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The University of Southampton

How people view crime depends on the politics of when they were growing up

Published: 8 August 2018
Image of Westminster.
Study shows correlation between a person’s current crime fears and their political generation

A new study in the British Journal of Criminology, published by Oxford University Press and supported by University of Southampton research, indicates that the different political periods in which people ‘came of age’ has an important influence on their perception of crime, even decades later.

For over forty years, researchers have sought to understand the causes and implications of people’s fear of crime. But to date, no studies have been able to take into account whether the political period in which a cohort grew up had a meaningful effect on their emotional responses to crime. The political context the respondents grew up in - during the ages of 15 to 25 - is the time when people form key opinions and are most sensitive to social events.

Researchers analysed data on fear of crime and antisocial behaviour from the British Crime Survey in England and Wales spanning 30 years. In doing so, they were able to estimate the net effects of individual aging, the historical period in which the survey was conducted and the political generations the respondents belonged to. 

This study comes from a project examining the long-term effects of Thatcherism on crime at the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton and Sciences Po.

The researchers found a strong relationship between a respondent’s current crime fears and their political generation. For example, those who grew up under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) or John Major (1990-1997) expressed the greatest level of worry about domestic burglary – the same generation who witnessed a dramatic rise in property crime during the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Wilson/Callaghan generation expressed the highest levels of worry about robbery and mugging, which was a key concern for politicians, policy makers and journalists at the time.

Responses to antisocial behaviours tell a similar story. People who grew up during the Blair and Brown governments (from the late 1990s to 2010), reported the highest level of concern about local problems, such as vandalism, teenagers loitering, and noisy neighbours; such problems were heavily emphasized and legislated against during this political period. 

Professor Will Jennings, from the University of Southampton, said: “Our study finds that people's fear of crime is a function of their formative years. Generations experience crime and criminal justice policy agendas in different ways - often shaped by the prevailing political and public debate around crime at the time.

“The generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s under the Thatcher and Major governments - also a time of rapid rises in property crime - tend to be most concerned about burglary. The New Labour generation that grew up under Blair and Brown on the other hand is more likely than other generations to be concerned about anti-social behaviour.”

Overall, this study shows that citizens have a greater propensity to fear the crimes that were the focus of political debate during their youth and this effect persists into adulthood. The results reveal that crime fears can linger, and that the processes by which people form their political values can cast a long-term influence on their attitude about crime.

“The pronouncements leading politicians make about crime can have a lasting impact on the crime fears of young adults. Political and popular debates about crime that are prevalent in one’s youth appear to impact the fears those individuals report through adulthood and into middle age,” said one of the paper’s authors, Stephen Farrall. 

“In this respect, our narratives of crime and disorder tell us something important about the enduring influence of our political history and the stories we hear about crime.”

The paper, ‘Political Socialisation, Worry about Crime and paper Anti-social Behaviour: An Analysis of Age, Period and Cohort Effects’ is available online.

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