-first century fear culture is increasingly being normalised as a force in its own right. In such circumstances, fear is a means through which people respond to and make sense of the world.

This stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken by US President Franklin D Roosevelt in his inaugural address in 1933, when he stated that the ‘only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. Roosevelt was trying to assure the public that it is both possible and necessary to minimise the impact of fear. His was a positive vision of a future where fear would be put in its place by a society that believed in itself. Today, politicians are far more likely to advise the public to fear everything, including fear itself.