Anxiety is part of contemporary life, yet rarely seen as anything other than personal and intimately psychological. Cultural Studies scholar Nicky Falkof joins us to discuss her work on fear and anxiety in South Africa, and how such negative emotions are often collective and collectively constructed – and relate deeply to our identities. Indeed, as Nicky tells us, if you ask yourself what or whom you’re scared of, you quickly face the question of who you think you are.
Hear about Nicky’s teenage engagement in goth culture as South Africa approached the end of apartheid, and how it led her to think critically about fear and social change. Plus, she explains why that country, and Johannesburg in particular – as explored in her new book “Worrier State” – is seen as such a fascinating site for studying anxiety. With Rosie and Alexis, she also reflects on the architecture of fear – and why some people are unjustly expected to live in fear while others feel entitled to fight it.
We also take on the trope of reflexivity, as Nicky considers how being truly reflexive requires not just introspection and soul-searching but meaningful practical action. With reflection on thinkers from Zygmunt Bauman to Jacob Dlamini and from Sara Ahmed to Sigmund Freud. Plus: what can the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles possibly teach us about anxiety?
Guest: Nicky Falkof
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From The Sociological Review
By Nicky Falkof
Rosie Hancock 0:05
Hi, this is Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:11
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong in Ottawa, Canada.
Rosie Hancock 0:14
Now, as you all know by now, this is a show about taking words and ideas, we tend to think we know, and flipping them – aiming to see them more critically, and ultimately see our society differently, or with the idea that by the end, we've kind of communicated what it means to think sociologically in the very broadest sense. And today, we're looking at something that's just so Uncommon Sense, because we never stopped to ask what this word actually means. And whether it stretches beyond the individual brain – that word is anxiety.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:49
Yeah, and I guess it's something people think belongs to psychologists – and perhaps a little bit to sociologists – when we talk about stuff like risk, precarious work, etc, right? I do come across anxiety fairly often, in my own research, since many of the projects I collaborated on or about mental health. But honestly, like, what makes me think most about that, that subject is like how anxiety's become such an important concern in the classroom, like with questions or recommendations for students who have anxiety disorders – at least, like where I teach – but yeah, maybe it's just because I, I teach quantitative methods, and that's not everyone's cup of tea.
Rosie Hancock 1:27
Yeah, I think for a lot of people talking about anxiety has become pretty mainstream – definitely since the pandemic, of course, since rising talk of climate change, as well – it's, it's okay to talk about feeling anxious on a personal level. I mean, I think, you know, we all get it. But at the same time, the way it's talked about flippantly sometimes by people who maybe don't feel anxiety themselves can be very hooked into sexism, ableism, ageism too actually – associated with the youth, so called snowflakes and so on. So, with those ideas all out on the table, we are very glad to have a guest here, a cultural studies scholar who is going to take anxiety in a very different direction. she is Nicky Falkof from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, where she's interested in race and anxiety in the urban global south with a particular interest in Whiteness.
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:24
Hi, Nicky, I understand that you're in Mexico City as we record this, correct?
Nicky Falkof 2:28
I am currently in Mexico City, which is really, really wonderful change from Johannesburg, but feels so incredibly relaxing and un-anxious to me – which is hilarious to all of my Mexican colleagues who find this city terrifying. So you know, just putting the two, putting the two different places with each other already makes it abundantly clear how anxiety is kind of structural and locational.
Rosie Hancock 2:53
So Nicky, today, we're talking largely about your work "Worry Estate" – that's worry with a O – which looks at four case studies from South Africa where fear and anxiety show up in wildly different ways – from racist conspiracy theories to a story about safety and performing goodness in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb. And through looking at those cases, you give due credit to emotion as a real – and you know, far from private – sociopolitical force. But to get started on how you got to that, I understand we need to go back to your teenage years and a story about Satanism. Can you tell us more?
Nicky Falkof 3:31
It's actually amazing how much of my career as an academic has been spent talking about my adolescent time of being a goth. Yeah, when I when I was a teenager growing up in the white suburbs of Johannesburg, the anxious neurotic white suburbs in the last years of apartheid, when there was a pervasive sense in the air that something was going to change and something was coming. Whether people were paranoid enough to believe that it was the threatened race war, or whether they were just terrified of change in a more generic way, there was this consistent feeling that society was unstable and becoming more so by the day. And kids like me – who didn't really know what was going on politically, because you know, this, we're live, we're talking about a time of intensive censorship – we knew something was up, we didn't know what was up. So there was a lot of adolescent rebellion and a lot of it manifested – particularly in the wealthier middle class White suburbs – a lot of it manifested in these subcultures, one of which was the goth subculture. Now at the same time, you're talking about a country with a very intense, long standing commitment to conservative Christianity. And you're talking about a country that has for a very long time been riddled with fear of communism with all sorts of different anxieties about terrible things that are that are threatening to happen at any moment, right. A very good anthropologist, who works at my university – his names Robert Thornton – he writes them White South Africans live in a state of rolling apocalypse. So you're talking about a culture that is constantly waiting for the end of the world to happen. And you're talking about adolescents coming of age in this culture, who are behaving in really in ways that are rebellious. And this is all happening at a time when everybody's freaking out about the end of society, the end of whiteness – which is the title of the book that I wrote on that topic – the end of the world as we know it. And all of these things coalesced into this fetid hysterical mess whereby gothy teenagers, like me were assumed to actually be Satanists. And that what we needed was not psychiatry, what we needed was exorcisms.
Rosie Hancock 5:38
Wow, I mean, really, it seems like there's an awareness that anxiety is not just some individual brain level thing, right? It's out there. It's between us. And it's social. Like it's, it's not just an individual mental health thing.
Nicky Falkof 5:51
Yeah, completely. I mean, you know, obviously, the kind of scholar that that people cite a lot when they talk about this stuff is Sara Ahmed who, whose work on the sociology of emotions, I suppose, is incredible. But she just says it so clearly, I think early on in her book on the cultural politics of emotion, she says that feelings are not just things we feel they're also things we do. Right, she's doing a kind of a, an early Judith Butler move – talking about how gender is something not just that we have, but it's also something that we do and perform on a daily basis. And I think that that's, it's very, very simple. And it's very insightful, because the fact is that fear is not just something that I feel on my own, I don't just sit alone in my bedroom by myself going, Oh, I'm scared, things are terrifying. I look at the internet, I read the news, I talk to other people, maybe I read, go down the wrong kinds of rabbit holes online. If I am feeling afraid, because I feel that the world that I live in is unstable, I'm not feeling afraid on my own. And I'm not feeling afraid, because it's an emotion that is just existing within my brain, I think it's really, really important for us to acknowledge, particularly that these kinds of persistent negative emotions are collective, and that they are collectively constructed, right – that we make them as part of our society. And also, that these kinds of persistent negative emotions can really be very strongly tied to our identities. The question is not just æAre you afraid? " It's "What or even mostly, who are you afraid of?" Because the question of who you are afraid of will usually help us to answer the question of who you think you are.
Alexis Hieu Truong 7:30
Your early experiences led you to be interested in whiteness and moral panic, and the stories we weave to help us process like emotions, like anxiety and fear, like, can you first explain what moral panic actually is, but also, whether there's something about like South Africa that makes it to the specially ripe sites for like studying this stuff?
Nicky Falkof 7:54
I mean, the first thing I need to say is, you know, I'm not actually a sociologist – I wasn't trained as a sociologist, I kind of stumbled across the idea of moral panic while doing a weird, interdisciplinary PhD – and the light exploded in my eyes and I went – ah, this explains everything, how wonderful. And it was only some years later that I really started looking into the concept and realising that there are a lot of problems with it. So I don't want to be one of these kind of theoretical evangelists. But I do think that the idea of moral panic is still useful. What it refers to is a particular type of collective panic that appears usually in the mass media. It's driven by the idea of morality. So it's not just something like – a cyclone is coming – right? It's something to do with the fact that society is under threat. The notion of it being a panic also suggests the way in which it's, it has viral qualities. So these kinds of stories are spread. They're spread by people who have a lot of social power, or they're spread by people who have no social power, but have networks of rumour. And they're often spread from the top down by powerful media, corporations and other times from the bottom up. So when we talk about moral panics, we're talking about things like sudden explosions, or paranoia that the government is trying to take away our rights by forcing us to get certain types of vaccines, or sudden explosions of panic that single mothers are destroying society by having too much sex or you know, the kind of rolling panics about young people and drug abuse. These things are all very, very common and they're cultural formations that recur. And there are a lot of complex ways in which we can think about them – and moral panic is only one of them – it is a useful idea, but it's also not the only idea. But then thinking about this in terms of South Africa – I mean, this is something that I get called out on a lot, right? So I am a middle class White lady living in a suburb in Johannesburg – a middle class suburb – constantly writing and thinking and talking about how people in South Africa so afraid. And one thing that I do get asked a lot is "Why? Why are you doing this?" you know – South Africa is not the most frightening place in the world. And it's absolutely not, by any means it's not the most dangerous place in the world, I do not live – I mean, despite the rolling blackouts that have characterised 2023 – Johannesburg is not the most dangerous city in the world, it's not the city with the worst life outcomes – especially not for those of us who are fortunate enough to be middle class and have access to private security, private health care, etc. But what South Africa does particularly well – and I think better than a lot of countries – is it makes its fears abundantly visible. So as we said at the start of this episode, I'm currently in Mexico City where I'm on a fellowship at at UNAM, the big university here, and I'm staying in a lovely little neighbourhood that's quite similar to the neighbourhood that I live in, in Johannesburg. And they also have a lot of security. So there are security guards with guns that you see around and there's barbed wire, and there are door, there are locks, and there are private security companies, and there are electric fences, and you know, all of these black bars and all the windows – but because of the way that the city is designed, all of these security features in Mexico City, kind of fade into the background. In Johannesburg, the way that our fortress architecture is designed, it is designed to foreground all of these security features – it's actually designed as a city to make you feel like you don't belong on the streets, like this is a dangerous place. And it's not more dangerous than a whole lot of other places. But because of our peculiar history – our history of, you know, recovering from apartheid, or completely failing to recover from apartheid because of how important and significant white fear has been in structuring South Africa since the colonial era – we have gone and built a country that is basically designed to tell people, you know, "you're unsafe, you're always at risk".
Rosie Hancock 11:57
Yeah right. So I mean, given that kind of like maybe kind of stereotypes of South Africa being a really dangerous place like you chose to move back there in 2012. And it's interesting, because you open your book with stories of, you know, some of the things people said to you about the move – the fears that they expressed and the kind of contradictory advice you received. Can you tell me about that? And how it led you to ask particular research questions.
Nicky Falkof 12:23
I mean, to start, you know, let's not put our rose tinted glasses on and go, you know, the reason that I moved back to South Africa in 2012 was because I loved it so much and I was so brave. The reason I moved back to South Africa in 2012, was that I got a postdoc. And I'm sure that there are some people listening to this podcast, who have had the experience of being early career academics in the UK, who will be aware of the fact that there are other types of anxiety and precarity, than the anxiety and precarity that you face in a dangerous city. So that was a choice that I made at that point in my life, that to go home and be able to have a career in the industry that I'd worked so hard to be qualified for, was a kind of a viable decision. I wasn't expecting Johannesburg to be this wild, vibrant, incredible, surprising city, because it hadn't been that way when I'd live there as a young person. But when I did go back, so many people were so surprised that I've done it because they're like, are you mad? Why would you come back here? It's so dangerous. And people just assailed me with warnings of what you can and can't do – where you can walk and where you can't, what kind of health insurance you need to get, who you should let into your house and who you shouldn't, which neighbourhoods are safe in which neighbourhoods are not – there was this really intensive, overwhelming sense from everyone around me that I've made an incredibly high risk decision and then I had to be super careful on a daily basis just to get through my life. And my response to this, as someone who was really interested in studying risk and anxiety, and as someone who was overly attuned particularly to the fears of white people was to go – right screw you guys, I'm gonna do whatever I want. And promptly went and got a bicycle and cycled around Joburg. And, you know, I used to, I used to joke that it was extreme commuting – because it's not really a cycling culture. And I mean, you know, I found the city not in any way nearly as terrifying as everyone had told me that it would be, which in itself is also interesting, because I was almost – by the time I came back, I was almost an outsider – and so I was able to access it as it was not as it was in my head. Whereas middle class – particularly White South Africans – who had never left Joburg had been living in this embedded state of fear since the 1980s, where everything just consistently seemed to be getting worse and worse and worse. And to me it really felt like people in that situation could not see beyond the crustedness of the narrative.
Rosie Hancock 14:54
So I mean, you started looking at the kinds of case studies you mentioned earlier and to explore the really social role of fear and emotion in South Africa in everyday life and in discourse. And my understanding is you did this – as one might in cultural studies, which is your field – by working with texts and materials. But where did you start for your prep, in terms of theory? Like, what, what did the existing work out there have to say about anxiety? And where did you see the gaps?
Nicky Falkof 15:23
You know, for me, this, my interest in this stuff emerged less out of theory than out of narrative. I kept stumbling over these stories that were really, really fascinating. The very first one – which is what I did my PhD about – was the story of, you know, where did all the Satanists in South Africa go? And then following that, that led me to a question of what happened to all of these panics in the 1990s, around so called white family murder? And that then led me on to the case studies that I used for the book that we're talking about now. So I kept finding these really, really fascinating, slightly terrifying, slightly horrifying stories of things that had happened in South Africa that took up so much national attention, and then suddenly vanished again. So I think, you know, a lot of my work is driven by a concern with what are the stories that people are telling themselves and each other about the world that they live in? And how are we using these events to help us understand things? Coherent with that was a kind of a later engagement with Zygmunt Bauman, whose work I just absolutely love. I think he's incredibly insightful. And also, I think he's actually someone who you can read. But what Bauman does – which I think is really, really wonderful – when he talks about cultures of fear, he makes it so abundantly clear that fear is not an individual experience – and that it is tied to global conditions. And he does it in a way where he talks about power, as this kind of vast, diffuse thing that we no longer understand, right? That the world has become so inexplicable and so big, we don't know where power resides. We know that power no longer resides with a king or a monarchy – although, you know, some of those people still have a lot of power – it also no longer resides with the government. You know, power resides with Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel, power resides in back rooms that none of us will really understand. You look at the political context of South Africa and you ask yourself – how is it possible that there's still not one credible political party other than the ANC that people can vote for? There's some inexplicable thing that is happening to power in the late capitalist era – and for us as kind of ordinary, everyday people that experience is so deeply alienating. And not only is it alienating, it's also impossible to understand. So we feel all of this fear, and all of these anxieties, and we can't really figure out what the hell is going on – so we make up stories. There's nothing new about it. But what's new about it, I think, is the pace at which the stories emerge. And the way in which they spread and how quickly they change. And then how quickly they dissipate again.
Rosie Hancock 17:57
It's interesting that you mentioned stories – you're also a cultural studies scholar – and as part of that, do you turn to disciplines like psychology or or even psychoanalysis? I mean, I know that's not necessarily always fashionable.
Nicky Falkof 18:08
I actually am unfashionably embarrassed to say that I still use Freud. I know the problems of Freudian psychoanalysis. But I think, you know, for me – obviously, I'm talking about the way in which people use narrative to explain the world to themselve – and I think for me, one thing that I have to acknowledge is that Freud's particular form of narrative really makes sense to me – which is not to say it's something I would ever use to analyse an individual person who's going through a mental health crisis – I don't think it's very useful for people. But I think it's very useful for cultures. You know, I think that ideas like disavowal, and denial, and these kind of these, these Freudian concepts of how we engage with ideas and how we flip them around and turn them into something that we can use. These ideas of fantasy, of the fantastic landscape that we build for ourselves in which we present ourselves a way in which the world makes sense – even if it's pathological and damaging for us. That I think is a very, very useful way of thinking about things, because it can also help us think about how larger groups do that, right? How larger... how families do that, societies do it, communities do it, ethnic groups do it, nations do it. Nations have stories of these terrible things that happen to us at this particular moment, and this is why we are the way that we are.
Alexis Hieu Truong 19:29
Going back to your book, Nicky and some of like the mind blowing stories that emerge, right? So the case studies used to talk about anxiety – and to which you apply the kind of ideas we've just discussed are pretty wide ranging right? But today we wanted to discuss on the plasma gangs story, in particular. It's an urban legend from 10 years ago or so now. Can you tell us about that?
Nicky Falkof 19:54
The plasma gang story? Yeah, I first encountered in 2013. But in the 10 years since I still working on it, I've encountered the same story over and over and over again in different parts of South Africa. So what the plasma gangs urban legend says is that there is a particular gang of criminals – they are often defined as either drug users or drug dealers, so there'll be kind of cartel style gangs or they'll be almost zombified, drug abusers – and they usually related to a particular street drug known as Nyaope– which is a very dirty mix of heroin, cheap weed and pool cleaner and all sorts of other urban legends about what goes into this drug. And in the plasma gang story, the Nyaope gang, the plasma gang, will go around the township – because this only happens in townships, which are working class or poor Black areas in South Africa, where Black people were basically shunted by the apartheid government – they'll go around townships, they'll break into people's houses, and they'll steal their plasma TVs. So far, so normal, it's just a crime gang. But what the plasma gang legend does, is it says that the gang who steals the plasma TV takes the plasma TV, breaks it open, and extract a mysterious powdery substance called 'plasma' – which is then used either as Nyaope either as the drug or used in some mysterious chemical process to make the drug in Nyaope. And of course, this is not true – there is no substance inside of plasma TV that you can use to get high. But the story has been incredibly persistent, and it's had some unbelievably interesting elements to it, there's been a lot of fear of violence associated with it – like the plasma games will kill you to get your plasma TV or they will hurt you very badly. But they also have all of these different techniques for putting everyone in the house to sleep. So there are there are these kind of these Muti indigenous magic techniques that people will tell each other stories about, where a certain type of substance will be burned, and wafted under the door of the township house, and everyone inside will fall asleep, so that the plasma thieves can come in and clean you out. And you also have to be very careful who you let in your home, you can't trust anyone – if you buy a plasma TV, you have to make sure no one sees the box. So this consumer item that is a kind of a very aspirational, neoliberal object that you buy – because you may be living in a township, you may not be rich enough to have a nice house or even a nice car, but you can buy a TV – but then the plasma gangs come along, and suddenly, the object that you've bought to improve your life in this insecure place, itself becomes part of the risk that you face, living in a township.
Rosie Hancock 20:05
So what does the existence of this story tell us about anxiety?
Nicky Falkof 22:37
For me, one of the things that was really interesting about this story is it really shows a side to consumer anxiety, a side to consumer culture, that Global North scholarship isn't really interested in, right? Scholarship in the Global North doesn't really want to think about what it means for poor people, for poor Black African people to also want to own nice things, and to also have the nicer life the better life – in South Africa, we call it the soft life – right that these kinds of these neoliberal aspirational urges are global. Everybody has them. We all have TV, we all have phones. We all know what Beyonce has got, right? But what does it mean to feel that urge? What does it mean to want that thing in a place that is also insecure or dangerous? What does that do to the kind of very, very globalised drive to consume and display in order to show your status and your security? How do these, how do these very, very modern things coexist in the same place? The desire to own and display, but also the fact that in most cities in the world right now, the majority of people are actually in much more precarious positions than we often we being, you know – we as academics – often acknowledge. It's a useful story, because it also helps us to try and figure out how people feel about their lives in these kinds of places. And you know, one of the really interesting elements of that is this, there was this sudden moment of people going well, the plasma gangs will find out if you have a plasma TV, so you can't let strangers in your house. And we're talking about communities that are incredibly welcoming – communities where when there's a wedding or a funeral, everyone in the neighbourhood attends, And this story pops up, and there's this sudden moment of people going, I can't trust everyone around me – which suggests something about the kind of dissolution of powerful long standing communities that you know, have have been, have been managing to maintain themselves in the face of all sorts of threats for a really, really long time. And then in a particular moment, find that they are – to some extent – destabilised. I also think that the plasma gang is incredibly useful as a story because it tells us something about the way in which modern – quote unquote – narratives of fear and anxiety and traditional – quote unquote – narratives of fear and anxiety are actually the same thing. In a place like South Africa, in a place like Alex – which is the township in Johannesburg where my version of the story was based – people are afraid both have hardcore criminal gangs, and have traditional magic that can be used to facilitate that kind of criminal work – and these multiple belief systems totally coexist.
Rosie Hancock 25:18
Nicky, it strikes me that so much writing on fear is often about White fear – like so called White flight to the suburbs, or the architecture of fear and gated communities and so on in places like Johannesburg – which you've kind of already spoken about. It's as though some people are seen almost as destined or doomed to live in a Hobbesian state of nature – a state of everyday fear – while others feel entitled to more to the right, there's like a right to fearlessness or something.
Nicky Falkof 25:47
I talked about this a bit in my in my PhD – which was my first book – where I talked about the phrase Black on Black crime, which is a phrase that got tossed around a lot in South Africa at a certain point where people were going – oh, you know, the incredible intimacy and political pre-election violence that's happening in KwaZulu-Natal is just Black on Black violence – as though the phrase itself kind of explains that sort of violence. It just goes – oh, well, you know, that's natural for those people. No one – when talking about family murders, or other types of things – no one ever talks about White on White violence, because White people are individual unique humans, who are not naturally associated with violence. So at the least, the very least in South African political discourse, there's often a naturalisation of violence when it happens to Black people and to poor people that is really horrific and quite upsetting and disturbingly persistent in 2023. One of the case studies that I write about in "Worrier State" is of far right activists trying to publicise the idea of a so called White genocide – which has been pumped all around the world – you know, South Africa is kind of ground zero for global White supremacist anxiety, because apparently, White people are facing a genocide. You know, we're all sitting, sipping our lattes in our cafes talking about the genocide, while the people who are allegedly perpetrating the genocide are cleaning toilets and looking after our children. And what the White genocide myth does is it ties itself to this particular notion of so called farm murders, which are murders of White people on farms. And of course, by murders do happen – White people are murdered on farms – it's terrible. All sorts of people are murdered on farms, we have a ridiculously high rate of violence, but the farmer the narrative basically says that only these types of deaths are important. And there was recently a crushing comparison, that, you know, we can think about, was the horrific fire that happened in central Joburg in August of this year where at least 74 people are reported to have died. The majority of them – as far as we know – were undocumented migrants from elsewhere in Africa, those people died. And yes – there was a lot of coverage, there was a lot of global coverage – but there wasn't, was this really intensive focus on the individuality of those people. This person died, this person had a child, this person had a father, this person had a wife. When White people are murdered on farms, these White far right activists tell their stories in these really particularly individual ways that make it clear that violence is not something that is supposed to happen to them. And when over 70 Black people die in a building, all they are is one of over 70 Black people.
Alexis Hieu Truong 28:34
Given that, can we use this moment to draw attention to people who are doing good work to change that, like who would you recommend?
Nicky Falkof 28:41
One the authors that I always tell people to read is Pumla Dineo Gqola – who used to be a colleague of mine at Wits and is now a chair at the Nelson Mandela – she's a chair in African feminist imaginaries, she's amazing. She wrote a book called "Female Fear Factory" – which is not a scholarly book. It's a popular book – but it's about the way in which women's fear is socially constructed for very specific purposes in South Africa. It's incredibly insightful, I highly recommend her work. Another scholar whose work I think is really important is Jacob Dlamini, he wrote a book called "Native Nostalgia" and another book called "Askari" which was, he's historian, he writes these books about the past that South Africa has and how and why that might impact on the present that South Africa has. But I also really strongly recommend that people read Johnny Steinberg – who I think for my to my money is possibly the best writer on South Africa right now. He writes – I guess you call it creative nonfiction – he's done a book called "Midlands " – which is about a specific farm murder. He's done a book called "A man of Good Hope" – which traces a Somali migrant in his journey down to Cape Town and he has a way of micro focusing on incredibly important localised stories that helps you to understand how the kind of social and emotional conditions of these people's lives are structural rather than just individual.
Rosie Hancock 30:07
Thanks for those recommendations. Nicky, we're gonna take a short little pause here. We'll be back to talk more after this from our producer, Alice.
Alice Bloch 30:17
Hi, thanks for listening to Uncommon Sense when we're talking about anxiety. Those reading tips Nicky just made will all be in our show notes – which you can find in the app that you're using to hear this right now, or over at the podcast page at thesociologicalreview.org. There, you can also go back through our archive to catch related episodes on themes like security, cities and emotion. And if you're a regular listener, maybe use the show for teaching or for study, you'll know this is where I give that important call to action. Please do take literally a second to tap, follow or subscribe in the app you're using to listen, it means you'll never miss a show. And it helps us to keep bringing more Uncommon Sense to you. Back to Rosie.
Rosie Hancock 31:00
Okay, so here's where we tend to look at a buzzword or trope that's really active in popular culture – perhaps trending if you like. So we've looked at things like self care, or the idea of a contactless world, and so on. Today, we're going to do the same but not in a conventional way, Nicky, we're going to ultimately take on the idea of reflexivity, which – like anxiety – is a concept that often sits stuck at the individual level with not much awareness of how to think bigger than that. And it's an idea that academics but also people beyond universities – I guess friends actually – tend to use pretty freely to mean, sort of the idea of being self aware, examining your own thoughts and motives, being aware of your position and so on. But, yeah, I feel like that's it, Alexis?
Alexis Hieu Truong 31:50
Yeah. And, actually, like, I guess reflexivity is being used and not used the in a bunch of various ways, right? But even like practitioners – like in last few decades, right – some people kind of doing like reflexive journaling, and so on. I think it's fascinating, but it also raises kind of the questions around like, what the limits of reflexivity are. And that maybe like sometimes, like introspection isn't necessarily the answer for all of our problems, and so on, right – you need action too. But before we go into reflexivity, as a kind of method, let's get there via another of your case studies which emerged from the suburb where you live yourself – Melville in Joburg, right? – and it was prompted by that all important research source – Facebook. Tell us about that? And how does it make, you know, how does it make us think differently about anxiety.
Nicky Falkof 32:41
So I live in this neighbourhood, which is quite famous as kind of like fun, Bohemian, comparatively racially diverse place and have, after I'd lived there for a while, I found myself trying to use the local neighbourhood Facebook group for various practical reasons as you do. And I was really struck by the difference between the version of Melville that was being discussed on that group and the version that I seem to experience in my daily life – which seems to be quite different. Largely because the people in the Facebook group seemed overwhelmingly to be concerned with safety, security, and fear. And the idea that certain types of people didn't belong in the neighbourhood, which hadn't really been my experience at all. So that's what led me to write about it. And then once I started engaging with the Facebook group, I realised that as well as that disjuncture, there was also another bizarre contradiction happening whereby the people on the group who were almost entirely middle class and largely seemed to be White presenting, on the one hand, were doing this collective thing about fear and about safety. But on the other hand, were very, very vocally and very obviously trying to perform the fact that there were good, non–racist White people. So they were going on the one hand, you know, we've got to stop informal traders from coming through the neighbourhood. But on the other hand, own, we must all collect things for the poor children at the local primary school who are largely Black. So, you know, I thought it was interesting to write about because of that contradiction between the different ways in which middle class people feel that they need to express themselves. And I think what it does is it shows how – at least in that particular scenario, in contemporary South Africa – it shows how anxiety is much more multifaceted, right? People are not only worrying that they're going to get killed or their stuff is going to get stolen. They're also worrying that they might not look good. They're also worrying that other people might judge them. So we're not just talking about a fear of physical safety. We're also talking about a fear of social safety, or social risk. And you know, in that kind of middle class community, what you get is people kind of self policing and collectively policing, and collectively constructing this idea of what it means to be okay, what it means to be a good person. And if you don't fit into that, if you don't exhibit that kind of discourse, you run the risk of being disliked or even shamed.
Rosie Hancock 35:09
And you write of this, that – and I'm going to quote you here – "the collective desire for safety involves an ongoing low level anxiety about the presence of poor and Black people. While the desire to do good involves collective actions, providing money or goods to poor and Black people" – end quote – two kind of contradictory drives in a way of which people are not perhaps wholly conscious or aware. And this pulls something else in your work – which is how you probe and take seriously the contradictions and people's thinking, including your own – as a white academic. You write really thoughtfully about being unequivocally anti-racist, and yet still being aware of essentially racialised fears – even as your ethical or conscious self kind of pulls back in disgust, is that right?
Nicky Falkof 36:03
It's a difficult thing to talk about. And it was a very difficult thing to try and write. And I really struggled with thinking about reflexivity – I really struggled with the question of whether even by trying to approach these issues, I was just, you know, doing that thing that people do – where they kind of centre themselves in the issues and make it all about themselves and their feelings. And how important is my discomfort as a certain type of person? Is that really relevant to a discussion of what is fundamentally a really, really problematic national issue of race? And, you know, in the end, I came to the conclusion that it would be dishonest for me to position myself solely as a kind of an anti–racist White scholar doing anti–racist work and writing critically about Whiteness, without acknowledging that as a White woman, if I'm walking down the street at night, and I walk past a bunch of Black men, I will probably – whether I actually cross the road or not – the thought will be in my head that I have to cross the road, you know, and I may clutch my bag a second tighter and then let it go because I catch myself doing the thing that I'm appalled that I'm doing, but I still do it, it's still in there. And it would be, it would be ethically dishonest for me not to acknowledge that I am a product of my time, my place, my gender and my race – that I'm completely a product of growing up in apartheid South Africa. And as much as I attempt to be conscious and thoughtful and approach all of this stuff as carefully as possible. You know, my emotions are also powerful. And my emotions are also structural, and they also have some sway over me. And I can't just, you know, shut them down by thinking my way out of the racialised world that I and most of us have been raised in. And again, you know, you asked me earlier, why is it useful to think about this stuff in the context of South Africa? I think I'm far from the only person who has this kind of response to things – I think I'm far from the only anti-racist White academic woman who has this kind of response to things – but because I'm South African, it is incredibly visible, and I'm incredibly conscious of it. And so that makes it easier for me to talk about than it would be for me to talk about if I was a White British academic – where I could just saunter along, thinking that race was never going to impact on me in this way – because I was never forced to face the kind of fear that had been inculcated in me since I was a child.
Alexis Hieu Truong 38:26
And as you mentioned, like this is kind of the place where this idea of like reflexivity like comes back in, right? So, like, what do you understand as being kind of the way that you figure it out? Or I'm not sure if its like, advice or something on, on how to do this reflexive practice in the context of our research, right? And maybe more crucially, like in the context of your, your, like doing real anti-racist work?
Nicky Falkof 38:52
That's a really hard question to answer. Thank you for asking it. I'm not exactly sure what one should do, but I have some quite strong ideas about what one shouldn't do. I think that there is a there's a trend in a lot of contemporary – so-called reflexive – scholarship where what people do is they just talk about their feelings. They write about their own experiences and the people doing this are often people who do have a certain degree of privilege in one direction or another. And you know, they'll kind of talk about their pain or their shame, or their anxiety or their fear or their guilt in ways that aren't actually necessarily very useful. I think the question to ask is whether this is useful. If someone else who comes from a similar position to you, and may find themselves having similar emotional reactions or being embedded in similar types of fear, if that person were to listen to what you were saying about your fear and your emotional reactions – and the structural and historical and political nature of your fear and your emotional reactions – would that person be able to listen to that and go oh, I wonder if I'm feeling this because of that? If that is something that you're capable of doing, then your reflexivity or reflexive practice is incredibly valuable. If the core of your reflexive practice is – oh, well, this person feels like that – then I don't think you're helping, you know. We obviously we call back repeatedly to the old feminist injunction that the personal is political. But in order to avoid getting mired in really unhelpful forms of identity politics, we also need to switch it around. Right, we also need to acknowledge that the political is personal, right? Both of these things must sit together, it can't just be – this is how I feel. And because it's how I feel it's inherently political – it's not, not all of our individual experiences are necessarily valuable for people in different scenarios, or people beyond us. And it's sometimes very, very hard to tell where that line is.
Rosie Hancock 40:54
Yeah and I guess at the same time, we've sort of already mentioned, you know, introspection is not really enough, right, that there are actual practical things that institutions – particularly universities, you know, we're we are – can do to address some of this inequality in the world.
Nicky Falkof 41:11
There are multiple things that institutions and individuals can do within the kinds of worlds that we, that we personally inhabit. You know, it can often feel like academia is a bit of a closed world. And it doesn't really make that much difference. But I see from my students all the time, how well they respond to being given work to read those written by Black women, you know, and how they respond to guest lectures by people who are from similar cultures and backgrounds and histories to them. You know, I feel like this is less of a kind, this is more of a personal answer than an institutional answer – but as someone who does have a large degree of institutional privilege, as someone who is, you know, a professor in a well respected university, and who is a White woman, my reflexivity is completely pointless if I'm just going to sit around going – oh, I feel this and this and this. And this, if I'm not going to use the position that I have to highlight the work of younger scholars, to highlight the work of Black scholars who have often been forgotten, to get diverse and different voices into the classroom, to use my – practically to use the financial resources that I have as a funded researcher to support my post grad students to finish degrees that they wouldn't be able to finish otherwise. These are really, really practical, basic things that we as academics can do. And we could be pushing at institutions and the next level up to start thinking about.
Rosie Hancock 42:33
Ok, so Nicky, before we go, we're at the bit where we get some pop culture tips for talking about our theme. Sometimes, Alexis and I chip in with ours, sometimes we don't. And today, we're going for the latter, because instead, I want to ask about what I hope is your tip – because I know you wrote about it some years back – that is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So for those of you who don't know, it's an American show that began in the 80s, where turtle brothers trained in martial arts fight evil in New York City. It's still running, but I guess the three of us remember it from the 90s. Nicky, tell us why you decided to write about the show and how it relates to anxiety.
Nicky Falkof 43:14
So I was at a pub, in Brighton, during my master's hanging out with all my friends – as you do – and we made up a little competition where the person who thought up the best, most amusing journal article title would get a round from everyone else. And mine was "Heroes with a Half Life." and it was going to be a paper about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And about three years later, I went – oh my god, I can actually write that – and went back and looked at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because I vaguely remember being a kid, and this show being very popular. And again, getting caught up in the Satanic Panic. People were burning fingers of ninja turtles on the beach. But it also happened, it emerged at a specific point in my childhood, where there was also – less so in South Africa, because we were so far away – but there was this kind of very, like late post cold war anxiety about Chernobyl. So people were really really worrying about nuclear power, and about radiation and how radiation was going to create a generation of monster babies. And the reason this was gonna happen was because those people over there and that part of the world couldn't handle the science, they didn't know what they were doing. And then along comes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – which basically gives us this lovely sanitised version of radiation, where radiation creates four – okay, you know, admittedly green – but nonetheless powerful all American heroes. My contention in the article that I wrote about this was that what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did – of course, unintentionally – but what it did was it helped a generation of kids to process the fact that radiation and nuclear power are not necessarily solely evil – they're only evil in their hands. They're not evil in our hands. So when you see on the news, when you see on the news that America is building power plants using nuclear power, you don't have to panic. It's not Chernobyl – it's the good guys. The good guys – like the turtles – can use this science because we're wise and sane and smart.
Rosie Hancock 45:04
You know, I'd actually kind of forgotten that the nuclear stuff was even a theme. But you know what you've been talking about, it goes back to our discussion of why and how certain things get constructed as worthy of fear and anxiety or not. And to the question of who has a right to be scared and why? Its really so interesting, thanks.
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:23
Todays show has been so fascinating. By the time this goes out, you'll be back in Joburg, I believe, but we hope you enjoy your time in Mexico. Thank you for being with us today.
Rosie Hancock 45:34
Nicky Falkof 45:35
Thanks so much for having me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:36
And we're all done for today. But as you can catch today's reading list, including some great pieces from the Sociological Review, and the different various thinkers and recommendations we discussed today, over at the podcasts page at thesociological review.org.
Rosie Hancock 45:51
Next month, something altogether more calming than anxiety. We're talking about spirituality. Our producer was Alice Bloch. Our sound engineer was Dave Crackles. Thanks for listening, bye.