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Homicide: Behavioral Aspects - Cross-national Patterns Of Criminal Homicide

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Although there are problems in using international crime statistics because of differing definitions and methods in classifying the phenomenon, both Interpol and the United Nations data nonetheless offer useful information on homicide rates in different countries. Crossnational studies of homicide are generally based on either WHO or Interpol data. There are a number of problems with these sources including lack of representation of many countries (e.g., Africa, Asia, former Communist countries). Lack of consistency in reporting is also a problem. Gary LaFree, in summarizing these problems, supports an earlier assessment by Kalish, who said, "It is risky to quote a crime rate for a particular country for a particular year without examining rates for other years, and, whenever possible, rates from other sources" (quoted in La-Free, p. 138).

Despite these difficulties, studies confirm that, in general, Central and South American nations have high rates of homicide. In fact, Colombia is frequently the nation with the highest homicide rate. Also, several former Soviet block nations tend to have high homicide rates, notably the countries of the Russian Federation. Countries with the lowest homicide rates tend to be Western European nations. Japan often has the lowest rate of homicide. Again, it is important to note differential reporting from some areas of the world. There is only one African nation that has somewhat consistent reporting to the WHO from year to year (Mauritius). Few Asian countries, including the Middle Eastern countries, are represented. Table 1 shows worldwide homicide rates drawn primarily from the World Health Organization.

Researchers have tried to explain why there are differences in rates between countries. In his summary of these studies, LaFree notes several explanations. The most consistent finding is that the greater the difference between the rich and the poor in a country, the higher the country's homicide rate. Some research shows that the difference between the rich and poor has a stronger effect on homicide rates in areas that are densely populated. However, it does not appear that the number of people unemployed in a country or the degree of population density alone is related to its homicide rate. It is important to emphasize that the difference between the rich and poor groups in a country, in terms of income and education, has the most effect on a country's homicide rate.

Another explanation for differences in homicide rates is the varying levels of economic development across nations. Economic development refers to, for example, the per capita gross national product, the number of telephones, radios, or newspapers in a country, the amount of energy used, and the amount of industry and technology in a country. Most research shows that the less economic development in a country, the higher its homicide rate. For example, Japan is an economically developed country, as are many Western European nations, and they have low homicide rates. The obvious exception to this generalization is the United States, which is highly developed economically but also has a high homicide rate. Reasons for this exception are not clear, although patterns of gun ownership by individuals may have a bearing on it.

Other explanations for differences in national homicide rates relate to the makeup of a country's population. Some researchers suggest that the number of teenagers and young adults in a country is related to higher homicide rates, but findings are inconsistent. Other studies contend that the number of different linguistic, racial, Table 1 ethnic, or religious groups in a country influence the homicide rate. However, there has been little evidence showing that a greater number of such groups are related to higher homicide rates. One relationship that has been consistently associated with homicide rates is increasing population growth. The faster a country's population is growing, the higher its homicide rate tends to be.

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