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Public Space and Crime: The Cultural Meaning of Violence

September 18, 2000 by Administrator in September/October 2000

by Herbert Glasauer

In Germany, as in most European countries, there has been a dramatic increase in people’s concerns about insecurity in the past thirty years. In particular, people living in big cities are afraid of using public urban space when it is dark.

Many studies have confirmed this phenomenon, but only a few tried to explore the reasons for it. In general, the increase in concern about security is interpreted as a result of the rise in crime rates. Therefore many urban scientists, urban planners, and especially conservative politicians talk about “fear of crime.” They focus on more severe punishment, video surveillance, more police and security services, and law and order.

Urban planners suggest better illumination and openness of public spaces, or reduction of urban foliage. Learning from the city of New York, some German cities (especially in Bavaria) carry out their war on crime under the slogan “zero tolerance.”

But what is the relationship between the concern about insecurity and actual crime rates? Social scientists have tried to trace the reasons behind the increased feeling of insecurity among people. Their major finding is that even crime rates are similar there are immense differences in the so-called fear of crime between men and women, young and old, people living in big cities or small towns, and people living in Western or Eastern Germany. Furthermore, there is no consistent relationship between the level of crime rates and the level of fear of crime. In some cases the two factors prove to be positively correlated, in other cases they are not. Thus, the empirical findings are by no means clear.

Researchers have finally focused on three factors to explain the perceived insecurity:

• Victimization. The fear of crime is the result of having been a victim oneself.
• Social disorganization. The fear of crime is the result of a perceived decline of an urban district or neighborhood, in combination with the perceived loss of informal social control.
• The social problem. The fear of crime is the result of a social construction of crime and its sensational treatment in the mass media and by conservative politicians. Of these three perspectives only the factor of social disorganization showed a slight association with the perception of insecurity in some studies.

As signs of neighborhood decline, people mentioned the presence of stigmatized groups in public space – noisy teenagers, young men hanging around (perhaps using and dealing illegal drugs), beggars, bums, the increase of littering, the decrease of building maintenance, and the feeling that people who depend on social welfare are penetrating into their neighborhood. There is yet another aspect which I think is very important. This is the feeling of people that nobody cares about them, the feeling that politicians are completely uninterested in what happens to their neighborhood, and that they themselves have no idea of how to influence this decline. Many people believe they are becoming more and more encircled by people whose appearance is “strange” and whose behavior in public poses a potential risk for them.

Nowadays the fear that something violent can happen stands in contrast to the situation at the end of the 1960s, when the silent majority in Germany wanted to get rid of the “long-haired, filthy hippies, hanging around, smoking illegal stuff in public.” These hippies and dropouts were considered lazy and unwilling to work, but the majority of people did not perceive them as being dangerous.

Violence as a Social and Cultural Construct

I would, therefore, like to suggest a different hypothesis regarding this subject. Violence is not a fact. It is a social and cultural construct. Fear of crime increased because in the last three decades there has been a dramatic change in the social and cultural meaning of violence.

In discussions of the apparent increase in violent crime we often find two opposite positions. One position claims that there has been a strong increase in violent crime, as evidenced by increased crime rates. Other experts believe, and this is also my position, that we had a fundamental change in the meaning of violence in the last 20-30 years. As a result of this cultural change we have a higher rate of reporting crime to the police, which then shows up as higher rates of violent crime.

I recognize that it is difficult to empirically verify this hypothesis of cultural change. Therefore, I would like to search for factors which might have stimulated this change. According to sociologist Norbert Elias, one could interpret this change as a result of what he calls “the process of civilization of modern societies.” Elias considers this process to be responsible for the reduced violence in interpersonal relationships within the last centuries in Europe. On the individual level this process necessitates a psychological disposition which enables the individual to control his emotional reactions. This inner control in individuals has a dual effect. Not only does it prevent one from dealing with the external, it also makes it difficult to handle violent behavior, both physical and verbal.

Feminist Movement and Perceptions of Violence

But what is the reason for this cultural process? Who started the process of changing our cultural view of violence? In my view, it was the feminist movement, which began to focus on the violence of men against women within the private sphere in the 1970s. The fact that a formerly “trivial offense” became a crime of violence (even sexual violence) is a sign of the incredible influence of this movement. Today, we also talk about the violence of parents when educating children and recently, in Germany, the subject of violence and abuse in caring for old people has become an issue.

On the one hand women were the initiators of this cultural movement which changed our view on violence. At the same time, they were and are the “victims” of this movement because raising the issue of the latent symbolic violence within society makes the extent of social violence more visible. Violence is not only physical, but symbolic, verbal, and cultural. This increased visibility, in my opinion, also produces insecurity, anxiety, and fear.

This change in the meaning of violence explains why young men or teenagers in public places, especially foreigners from different countries or cultures, are seen not only as “young, lazy men” but as potentially dangerous characters. Even beggars are presumed to behave aggressively nowadays.

If the majority of the urban population is not afraid of physical violence and violent crime when using public urban space, we do not need more police, and we do not need more severe punishment because there is mainly nothing to punish. We do have enough police and security services to fight existing crime in Germany. What we need instead is what I call urban competence, a psychological disposition that enables individuals to handle urban discomforts. Living in cities is not always fun.

People have to bear with “different cultures, all these people that look and behave strangely, litter, noise, and so on.” Urban competence is a disposition to handle urban discomforts. Although it is the disposition of an individual, it is the task of policy to create conditions that are conducive for urban competence to develop and grow. How can public policy contribute to the development of an individual psychological disposition? Politicians have to create the conditions for democratic activities, and opportunities for the development of social capital. When people have the feeling that they are able to influence the development within a neighborhood, insecurity and fear are reduced. While social capital is primarily positive and stands for the inclusion of active, participating people, it also means exclusion of the so-called others, the losers in this social process.

Tolerance and solidarity cannot be decreed. Historically they are the result of active and, at times even violent, social conflict. Therefore, tolerance and solidarity in urban neighborhoods have to be the result of political conflict today. We do not have to debate all the rules and laws concerning the use of public space, but we should try to establish some standards for proper conduct there. I am not talking about middle-class values which have to be forced on people. I am talking about mutual respect and tolerance between different gender, cultural, age and ethnic groups, groups. Rarely is this an easy process. It is the annoying process of establishing democracy in everyday life.


Herbert Glasauer (glasauer(at)uni-kassel(dot)de) teaches at the Universitaet Gesamthochschule in Kassel, Germany.

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