Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

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).

References

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.

The new mobile digital technologies, health and the body

I’ve just had an article accepted in the journal Social Theory & Health (see link below). It looks at the phenomenon of ‘m-health’, or the use of mobile digital devices such as smartphones and tablet computers to promote health. There are now a plethora of apps available for downloading onto these devices that measure and monitor aspects of the user’s health: blood pressure and heart rate, ovulation, hearing function, body mass index (BMI), adherence to a medication regime, alcohol and cigarette intake, diet, sleep quality and length, exercise frequency and level and other bodily functions and activities can all be monitored using such apps. Apple has produced technologies and apps that allow users to hook up a blood pressure monitor or a set of scales to their mobile devices to record blood pressure and weight, produce tables and readouts of these and compare daily (or hourly) fluctuations. These data can then be shared with other people via social media, so that friends or followers may keep a close eye on how many kilometres a user has run that week, what her or his heart rate was for each run, how the user’s weight has changed (or not), what kind of diet they have consumed, whether they have stuck to their medication and so on.

Many of these apps are produced by commercial developers. However health promoters are beginning to see their potential and to consider and adopt the capabilities of mobile digital devices to individualise and target health promotion messages so as to change people’s behaviour. As one writer argued in a recent blog post on the use of messaging for public health objectives, such apps can be used to ‘become a “personal health coach”‘ to remind people to takeup health-related behaviours.

The use of mobile digital devices in health promotion endeavours represents a significant shift in the methods of health promotion. Health promotion has traditionally been a low tech area of public health in comparison with the vast array of medical technologies used in the clinical setting. The primary use of technology in health promotion has tended to be in employing communication media to disseminate illness-prevention messages to a wide audience. Health promotion has borrowed extensively from commercially-oriented social marketing, advertising and public relations approaches and methods to do so. These industries are now embracing social media and mobile devices as part of their publicising efforts. Here again, therefore, health promotion can be seen to be taking the lead from commercial enterprises which are directed at marking and selling commodities.

Writers from medical and health promotion backgrounds about the new social media and mobile devices tend to confine themselves in their discussions to describing how these technologies could be most effectively used as tools in their efforts to help people deal with medical conditions or improve their general health and wellbeing. From a sociological perspective, a more critical analysis may be undertaken of how these technologies may operate to construct various forms of identities and ways of experiencing and viewing one’s body. This analysis includes identifying the kinds of assumptions that are made about the target of these technologies and what the moral and ethical ramifications of using them may be. Moral implications include the kinds of meanings and the representation of the ideal subject that are related to the use of these technologies in the interests of promoting health. Ethical issues include questioning the extent to which health promotion practice should intrude into their targeted populations’ private lives and what kinds of messages and practices they employ when using digital surveillance devices. The article addresses these and other issues, drawing upon a range of social and cultural theory to do so.

I argue that m-health technologies produce a digital cyborg body. They are able to act not only as prostheses but also as interpreters of the body. The subject produced through the use of m-health technologies is constructed as both an object of surveillance and persuasion and as a responsible citizen who is willing and able to act on the health imperatives issuing forth from the technologies and to present their body/self as open to continual measurement and assessment. The implications of this new way of monitoring and regulating health have yet to be fully explored. These include privacy issues, questions about the intrusion of health promotion even more insistently into everyday lives and the possible ways in which concepts of ‘health’ might be reconfigured via the use of these new technologies.

References

Lupton, D. (in press) M-health and health promotion: the digital cyborg and surveillance society. Social Theory & Health. Advance online pre-publication details are here.

See my pinterest board on ‘M-health and the Digital Cyborg‘ for images related to this topic.