Lecture 12: Violent Crime

Welcome to the twelfth lecture in the undergraduate criminology course of the University of Maine at Augusta. This week, we consider the subject of violent crime. We begin by considering what your textbook takes for granted: the meaning of the phrase “violent crime” — what acts are included, and on what basis? Is your textbook’s repeated claim of increased violence in modern times true? We move on to consider the rational or irrational basis for interpersonal violence. When criminal behavior is irrational, we can find a social basis to explain it — physical and social proximity.

Before you review this lecture, be sure to read Chapter 9 in Frank Hagan’s Introduction to Criminology text. This lecture is a supplement to your textbook rather than a repetition of the material in it; remember that you are responsible for mastering material in both text and lecture.

The sections of this week’s lecture are as follows:

What is Violent Crime?

Your textbook devotes an entire chapter to the understanding of “violent crime,” but if you read closely, you’ll notice that the phrase “violent crime” is never defined. This is not a trivial oversight because the idea of “violent crime” is neither obvious nor eternal.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the chart below, which tracks the relative occurrence of the phrases “violent crime” and “property crime” in the millions of books written from 1800-2008 and scanned by Google into its online research dataset (sadly, Google stopped scanning books in the year 2008 and we can’t move any closer). You can see that in the English language, the popularity of the idea of “violent crime,” at least as expressed in books, is quite recent.

Out of all phrases per year in the Google Books database of 5.2 million books, the percent that are property crime and violent crime

The ideas of “property crime” and “violent crime” are almost unremarked upon in books until the 1930s (when the FBI — an arm of the state that handles classifications of crime — began to collect Uniform Crime Reports data), and didn’t really take off as a term in the literate imagination until the 1960s (when the FBI began to publish this data in the annual report Crime in the United States).

This is not to say that the idea of “violence” and the idea of “crime” did not exist, as the following graph including those terms shows. Indeed, those two terms show great popularity from 1800 onward, occupying a greater share of space in books then than today. It is only the conjunction of those ideas — in “violent crime” — that is strikingly recent.

From 1800 to 2008, out of all phrases per year in the Google Books database of 5.2 million books, the percent that are property crime, violent crime, crime and violence

Although your criminology textbook does not define “violent crime,” we can look to another criminology textbook for a definition. In his Criminology: The Essentials, Anthony Walsh defines the term as “the use of force exercised without excuse or justifiable cause to achieve a goal at the expense of a victim” (Walsh 2012: 166). This definition introduces specificity, but it also introduces complications. What are excuses? What is qualifies as a justifiable cause? Answers to these questions are essential, since without these features, “violent crime” would consist simply of “the use of force exercised to achieve a goal at the expense of a victim.” By that standard, the following would qualify as “violent crime”:

  • Military conflict
  • Capital punishment
  • Tackling arrest of a defiant suspect
  • Removal of a volunteer’s kidney for transplantation to another body

Military conflicts are explicitly couched in the language of “authorization for the use of force” in order to achieve goals at the expense of another party, be it a nation or a rogue group. Capital punishment certainly involves the use of force at the expense of the executed party. People who resist arrest and are tasered or tackled to the ground by police officers can suffer bumps, bruises, seizures and other pains. The removal of a volunteer’s kidney for transplantation involves an assault to the volunteer’s body from which the volunteer must spend two to three months in recovery.  Most people would not call these “violent crimes.”  This is due to the nature of justification, and justifications are cultural in nature.

Also notice that according to Walsh’s definition, “violent crime” involves an act “at the expense of a victim.” But that standard is incredibly broad. Acts that occur at the expense of a victim, often involving the use of force, include:

  • Incarceration of a criminal
  • Collection of taxes
  • Hacking
  • Burglary
  • Eviction of a tenant

It may seem obvious to you that the incarceration of a criminal is not itself a violent crime, but there are people who argue that solitary confinement is both violent and criminal — because it is an act carried out by force that has been shown to be injurious to the mental health of those so imprisoned (Grassian 2006). Collection of taxes certainly comes at an expense — and how many of us would pay taxes if not forced to do so by the implicit threat of harmful punishment? The eviction of a tenant (or confiscation of a car by a repossession “service”) is often forcibly carried out at some considerable expense to the target, as are the hacking of a bank account or the burglarizing of an apartment. If we follow Anthony Walsh’s definition strictly, these would qualify as “violent crimes.”

You may at this point be objecting that the difference between these acts and “violent crimes” is obvious, and I think you’d be right, but often the most obvious aspects of a definition go unstated, and these are often the most interesting aspects of a definition. What are the obvious differences?

  1. Most often violent crime involves “expense to the victim” in an injury or threat of injury to his or her physical body. The idea of “violent crime” as a higher-order crime prioritizes injury to a person’s body above injury to a person’s property.
  2. The determination of “expense to the victim” is not simply any bodily injury, but one that is unwanted or not outweighed by some larger benefit.
  3. An “excuse or justifiable cause” is important, but not enough. After all, if you think back to Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory (1957 — see also here), you’ll recall that many criminals offer excuses and descriptions of various justifications for what they have done. When criminals offer these, they are referred to as “techniques of neutralization” and rejected out of hand because they are not considered legitimate justifications.  What makes an act of injurious force non-criminal? Legitimate excuse or justification. An aura of legitimacy regarding excuses and justifications for acts that would otherwise be criminal can come from cultural consensus in a society (Martens and Pulley 1984). As Thomas Hobbes wrote in his classic work Leviathan nearly 500 years ago (Hobbes 1651), legitimacy can come from the strong exercise of power by a political sovereign. In his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber (1946) notes the use of force and violence in the regular functions of a government (or ‘state’, as he referred to it). Indeed, Weber writes, if a government is legitimate, then it holds a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force,” with all other exercises of violence being deemed illegitimate:

“‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state–nobody says that–but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions… have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force…. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.”

My point here is that the idea of “violent crime” is not a natural one. I don’t mean at all to say that injury is not real in a physical sense. Certainly physical injury is a natural biological phenomenon, leading to very real, negative biological and psychological consequences. What I do mean is that the idea of “violent crime” as a way of legitimizing some injurious acts and condemning other injurious acts is a social creation, created by human beings who come to agree that certain acts qualify as violent, and that certain of those violent acts qualify as “violent crime.” The process for deciding on that designation is not a matter of obvious definition, but rather a political process that can be highly contentious with shifting borders, as our earlier discussion of marital rape in the United States made clear. When you think about “violent crime,” therefore, think of a way of talking about the physically injurious, illegitimate and unwanted use of force that is not universal, but rather is specific to our place and time.

Increased Violence in Modern Times?

Textbook author Frank Hagan bookends his discussion of violent crime in Chapter 9 with casual claims that violent crime is a particularly heinous trend in the in 20th and 21st Century:

“The first decade of the twenty-first century found that such activities have not abated. We witnessed terrorism on a massive scale; genocide in Darfur; and threats of chemical, radiological, and nuclear violence, none of which suggests that the human capacity for violence is lessening.” (p. 211)

“Violence is an ignominious blot on the history of civilization, particularly in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” (p. 237)

Notice that Hagan does not marshal systematic evidence to support this claim. Instead, he provides stories and examples — what social scientists refer to as anecdotes. It is true, anecdotally speaking, that in the 20th and 21st Century violence has caused harm to millions — but stories and examples of brutal, gruesome, widespread violence can be gathered from every century of human history. Is it true that modern times are a particularly violent point in human history, more violent than the times that came before?

By now, you should be quite familiar with the change in violent crime rates as measured by the FBI in the annual Crime in the United States report. The trend over the past quarter century has been one of decreasing violence, not increasing violence:

Violent Crime Rate, 1989 to 2015: a marked decline in the United States

The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book written by Steven Pinker in this decade (2012), also answers the “more violence” belief we have in our culture with an emphatic rebuttal. In his book, Pinker gathers an impressively broad range of data to demonstrate that the second half of the 20th Century and the current dawn of the 21st Century are an age in which humanity actually suffers a much lower rate of violence than before.

In the following video lecture, Steven Pinker summarizes his argument in the book, laying out six trends of decreasing violence by humans over time, and identifies four reasons for this decrease in violence, none of which have to do with changes to some basic, essential human nature. Instead, five changes in the arrangement of our society lead to a decline in violence.

As you watch this video, take notes. Be sure you are able to identify both the trends Pinker describes and the reasons he suggests for those trends. Pinker doesn’t say so, but he’s making an argument that fits within the boundaries of rational choice theory.

Rationality, Irrationality and Society in Violent Crime

As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, one of the central questions in the field of criminology is the extent to which crime is a rational act. If crime is rational, then it can be combated through rational deterrence schemes. If, on the other hand, crime is not rational, then we cannot depend on criminals making the best available choices in order to avoid punishment.

Are violent criminals rational? The various typologies of violent criminals gathered by profilers and presented to you in Chapter 9 of your textbook suggest many irrational motives for hurting others — a few of these are psychotic visions, addiction to power for power’s sake, a bottling-up of negative emotions, and a cultural emphasis on the short-term saving of face even when doing so leads to the long-term loss of liberty. A series of interviews with 86 armed robbers (Jacobs and Wright 1999) presents those robbers as oblivious to mainstream methods for obtaining money — that is, they are simply not aware of ways to legitimately obtain funds. One of the prerequisites for rational calculation — information — appears to be absent. the interviewed robbers report taking money available in the immediate environment when need arises or opportunities present themselves. If those at greatest risk of being robbed are in the robber’s neighborhood, from a potential victim’s point of view, being in the immediate environment of a habitual robber would be dangerous.

This idea (referred to as the “proximity hypothesis” by Fagan, Piper and Cheng (1987)) is further supported by “The Impact of Neighborhood Context on Intragroup and Intergroup Robbery,” a study of San Antonio, Texas by Cancino, Martinez and Stowell (2009). Within San Antonio, they find that the most common pattern of robbery is within ethnic groups, not between them, a finding consistent with a pattern of racial and ethnic segregation in the neighborhoods of San Antonio. With a few exceptions, robberies between people of different racial and ethnic groups are highest in the San Antonio neighborhoods with the greatest racial and ethnic diversity. People tend to rob those with whom they rub elbows, not those who live in different neighborhoods.

People occupy a more virtual space as well, a space defined by activities of daily life — family, school, work, sports, dining, entertainment, and worship. All of these social environments tend to draw very similar people along lines of age, race, income, educational status — and just as individuals tend to rob people in their own physical neighborhood, so they tend to victimize people in their own social environment. The consequence is that people victimize people who are like them. This pattern is called “homophily,” and it occurs for all sorts of kinds of interaction, of which a victimizing interaction is one (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook 2001). We’ve discussed this pattern briefly before, but it’s worth a review.

Homophily occurs by age in violent crime. In this chart using 2008 National Crime Victimization Survey data (sadly, the last year for which such a stalking report is available — see Baum et al 2009), the perceived age of the offender in stalking cases is compared to the age of a stalking victim:

Table 1. Perceived age of the stalking offender, by age of the victim (percentages in columns)
Age of the victim
18-20 21-29 30-39 40-49 50 or older
 Offender Under 18 10.9 0.7 1.8 2.1 2
 age 18-20 41.6 5.7 2.3 2.9 1
21-29 23.3 48.2 13.8 8.8 3.8
30-39 5.1 23 37.6 16.7 16.3
40-49 6.7 7.7 20.8 34.2 18.7
50 or older 2.4 5.9 9.9 21.6 34.6
Age of offender unknown 10 8.8 13.9 13.7 23.6
 Total % 100  100  100 100 100
Number of victims 349,490 929,080 752,690 722,890 663,660

The numbers are percentages, adding up in each column to 100%.  In every column, the offender age with the highest percentage of cases is the category that is the same age category as the victim. Older people are disproportionately stalked by older people; younger people are disproportionately stalked by younger people.

The last row of the above table contains the number of victims of stalking in each age category. As we know from an earlier lecture, most criminal activity is carried out by the young — people in their late teens and early 20s. Because people disproportionately stalk those who are similar to them in age, victims of stalking are disproportionately young. Victims of stalking in a range of just three years of age — 18 through 20 — are nearly half the size of the pool of all stalking victims aged 50 and up (a much larger age range).

According to 2014 and 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey data (the most recent data available), this trend holds for violent crime in general. Prevalence is measured in the chart below as the percent of individuals of an age group experiencing at least one violent criminal victimization in the past year:

Violent Crime Victimization by Age, 2014 and 2015 (source National Crime Victimization Survey)

Activity for the Week

As you start to study material for our final exam, remember that this week I have asked you to complete a quiz. Click the “Activities” link on our course Blackboard page and take “Activity 10: Quiz on Chapter 9.” Because this is an activity designed to help you learn and not an assessment of how completely you have learned, you will NOT be graded based on how well you do, but simply based on whether you complete the quiz. If you complete the quiz by the due date of November 19, you will receive 100 points. If you complete the quiz on or after November 20, you will receive partial credit as outlined in the course syllabus. Best of luck — I hope you find these quizzes to be a useful incentive for you to diligently review course materials!


Baum, Katrina, Shannan M. Catalano, Michael R. Rand and Kristina Rose. 2009. “Perceived Age Of The Stalking Offender, By Age Of The Victim.” Appendix Table 1 from Stalking Victimization in the United States (NCJ 224527). Accessed 4/8/2013 at http://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=1521

Cancino, Jeffrey, Ramiro Martinez Jr. and Jacob I. Stowell. 2009. “The Impact of Neighborhood Context on Intragroup and Intergroup Robbery: The San Antonio Experience.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 623: 12-24.

Fagan, Jeffrey, Elizabeth S. Piper and Yu-The Cheng. 1987. “Contribution of Victimization to Delinquency in Inner Cities.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 78:586-613.

Grassian, Stuart. 2006. “Psychiatric effects of solitary confinement.” Washington Universty Journal of Law & Policy 22:325-383.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651 [1996]. Leviathan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jacobs, Bruce and Richard Wright. 1999. “Stick-Up, Street Culture, and Offender Motivation.” Criminology 37: 149-174.

Martens, Frederick T. and Frank Pulley. 1984. “Cross-Cultural Reflections of Organized Crime.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 8: 63-74.

McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 2001: 415-444.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin Books.

Sykes, Gresham and Matza, David. 1957. “Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency.” American Sociological Review. 22(6). 664-670.

Walsh, Anthony. 2012. Criminology: The Essentials. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Weber, Max. 1946. “Politics as a Vocation.” pp. 77-128 in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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