John Tulloch

A 'bad' rail story...will always get a run, particularly in [the tabloids], and probably on television if they can get pictures. A 'good' rail story is really struggling even to get into the local papers. For instance, we've upgraded the lights at Cabramatta [notorious for its 'Asian gangs', drug dealing and station crime].. .and that still hasn't been publicised in the local press.

(Sydney CityRail manager)

I think the media could play a major role by having a positive attitude towards using the trains. . Because what the media has done so far is to .encourage [people] to avoid the trains and I think it's the wrong attitude. We give up and we hide ourselves and give the space to the intruders. I think the media should reverse this attitude and tell the people to protect themselves but go ahead and not be hiding. We are the many, we are the people who should fight them and we should go out in masses and show body, not hide.

(Senior citizen, Sydney)

Both of these statements make two assumptions: that certain public environments are 'landscapes of fear' and that the media have a powerful influence in setting public perceptions of these risks. As such they might be taken as 'lay' parallels to recent 'expert' discourse from within academic sociology. For example, the Sydney, Australia, CityRail manager's comment about 'bad' replacing 'good' rail stories reminds one of Beck's (1992a, 1996a) view that the controlling logic of modern industrial societies' discourse has shifted talk about the distribution of 'goods' (of 'public services' like state-run train travel and better lighting at stations, for example) to one based on the distribution of 'bads' (the 'risk society'). At the same time other academics take much further our Sydney senior citizen's concern with the negative role of the media, to argue that the discourses about criminality she describes may be 'the perfect metaphor for post-modernism'. Thus, Osborne (1995:27-8) argues that 'media narratives encode crime and disorder as the representations of fragmentation rendered coherent'. In his analysis, the 'obsessive...and hysterical replaying of the possibility of being a victim and staving it off (Osborne 1995:29) that marks the boundaries of our senior citizen's comment, has become systemic in the media's attempt to institutionalise the postmodern condition.

There are, in fact, some grounds of agreement between theorists of postmodernism and of 'risk society'; most notably in their critique of the 'grand narratives' of the Enlightenment tradition (such as science and Marxism). Like Baudrillard and other postmodernists, Beck argues for a global society in which we are increasingly free from controlling and normative expectations, whether those of class or of modern institutions. For both Baudrillard (1984) and Beck (1992a, 1996a), the condition of the individual in this situation of fragmentation is 'schizophrenic'. Baudrillard speaks of everything becoming 'undecidable' and Beck emphasises the 'incalculability' of risk among all sectors of society.

But their comments on the relation of the undecidable and the incalculable to the media and environmental risk also indicate their significant difference. In Baudrillard's postmodern world, environmental risk and media signification fuse. The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island has no 'core' reality beyond television's images of it, the television event having 'supremacy...over the nuclear event which itself remains...in some sense imaginary' (Baudrillard 1984:18). In Beck's 'risk society', the environmental hazards produced by science and technology—Chernobyl, Bhopal, the greenhouse effect, pollution, global warming—are clearly not simulacra; and far from TV becoming the world in an endless fragmentation and succession of images (as in Baudrillard's vision), the media form one of many institutions of 'experts' (together with science and the law) which define and circulate the politically salient discourses of risk.

For Beck (1996a), risk society sees a systemic transformation of industrial society in which the intellectual and discursive relationship of society to the hazards which it is producing and which are exceeding its own conceptions of security has led to all sectors of society—business, the law, academia, the media and politics—now talking 'risk' discourse. But they talk in conflict, as competing 'experts'.

Insurance experts contradict safety engineers.. Experts are relativised or dethroned by counterexperts Ultimately industries responsible for damage (for example, the chemical industry for marine pollution) must even expect resistance from other industries affected as a result (in this case fishing and the business dependent on coastal tourism).

(Beck 1996a:31-3)

It is this emphasis on risk society as a compilation and circulation of 'expert' rhetorics that has been criticised by another 'risk' theorist, Brian Wynne. He rebukes both Beck and Giddens for 'not problematising the boundary between expert and lay domains of knowledge and epistemology' (Wynne 1996a:76) and in his study of Cumbrian farmers faced by British government scientists'

research into the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, Wynne emphasises the contextual, situated and 'adaptive "control".. .which is exercised with personal agency and overt responsibility' (Wynne 1996a:70) that is symptomatic of specialist lay knowledges. Although Wynne's analysis applies to a rather restricted social group (Cumbrian hill sheep farmers), it will be readily apparent that his emphasis on agency, on local and contextual knowledge, and on 'the adaptive coping with multiple dimensions in the same complex area' (1996a:70) is equally important in other areas, such as risk in public environments.

The Centre for Cultural Risk Research at Charles Sturt University in Australia conducted a major 'fear of crime' research project, adopting a qualitative approach to the 'micro-narratives' of 'lay knowledge' (Tulloch et al. 1998). Here we were confronted by the very different multiple (time/space) dimensions of the 'adaptive coping' among the women we interviewed: for example, an older woman who boards the daytime train with her knife (in case of muggers), her apple (to legally 'justify' the knife) and her crochet needle (to keep her busy), compared with the variety of nighttime strategies by younger women on the train—such as the teenage girl who told us how she would meet three other women friends after work to catch the train home, and how they had nervously experimented with each of them sitting in a different carriage for a short while to help them control their fear.

These are not 'irrational' women with 'mistaken impressions' of their 'objective risk' on the train, as conventional statistical surveys of fear of crime tend to suggest. The kind of decontextualised and 'universal' expert-driven approaches that Wynne is criticising are very common in fear of crime research. Typically, individual survey questions like 'Do you feel safe walking alone in your neighbourhood at night?' are used to measure fear of crime in this research.

There are at least three problems with this kind of survey question. First, it is too hypothetical and ambiguous. Many older women, for example, will tell you that they do not feel like going out at night since their partner died, and even if they do, they may be as afraid of falling over an uneven pavement as of being mugged. So what does 'afraid' in this question mean? And what is especially apparent when you talk with older people is, of course, a feature with all age groups. There are a range of factors other than incidence of crime that contribute to an individual's perceptions of their own risk. Some of these are local, physical and direct (like an ageing body, or a younger, sexually harassed body). Others are more indirect or systemically long term, depending on experience of a declining environment or social exploitation. The single 'safe in your neighbourhood at night' question does little to explore these complexities.

Secondly, the responses to this question are used as evidence of the so-called 'risk/fear paradox'. But this notion—that women and older people who have less 'objective' reason to fear (based on the statistical profile of crime victims) actually fear most and are thus 'irrational'—founders on the everyday reality of being female or of growing older. It is not simply a matter of many crimes going unreported, but (as many young women said to us) of the whole spectrum of cues to fear—the man across the carriage staring fixedly at you, the man in the seat next to you whose knee nestles into yours each time the train lurches, the nervousness of sitting in an empty carriage at night, or worse, with that one unknown man sitting at the back of the carriage—which are underpinned by daily experience on and off the train. Only a few of our respondents spoke of actual sexual assault, but they consistently reported potential indicators of it. To argue (as senior New South Wales (NSW) transport managers did to us) that the gap between statistics of crime in NSW generally and crime on NSW trains not only indicates an irrational public ('it often comes down to just a pinch on the bum'), but also is 'caused' by a sensationalising media, misses this subjective reality and clings to a long outmoded model of communication, where people are seen as inert and passive 'receivers' of media messages.

The third problem is a complete undervaluing of human agency. Young women and older people have a wide range of strategies which they apply when they choose (or choose not) to go out in 'the neighbourhood at night'. So, too, do the group supposedly at the heart of the 'risk/fear' paradox—young males. Members of each group do fear public places at night and actively employ strategies of 'resistance' to these fears. But the active response of late-teenage boys is different from that of late-teenage girls. The latter articulate a variety of gender identities in their strategies for dealing with their fear of the unpredictable male stranger: going out in groups, surveying the carriage via reflections in the train window at night, sitting at the back of the carriage near the exit, and so on. But whereas young women adopt various active surveillance strategies targeted at one object—male (of any age) threat—late-teenage boys perceive a veritable anthropology of subcultural threats (whether from 'rednecks', 'westies', 'footies' or 'homies'), but then describe precisely where and when that threat resides, and what discursive strategies to adopt in response. The 'homies' are most feared because they target the trains as central to their own economy, and because young, non-car-driving males often need to travel by train to their gigs, movies, parties and so on.

So, to return to the narratives of our older lady with her crochet needle and the three younger women trying out sitting in separate carriages at night, these are women who, faced almost daily with a wide range of gendered inequities and minor harassments, are seeking a 'kind of adaptive "control"'. The young woman who told us this story also described the continuous harassment of a female colleague at work who was followed home via bus and train by a male, until she actually changed her job. These are real exploitations, to which the young women are finding whatever partial and 'fragmented' answers that they can.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Positive Thinking As The Key To Success

Positive Thinking As The Key To Success

Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment