Quick Review: Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and culture and I was intrigued when I saw one of his recent books at the public library: Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The book examines four threats: the nuclear threat, terrorism after 9/11, global pandemics, and global warming. Each threat has a chapter where Wuthnow provides an overview of the history and then a second chapter that provides more of an analysis. Each of these subjects is interesting and the historical chapters are decent overviews of the social construction of and response to each of the problems. The historical chapters tend to focus on popular culture (movies in particular) and government responses.

2. The primary theoretical aim is to demonstrate that people are not paralyzed or immobilized by such threats (as some have suggested) but rather are spurred into action. For governments and larger organizations, this means the development and expansion of agencies and procedures to deal with threats. Average citizens go about ways of making sense of the situation and preparing themselves. Wuthnow suggests action and searching for solutions is the typical human response to such situations and analyzing these patterns of response is revealing.

3. While the cases are interesting as is the theory, I feel this work could have done more to analyze each case and provide an overarching perspective on threats at the end. I also would have liked to see more of a summary of the interview data that Wuthnow and his team collected (mentioned in the first footnote to the Introduction) – how did this personal-level data fit with the broader social history of each threat?

Overall, an interesting work that left me wanting a little more explanation. These cases suggest that when a new threat arises, both bureaucracies and individuals will respond with action. But what kind of action – is it dependent on the particular threat, the particular culture, or some other factors?