Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.
Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.
In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).
Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.
Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).
Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).
Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.
This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).
Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.
Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.
Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.