An organism with no fear of predators, after all, is one that is unlikely to live long enough to reproduce. The point is not that fear in humans is a desirable state; a society that feels safe and secure is surely to be preferred over one that does not. However, in the face of real danger, fear may lead individuals to take precautions that reduce their (or others') risk and thereby save them from injury.

A second issue concerns the extent to which fear of crime actually prevents citizens from engaging in normal everyday activities. Drawing on their findings from the National Crime Surveys, Hindelang et al. (1978) offer a provocative argument. Fear of criminal victimization, they argue, typically results in relatively subtle lifestyle changes. Rather than altering what individuals do, fear of crime is more likely to change the way they do it. Instead of forgoing shopping altogether, a fearful person may change their hours for shopping, alter the route or means of transportation employed in getting there, or choose to go shopping with companions. The argument would seem to understate the consequences of fear for some individuals, for whom fear does appear to be a profoundly debilitating condition (e.g., Skogan and Maxfield, 1981). For many Americans, however, it may well be true that fear is less of an outright obstacle than a hindrance in their daily activities.

Beyond the consequences of fear for individuals, however, lie questions about the consequences of fear for social institutions and American society as a whole. In recent years, a number of social commentators have charged that fear of crime has torn the very social fabric of the United States, making individuals afraid to leave their homes or strike up a conversation with a stranger. In a widely cited book, for example, Silberman (1980:7) argued that ''fear of crime is destroying the network of relationships on which urban and suburban life depends." Such broad charges, although easy to make, are difficult to verify. Yet it is true that many of the most common avoidance and precautionary behaviors (e.g., not going out at night, spatial avoidance) seem specifically designed to avoid social interaction, particularly with strangers, and such behaviors are sufficiently common to have affected the overall sociability of American life.

Against this rather gloomy assessment, however, stands a quite different view. In one of the most famous of sociological arguments, Emile Durkheim (1933:102) asserted that crime is functional for societies because it unites people against a common threat, thereby increasing rather than decreasing social solidarity:

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