The View from Britain: Public Perceptions of the Preparedness Community
Dr. Bones says: Michael Mills is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at University of Kent (England), undertaking his doctoral research on the preparedness community in America. In this article he will explain the lack of knowledge and apparent misrepresentations his research aims to address. For many, the most accessible insight into the mind-sets of preppers is offered by National Geographic’s “Doomsday Preppers”, which has proven frustrating to many within the preparedness community. Having undertaken his fieldwork throughout 2014, Michael would like to pass on some initial conclusions, as well as his thanks to those who have helped him in the progression of his research. At the end of the article, you will be informed of how you can keep track of Michael’s work and the research findings.
Regardless of the reality of situation, the view of prepping from Britain is one that sees prepping as the site of dangerous eccentricity and blood-thirsty paranoia. As a social sciences Ph.D. student in Britain whose primary topic and research interest is the modern prepping community, I have frequently been put in the position of explaining to other people what I do in my research. Upon revealing that my work is based on accessing and sharing accurate ways of knowing what it is that preppers do and, particularly, why more of them are doing it, there are several reactions I encounter. Among them: upon hearing I was coming to America to interview around 30 different preppers, even a British prepper I had talked to via e-mail advised me not to arrange to visit people’s homes because he thought it would be likely that I would be shot.
Having been in America some times throughout most of the time between September, October, and the end of November, I can safely say that I am soon to return home for good… and without any bullet-holes.
Like it does in America, the shadow of high-profile incidents looms large over how the preparedness community is understood in Britain and shapes how people react to this community (and my announcements that this my chosen research interest). Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) and Timothy McVeigh (one of the “Oklahoma Bombers”) were claimed to have been concerned with survivalism, and meanwhile perpetrated acts of terrorism.
These individuals bear little relation to the millions of Americans involved in prepping, yet remain perhaps the most famous examples of individual survivalists/preppers. Similarly, events at Waco and Ruby Ridge have distracted the public from accurate understandings; instead offering the suggestion that survivalist activity is the domain of religious fanaticism which can easily lead to violent confrontation. Even though it is nearly twenty years since the most recent of these events, these stories and images have persisted and lingered around discussions of prepping, and shaped the ways in which those outside movement react to and regard it.
The most recent vehicle through which the preparedness community has come to be seen, in America and Britain alike, is National Geographic’s TV documentary series, Doomsday Preppers. The show has allowed preparedness to be seen in a new light: offering some accurate insight and previously unseen depcitions. That said, it has mostly continued a tradition of unthinkingly presenting preppers as violent and mentally unstable. The show’s representations begin with preppers explaining what specific disastrous future they seem to be awaiting.
Preppers are then almost always shown to ponder whether they are “obsessed” with prepping (this is a question the makers of the show seem to ask all participants), before typically revealing large stocks of stored food, firearms and ammunition that they have accrued over a period of time and with significant amounts of money.
The Nat Geo mould is the the only way that prepping will be seen and understood by most in Britain and America. This is particularly true in Britain where, despite there being a small and growing preparedness movement, prepping is must less widespread and much more of a novelty than it is in America. For many British viewers, the prepper is still a mysterious American figure who many are glad to live a safe distance from.
The show’s representation of its subjects is, simply, not an image of prepping that many in the movement seem to recognise, and the data I has provided an insight into the mind-set and worlds of preppers that is a far cry from those offered by TV media. As I have made clear throughout my fieldwork, my aim has never been to promote prepping to a wider audience. I am not a prepper and, despite some thought provoking experiences throughout my fieldwork, I continue to look at the movement from the outside in. That said, as well as providing academic insight into what goes on in the prepping community, I aim to be active in sharing the findings of my research – this different and hopefully more accurate view of prepping – with a much wider audience as a counter to various unfair representations.
At this point, my task is now to take my time in analysing the data I have collected – to break it down, and put it together in a way that leads to conclusions and make sense. In the three areas my research has focussed (which can succinctly be termed under “Threats”, “Politics”, and “Community”), there has been a great deal of variation in my data. On matters of the concerns that motivate them, many of my respondents have consistently articulated a perspective that is not tied to any concern in particular. In asking why it makes sense to have preparations if one does not know what they might be for, the people I spoke to explained that their engagement with preparedness was driven more by a precautionary reaction to a wide variety of threats and concerns. For some, events that could potentially occur were almost entirely unimportant; what mattered was having a degree of protection against. On the second and third areas of the research, there was a tremendous amount of variation that defies and early, crude categorisation. The task ahead of me it to break this down and analyse it. This work will take me some time, but I look forward to it with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Aside from the 31 interviews I have conducted with preppers – 25 of them having been in person and 6 of them online – I have had 350 responses to an online survey I launched in March, and attended 3 American preparedness expos throughout the autumn.
This could not have been achieved without the help of several parties. Amy and Joe have been important in spreading word of the survey, and my intention to find interviewees. Massive thanks must go to them (as well as folks at Graywolf Survival, Survival Weekly, The Prepper Journal, UK Preppers Radio Network, American Preppers Network, and Destiny and Survival, for offering similar help). Seeing Amy and Joe at the expos I attended also offered a friendly welcome on what was a long and, at times, lonely trip round the States. On the matter of the expos, Ron Douglas and Jon Hulme of Self Reliance Expos, and Don Westover of Prepper Fest AZ were similarly important in allowing me the access needed to get much-needed data. A special thanks, also, to all of my interviewees and survey respondents – you know who you are!
If you would care to read more about the funding that allowed me to come to the State’s then please do Google or look up the Ian and Christine Bolt Scholarship and, by all means, read some of Christine’s work if you so choose.
Michael Mills (University of Kent, England)