The causes of violent crimes

Criminological thought, as well as political and social fields have been interested in the causes of violent crimes such as homicide for a long time. Many perspectives have been offered as fitting frames of analysis for this social problem. This paper aims to examine two theories: Routine Activity theory and Anomie theory; to scrutinize how well they explain the causes of violent crimes and how they contribute to a deeper understanding of homicide. It will first present a definition of Routine Activity theory, its main proponents and investigate the ways in which its theoretical arguments assists in understanding homicide. Similarly, a definition of Anomie will be presented; its main postulates scrutinized to see how it explains homicide. In both instances this paper will draw on experiences from various countries, and groups as examples. It will also seek to ground the arguments with the support of contemporary literature.

Hindelang et al (1978) laid the foundation for researchers Cohen and Felson (1979), by positing a series of scenarios where individuals could be victimised on the grounds of their lifestyles, encompassing typical daily activities both for work and for enjoyment. According to Hindelang et al (1978) there are eight different propositions on how such victimisation could occur by connecting patterns of victimization with individuals lifestyle and arguing that variables such as race, age, sex, income and marital status all interplay with lifestyle choices to predict victimization. Their first argument is that the number of time spent in public places particularly at night time has a direct impact on victimization. Secondly, they suggest that the lifestyle of individuals dictate the increased or decreased probability of victimization. Thirdly, authors propose that the level of social interaction between individuals who share lifestyles is very disproportionate. Fourthly, they contend that the likelihood of becoming a victim vary according to the extend to which victims share similar demographic characteristics.

The following proposition was that the amount of time spent around among individuals who are not blood related also vary according to ones lifestyle. Hindelang et al (1978) argue that the likelihood of being victimized increases with more time spent around non family members. Researchers also locate victimization as a possibility because of an individual's ability to spent time away from individuals with offender profiles. Finally, they suggest on how an individual varies their lifestyle it can attract or detract how they may appear to others as a possible target of victimization (Hindelang et al, 1978).

These propositions by researchers in 1978 have clear implications which are applicable to any investigation on how the act of homicide is usually committed and why.

Individuals who significantly change their way of life and wonder into unknown places; isolated from others frequently, or conversely take part in a number of leisure activities away from family members increase the probability of having violent crime committed against them.

Cohen and Felson (1979) were the first direct proponents of the Routine Activity theory. Their argument was that criminology field did not give enough focus on the criminal act and suggested that it was too much concentrated on the criminal offender.

Cohen and Felson (1979) suggested that drastic lifestyle changes in employment areas, education, leisure activities can influence how and where violent crimes occur. Authors main focus was on where such violent crimes occurred and the prevailing conditions which allowed the crime to be possible. This theory advocates that for a violent crime such as homicide to occur there must be motivated criminals, the opportunity to carry out the act and few obstacles to prevent a successful criminal operation. These arguments led Cohen and Felson (1979) to conclude that significant changes in routine activities of individuals also greatly impact and influence the types of crimes which are carried out and when they are committed (Cohen and Felson 1979).

In order for Cohen and Felson's (1979) theory to be manifested, a potential criminal must posses a willingness to carry out the criminal act, there needs to be some form of benefit to the offender either emotional gratification or tangible material gain; and there should be few obstacles to the crime being successful. Obstacles which may deter a potential offender to commit a homicide is if there is likelihood of witnesses or if the victim is very discerning about the surroundings or whether there are CCTV cameras or other protective objects nearby in order to assist the potential victim. Also, in cases of homicide the presence of observant and proactive neighbours which may provide “guardianship” or make alert, or assist the victim to take a defensive action against the offender or make easier the capture can also be a significant deterrent of homicide.

However, in order to see which of these propositions and proposals best assist in understanding homicides, a detailed discussion of homicide and an examination of the extend literature surrounding this act is necessary.

Brookman (2005) provides biological, neurobehavioral and environmental theoretical explanations of homicide. Author cites that early positivist perspective from Lambroso (1911) and Hooton (1939) shows the links to physical appearance including bold and large physiques to a propensity for homicide and other violent crimes. Theorist such as Lambroso argued that individuals with long lower jaws, curly black hair, broad large noses and big ears were more prone to deviant behaviour. Brookman (2005) further argues that within early positivist arena, scholars such as Hooton (1939) and Gleuck and Gleuck (1956) drew on psychiatry to make an association with strong physical characteristics and mental inability as a combination which leads individuals to carry out violent acts (Brookman, 2005).

However, Wilson and Hernstein (1985) argued that even with such characteristics the motivation for a crime will depend on how the criminal stands to gain from committing the crime, whether to satisfy a mentally unstable position, sexual gratification or economically. This position therefore links in with the thrust of the routine activity argument that a criminal needs to see some form of benefit in order to carry out a criminal act. In the case of homicide, Brookman (2005) points to the positivistic studies which further try to link violent crimes to the abundance of testosterone in men. This correlation though while appealing, does not provide any concrete evidence that high testosterone is evident as a cause for violent crime across offenders who have been studied (Brookman, 2005).

The function of the brain and how it affects mental capacity and personality has also been explored as a possible cause for violent crime. Raine et al (1994) research suggest that murderers had a lower level of glucose uptake in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that matched controls has been a significant contribution to the argument that mental function affects propensity for violent crime. While this research has been pivotal to understandings of homicide from a biological perspective, the research subjects of Raine et al (1994) were individuals who were already pleading insanity in the courts for the crimes they committed. Criticisms towards this research highlight this fact and argue that only with a wider cross section of murderers, who do not form of cohort of persons pleading insanity for their crimes, will the research results be reliable and valid (Raine et al, 1994).

Niehoff (1999) in The Biology of Violence, argues that the aggressive behaviour which is adaptive can escalate into maladaptive behaviour towards the wrong person at the wrong time and this can account to why mentally unstable individuals sometimes murder or commit violent acts against total strangers. To amplify argument author focused on how stress can affect the normal functioning of the brain. Niehoff (1999) states that while brain can cope with changes in ones environment and circumstances if such stress is not controlled; its long term effects can lead to an overactive or under active nervous system and push an individual into sudden burst of anger or uncontrollable actions resulting in homicide and other violent crimes either against close relatives or to total strangers. Author supports Kelling and Coles (1996) argument by pointing to the situation in bad neighbourhoods and dysfunctional homes wherein the stress of having to continually cope with unfavourable living conditions or with anxiety from familiar relations can eventually lead to a breaking point as the individual under stress begins to assess minor things as threatening to their ability to cope ( Kelling and Coles 1996).

However, from biological or positivistic framework, we can say that the routine activity theory would only explain homicides where the perpetrator has sufficient mental capacity to understand that there is an opportunity to carry out a crime. From the previous discussion on how biological factors have been examined to explain homicides, routine activity theory would have little impact in the general explanation as to why individuals commit crimes if only an opportunity such as structural change in an individual's lifestyle was to present that opportunity to the potential offender. However, if the motivation for the crime is being fed by a mental instability or a need to gratify a mentally unstable position- then the possibility for a potential offender to commit homicide is considerably increased without a necessary structural routine activity change from possible victim. It likely depends on the coincidental proximity of a potential victim to an individual whose normal mental function is under duress and who is at a breaking point or by a potential victim who does something probably minor which might be seen as a threat by a potential perpetrator whose nervous system is at breaking point.

The Routine Activity theory espoused by Hindelang et al (1978) suggested that the possibility for crime was significantly reduced if individuals spent more time with family members than did with non family members. This however, provides many explanatory obstacles when trying to use theory to understand homicide. Kivivuori and Lehti (2003) suggest that the fact is that many homicides are committed by familiar relations, often resulting in homicide suicides. They further suggest that in Finland between 1998-2000 there were 8.2 per cent of homicide-suicide cases between family members and between 1960-2000 29 per cent of male offenders committed suicide after killing an intimate partner. Authors acknowledge us that there was similar corresponding homicide-suicide data of 34 per cent when perpetrators killed their own children, 9 per cent when they killed other relatives and only 1 per cent when a non-relative was killed (Kivivuori and Lehti 2003). These statistics from Finland indicate that the routine activity of individuals may not have a significant impact on the committing of an act but rather that the mental disposition and state of the perpetrator in these cases rather than looking at activities of the victim.

Brookman (2005) therefore also examined environmental factors which could point to an understanding why and how homicides are committed. Researcher argues that social environment factors can significantly contribute to how an individual reacts to certain perceive threats or even process their own social code on how tosurvive under adverse social or economic conditions. Brookman (2005) states that social learning theory suggests that individual's behaviour is a result of learned or observed actions. For example, individuals may learn violent reactions to perceived threats from experiencing such violence towards them from others or they may be in an environment where they observe aggression either through familiar relations or through exposure to violent media (Brookman, 2005). Bandura (1973) articulated that the conditioning of aggression is done through a process of acquiring it, instigating it and maintaining it as a tool of defence or gratification. The routine activity theory can assist to understand homicide from social learning perspective. For example, if potential victims practice lifestyles that frequently place them in the proximity of individuals who have socially learned aggression and have been conditioned to maintain such aggression as a form of gratification or to boost their egos, then there is indeed an increased possibility that they will become victims from such close frequent association. One of the examples of this is, as Aldrigde and Browne (2003) suggest are that in the cases of domestic violence, where one partner has been subject to a developmental childhood where individual has received and or observed aggression, it is highly likely that person will be abusive towards his/her partner, which such aggression may likely result in violent crime such as homicide.

Encyclopedia defines anomie as “a social condition characterized by instability, the breakdown of social norms, institutional disorganization, and a divorce between socially valid goals and available means for achieving them” (, 2009).Anomie therefore is usually referred to within criminology as a state of lawlessness or normlessness. Anomie most noted proponent is Emilie Durkheim who used it to refer to “the lack of societal norms or regulations over people's desires and aspirations “(Williams, 2008). According to Williams (2008) Durkheim maintained that each society needed a certain level of crime in order to clarify and modify social rules and maintain the social mechanisms in place which serve to bind together a populace to consensus or collective conscience on morally acceptable behaviour which maintenance would eventually reject the lawless behaviour (Williams, 2008).

Merton (1938) drew on Durkheim to develop a more in depth gaze in to crime. He explains anomie as a state where desires and needs of individuals even when satisfied is insufficient to provide gratification and therefore individuals seek out socially unacceptable ways to satisfy their desires. Such Merton's explanation led other scholars such as Messner and Rosenfeld (2001) to develop a link between anomie and strain.

Messner and Rosenfeld (2001) argued that when individuals cannot satisfy their desires using socially legitimate means, there is significant pressure to do in deviant ways to achieve these goals and satisfy desires. Williams (2008) points out however that Merton himself rejects any links between his perspective of anomie and strain through emotional and psychological gazes, because Merton sees anomie as primary a social structural theory (Williams, 2008).

Nevertheless, scholars such as Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) argue that there is indeed a distinct link between anomie and violent crime. Their research identifies a significant economic benefit to criminals who carry out violent crimes, because of their desire to achieve great wealth. In their book Crime and American Dream, authors focused on the United States and identified high levels of pressure on citizens to achieve and display visible signs of wealth. They argued that social structures are inherently anomic and account for the high levels of violent crimes committed (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994). In other words, as Chamlin and Cochran (2007) suggest, “when the social structure fails to provide sufficient means to achieve success goals in the prescribed fashion, an increase in the rate of crime is the anticipated result. In the context of blocked opportunities, the contradictions between the values concerning the means and ends produce a state of anomie, which, in turn, motivates some segments of society to engage in criminal activities to procure monetary goals” (Chamlin and Cochran 2007).

Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) questioned the position of Merton (1938) to limit his construction of anomie to only the legitimate opportunities which are available within the social structure. They suggest that if anomie can escalate and become institutionalised, because of strain and inability of social structures to curtain the lawlessness which would be a significant criminological theoretical failure since such lawlessness would increase rates of homicide and other violent crimes (Messner and Rosenfeld 1994).

Chamlin and Cochran (1995) argues that institutionalised anomie is observed in instances where the “effect of economic conditions on profit motivated crime depends on the strength of non economic institutions” (Chamlin an Cochran 1995). For example, in the case of Russia, which Pridemore (2007) identifies as an anomic society, suggest that improvement of economic conditions will only reduce violent crimes and homicides.

Messner and Rosenfeld (2001) in their latest review scrutinized the homicide rates between 1993 and 1995 among sixteen highly industrialized countries and accounted that, for example, the United States has very high rate of homicide in comparison to other countries (Messner and Rosenfeld 2001). Researches also argue that anomie is influenced by desires for immense wealth which is as they suggest is very strong indicator for homicides (Messner and Rosefeld 2001). While Chamlin and Cochran (2007) suggest that in the United States homicide rate is only significant when compared to other Western European industrialized countries.

The World Health Organization report in 2002 “World Report on Violence and Health” estimates that homicide rate per 100,000 populations at 19.3 per cent for the region of the America, including the United States and Canada. Latin America recorded a homicide rate over 140,000 deaths per year at the time of the 2002 report, rendering the region as one of the most violent in the world. Significantly, most of the countries in this region are not undergoing recovery from or experiencing political unrest, and the rates seem directly related to the drug trade and the its influence on legitimate social structures (The World Health Organization, 2002). Scholars, such as Heineman and Verner (2006) also examined the instances of high violet crimes rate in Latin America and Caribbean and concluded that the most of this violence is fuelled by the desire to acquire wealth through illegitimate means such as a drugs and human trafficking. They also argue that “the highest rates of increase were recorded in the English Caribbean, where homicide rates jumped by more that 67 per cent and in the Andean region, where rates more than doubled” (Heineman and Verner 2006). Harriott (2003) also suggest that, for example, in Jamaica a preposterous homicide rate reveals that the high level of violence is closely tied to robberies where individuals are seeking significant economic gain.

Various social contexts in which an individual finds himself may influence his or her behaviour. As Tajfel and Turner (1986) suggest an individual develops a social identity which is influenced by a variety of socialization factors. These various factors operate within particular societal groups. The theory of the Social Identity stipulates that individual feels comfortable where there is a sense of belonging and a sense of consensus on certain value systems which is also linked to a particular group in which individual feels the greatest sense of belonging (Tajfel and Turner 1986). Harriott (2003) articulates that within the Jamaican impoverished ghetto communities, significant number of individuals saw their economic struggles as a part of their self identity and their subsequent crimes and imprisonment as a corollary to their impoverished social existence. Individuals, who commit violent crimes from these social groups, when interviewed often expressed that they knew they were transgressing legal codes, however, were firmly convinced that their violent crimes were a part of their social identity, and that this was the only way they could achieve any form of financial or economic stability (Harriott, 2003). Anomie therefore has become institutionalised within these communities resulting in a drastic increase in the number of homicides conducted across the country as individuals from the ghettos commits more robberies resulting in homicides in affluent communities.

This paper sought to analyse and discuss the contribution of the routine activity theory and anomie to the act of homicide. It examined the definition of both theories and scrutinized how their postulations impacted the homicide discourse. It found that routine activity theory suggested that a potential criminal needed a motive and gain from the violent act. It also suggested that victim's lifestyle could significantly affect their victimization. The discussion established that while lifestyle can indeed influence the rate of homicide, the routine activity theory did not account for the high levels of homicide between familiar relations. Moreover, the discussion on homicide identified not only social factors but biological factors such as mental instability and a breakdown in the nervous system which can cause an individual to commit homicide to either a stranger or known relative or friend. Examination of anomie in this paper suggest that desire for economic wealth can fuel an anomic society with high levels of homicide rates. Examples from the United States, Latin America, Russia and Jamaica were cited to ground the arguments that anomie and homicide are extremely correlated in many modern day societies.

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