Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
Research interests  

Recent research

Since 1995, my work has focused on the different manifestations of contemporary risk consciousness. In 1995, I published a study on the international contraceptive pill panic of 1995, titled The International Impact of a Pill Panic. The varied response to this panic in different societies led me to ask questions about why some cultures have a more developed consciousness of risk than others. Most of my work in recent years has been devoted to an exploration of the cultural developments that influence the construction of contemporary risk consciousness. At present, I am working on two interrelated texts, Disasters, Terrorism and the Growth of a Market in Fear and Rumours, which discuss the cultural context for these developments. Both of these works are oriented towards investigating the interaction between risk consciousness and perceptions of fear, trust relations and the ambiguities of contemporary morality.

Although my work is strongly influenced by the insights of social constructionist sociology, my past training in field work and history bring to the study of social problems a historical and empirical dimension. Elements of this approach are outlined in Population and Development (1997), The Silent War (1998) and in particular in The Culture of Fear (1997 - new revised edition 2002). These three texts examine the problematisation of different forms of social anxieties (race, population and risk) and have provided me with an opportunity to elaborate a sociological approach that synthesises the methods of historical inquiry with the insights of sociological investigation. Paranoid Parenting (March 2001, Allen Lane/ Penguin) develops this approach in relation to social anxieties about childhood. Since September 11, I have been exploring the way that the reaction to this event provides insights into the contemporary consciousness of risk and also the impact of this episode has influenced the public perception of risk. A preliminary study, Refusing to be Terrorised; The Management of Risk After September 11, published by Lloyds/Global Futures, attempts to develop an analytic framework for making sense of this dreaded form of risk.

Alongside my study of risk consciousness, I have explored the cultural influences that have encouraged society to become risk-averse and to feel a heightened sense of vulnerability. The defining feature of people is increasingly represented as their vulnerability and it is frequently suggested we live in an age where people's mental health and emotions are permanently under siege. The cultural influences that promote a new version of diminished subjectivity constitutes the subject of my recently published book, Therapy Culture - Cultivating Vulnerability In An Anxious Age. Along with colleagues committed to the more robust version of personhood associated with the humanist tradition, I am engaged in a cultural critique of attempts to medicalise people's experiences and behaviour.

Planned research

The main research problem underpinning my work is the relationship between the diminishing of cultural authority and society's capacity to manage risk and change. Cultural changes in the conceptualisation of the authoritative and the factual in social life have important implications for the perception of risk and relations of trust. One of the ways in which the weakening of cultural authority expresses itself is through the rise in the status of competing sources of knowledge. So-called knowledge intermediaries - alternative research organisations, advocacy groups, NGOs, think tanks, internet-based research groups - play an important role in influencing public perception. As alternative sources of 'knowledge' and opinion, intermediaries often compete with the official versions of events. Often acting as 'risk-amplifiers' and sometimes as 'risk-minimisers', intermediaries make a significant contribution to the construction of the public's consciousness of a specific risk.

My aim is to initiate a major research project studying the role of intermediaries in the constitution of alternative knowledge in relation to the framing of disaster episodes. To this end I will be examining the role and impact of such intermediaries in the representation of risk related episodes and controversies e.g. the foot and mouth out break, controversy over MMR, the war on terrorism and the recent UK floods. Through the investigation of a series of case studies we hope to formulate an analytical framework for making sense of the relationship between alternative knowledge intermediaries and official authority in the cultural framing of risk. This research will also contribute towards my long term objective, which is to publish a theoretically informed study on the subject of the sociology of rumour and dissident knowledge.