Cultivated Anxiety

Worry, fear, panic, loss of control, phobia, uncertainty: anxiety has many faces, and it is fuelled by terrorist attacks, artificial intelligence or climate change, populist politics, migration or crises of any kind. Since 2015, when the social scientists at Kiel University (CAU) began to explore the so-called "anxiety culture" in cooperation with American colleagues, the research area has been growing rapidly. Now, after four years, they have drawn interim conclusions.

"The term anxiety culture means that anxiety is not only a personal perception, but that our fears are also strongly influenced by culture. Everyone is afraid, but the feelings differ from culture to culture," said lecturer Dr Karen Struve from the Kiel project coordination to explain the starting point of the research, and cited an example: If armed security guards are deployed at American schools, then this supposedly helps to create a feeling of reassurance (called "securitisation"). A similar situation in Germany, on the other hand, would probably arouse feelings of fear. "How anxiety is perceived in different cultures and in different situations, how it is dealt with, and how emotionality impacts on society – these are some of our core questions," added the project leader Professor Ulrich Hoinkes from the Institute of Romance Studies.

According to Dr. John Allegrante, co-founder of the project and Professor in heath and behavior studies at Teachers College and in sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, “there is abundant empirical evidence that anxiety is a pervasive and insidious feature of modern life. The National Institute of Mental Health in the United States estimates that 31 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. We know a lot about the term ‘anxiety’ as a medical idiom at the individual, clinical level. What we do not know much about is what anxiety looks like and what it’s effects are at a cultural and social level”.

"The phenomenon of 'anxiety' is also not assigned to any single specific discipline. Every subject area is somehow connected," continued Hoinkes. "We therefore approach anxiety cultures from various disciplines, involve relevant experts, and ultimately want to understand what is behind it at the societal level." Be it uncertainties regarding the use of intelligent robots with dementia patients, worries about cultural identity if your own native language is under threat, or financial crises triggered by panic reactions on the stock exchange: "If you think about it, every expert can identify anxiety cultures in their area of expertise," said Hoinkes.

The aim of the Kiel researchers is not to provide simple recommendations for solving anxiety in society. Rather, "the contemplation of anxiety opens up entirely new perspectives on complex global problems," explained the Romanist Hoinkes. A recent example was provided by the climate activist Greta Thunberg with her appeal "It's time to panic!". From the point of view of the Kiel scholars, this is an attempt to use anxiety as a positive dynamic force. "Since then, anxiety about climate change has become a hot topic," reported the social scientist Struve. But also at the political level, whether through changing power relationships, or by deliberate manipulation of anxiety about refugees, for example, anxiety cultures have become established as a means of exercising power. The anxiety culture can have negative – but also positive – effects, emphasised Hoinkes: "As long as anxiety does not paralyse, but instead stimulates new ways of thinking and acting, it can even help a society move forward and come together – as is the case with anxiety about climate change." On the other hand, it is irresponsible to abuse nebulous fears as an instrument of power, as populist presidents gladly do.

Anxiety, tackled methodically

Overall, the Kiel-based and American researchers are tackling four sets of issues in their studies: 1) climate and the environment, 2) migration/language/culture, 3) population health (health issues from a holistic perspective), and 4) politics/work/society.

Across all the topics, they explore the theoretical foundations, examine the anchoring in education, and question the extent to which new technologies shape the respective anxiety cultures. To this end, they evaluate political speeches, interview sequences and media coverage. But literary and artistic works are also used to assess how society deals with anxieties.  

Anxiety, from a German to a global phenomenon

The "German Angst" comes from the 1970s and 1980s, when the fear of an all-encompassing nuclear war increased immeasurably after the Chernobyl disaster, and at the same time the world seemed headed for destruction due to global deforestation, or alternatively, due to the RAF terror campaign. The resulting existential fears were particularly pronounced in Germany. Nowadays, anxiety is no longer an exclusively German problem, but has become a global phenomenon – a view shared by all the scholars involved. But cultural comparisons show significant differences in dealing with anxiety, which should help improve our understanding. "Our project seeks to understand anxiety as a cultural and social phenomenon so that, against the backdrop of profound planetary challenges such migration, climate change, and the rapid pace of automation and technological advancements, we can inform our educational policy and practice to help the next generation better understand and cope with anxiety”, concludes Allegrante.

protest poster "Wake up"
© Pixabay

Terms such as refugee crisis or refugee wave convey fears directly. But they can also be misused to manipulate or reinforce fear.

Asian woman with mouthguard
© Pixabay

What is taken for granted in one culture can create fears in other cultures.

About the Anxiety Culture project

The "Anxiety Culture" research project has been running since 2015 under the leadership of Professor Ulrich Hoinkes in collaboration with Dr. Mar Mañes-Bordes from the Institute of Romance Studies at Kiel University. To date, around €200,000 in funding has been obtained from the Alfred Toepfer Trust F.V.S. and from various individual initiatives. Several American universities - and in particular the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York - are also involved in the project, along with the US-based Council for European Studies (CES), the Alliance Program of the Columbia University, several renowned universities in Paris, and the Freiburg-based European university project "Eucor -The European Campus". At this year's CES congress in Madrid, Ulrich Hoinkes, Karen Struve, John Allegrante and additional colleagues presented the Anxiety Culture project to around 1,500 social scientists and scholars from all over the world.

Anxiety research is strongly supported by the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) as well as numerous Kiel professors from the humanities and social sciences, natural sciences, marine sciences and economics.

Further information:

Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hoinkes
Co-Project leader in the "Anxiety Culture Project"
Institute of Romance Studies
Kiel University
+49 (0)431/880-2265


Scientific contact:

PD Dr. Karen Struve
Research Manager in the "Anxiety Culture Project"
Institute of Romance Studies
Kiel University
+49 (0)431/880-3300


Scientific contact:

Prof. Dr. John Allegrante
Co-Project leader in the "Anxiety Culture Project"
Health and Behavior Studies
Teachers College
Columbia University
+1 212-678-3960


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Claudia Eulitz
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