I recently had the pleasure of reading Anna Minton’s new book, Ground control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city. It’s a great overview of problems with the privatisation of public space and I’d highly recommend it for anyone interested in the terrifying spread of surveillance and gentrified secure-by-design space. More than anything, it succeeds in making you angry about the ways our towns and cities are being constructed as soul-drainingly banal zones of social purity and, well, nothingness, policed by increasingly elaborate forms of surveillance technology, where some people can and do belong and others are rendered out-of-place. Purification is linked with profit, Minton argues. Counter-intuitively, the gated-communities and surveillance technologies that are supposed to make us feel safer have the converse effect: fear of crime is on the rise.
The relationship between fear of crime and surveillance technology is the subject of a new paper by forensic psychologists at the University of Huddersfield. I’m no forensic psychologist, but I was interested to see whether the paper might further flesh out the psychological reasons for a seemingly counter-intuitive rise in fear of crime in the face of increased surveillance and reductions in the amount of actual crime. Based on existing psychological models of the fear of crime, Williams and Ahmed (2009) argue that whether CCTV cameras are reassuring or fear-inducing depends on a complex range of factors influencing people’s perceptions: for example, the nature of the environment in which they’re placed, the people in that environment, and the pre-existing assumptions of the observer (along with a range of other individual factors such as age, gender and so on).
CCTV may act as kind of ‘cue’, they suggest, influencing our understanding of how much we should trust an environment and the other people in it. To use the authors’ own example, CCTV cameras outside a school might ‘cue’ a sense of vulnerability that requires protection, while CCTV cameras in a shopping precinct populated by large groups of young people might trigger interpretations of ‘threat’. On this basis, they set out to explore the dynamics of the relationship between CCTV, our preconceptions and the characteristics of the environment.
To explore this relationship the authors showed people photographs of an urban scene into which they placed different targets, including a CCTV camera and pictures of either a single female or a male skinhead. The idea was, firstly, to see whether the presence of a CCTV camera influenced ratings of crime frequency and fear of crime. Secondly, they wanted to see whether these ratings depend on the positive or negative stereotypes cued by other factors: in this case the presence of a male skinhead, assumed to trigger more negative criminal stereotypes, or a ‘studious’ female, assumed to trigger more positive feelings of protectiveness.
The paper’s key finding is that reported fears of walking in the area shown in the photograph was significantly higher when the scene included both a CCTV camera and a male skinhead. Participants were also asked to write a ‘day in the life’ of the target – only male skinheads were viewed as antisocial, and only in the presence of a CCTV camera. As such, the authors argue that CCTV and particular figures such as ‘the male skinhead’ work together to create a sense of fear and anxiety – they do not have this effect on their own.
There is an underlying political message to this research which is largely consistent with the message of Minton’s book: CCTV and surveillance technologies may be contributing to our fear of strangers and the erosion of trust in society. Rather than protecting us from particular folk devils, they play a part in creating them.
That said, I wonder how much this research can actually tell us about the psychological mechanisms underlying fear of crime. To me, the presented photographs seem to draw attention to their own contrivance. Taking part in psychological research, people are often left searching for clues as to what is really required of them and what the researcher is looking for. This sometimes happens in qualitative research on prejudice, where people can respond in a prejudicial manner out of a kind of politeness – they respond in a negative way, not necessarily because it accurately represents their own views on a particular topic, but because they think it is what’s required of them in the research they’re taking part in. I wonder whether the visible contrivance of the photos may have communicated a need for participants to think stereotypically. It may be that the presence of a CCTV camera in this case doesn’t simply ‘trigger’ perceptions of a figure as antisocial, but instead communicates the need for, and even social legitimacy, of stereotyping.
The researchers’ own presumption that the male skinhead would be negatively stereotyped is itself somewhat dubious and risks implicitly reproducing stereotypes of the ‘threatening’ skinhead. In this way, the political objectives of the paper might be undermined by some of the banal assumptions they make.
Tags: Anna Minton, CCTV, Environmental Psychology, Fear and happiness in the Twenty-First Century, Fear of Crime, Forensic Psychology, Ground Control, Place, Privatisation of Public Space, Psychology, Purification, Secure-by-design, Space, Surveillance, Williams and Ahmed (2009)