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Homicide: Behavioral Aspects - Sociological Explanations Of Homicide

subculture violence learned inequality

There are a number of sociological explanations for homicide. Most explanations have focused on explaining why rates of homicide are different in different groups, for example, minority versus majority groups, or in different regions of the United States, such as South versus North. Two major lines of thought, cultural and social structural, have been most prevalent. While these explanations are not mutually exclusive, debates between advocates of these perspectives have been common. Cultural theorists explain homicides as resulting from learned, shared values and behavior specific to a given group. The basic causes are in the norms and values, transmitted across generations, that are learned by members of a group. Certain subgroups exhibit higher rates of homicide because they are participants in a subculture that has violence as a norm. First developed by Wolfgang in 1958 and later expanded by Wolfgang and Ferracutti in 1967, this position asserts that there is a subculture of violence—that is, a subculture with a cluster of values that support and encourage the overt use of force in interpersonal relations and group interactions. The subculture is reflected in the psychological and behavioral traits of its participants. Ready access to weapons and the carrying of weapons are symbols indicating a willingness to participate in violence and to expect and be ready for retaliation. The development of favorable attitudes toward the use of violence in a subculture involves learned behavior and a process of differential association or identification. In general, violence is a learned shared mode of adaptation for specific groups of people (Wolfgang and Ferracutti).

Social structural explanations have been more pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s. The factors most commonly studied are two features of economic stratification: poverty and income inequality. Poverty refers to absolute economic deprivation wherein persons have difficulty securing the basic necessities for a healthy life, whereas relative deprivation refers to relative lack of material goods, on the premise that the subjective experience of deprivation motivates individuals to violence (Messner and Rosenfeld). Studies show that poverty alone is not consistently linked to homicide, although it is a related component. The inequality hypothesis has also been tested using different units of analysis, that is, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. For subnational units the evidence is somewhat mixed, and at the national level results are very consistent. Nations with high levels of income inequality tend to exhibit high homicide rates. Further refinement of research on the relationship between economics and racial and other forms of inequality needs to continue, as do attempts to integrate cultural and social structural approaches. Studies of factors related to specific types of homicide, such as intimate partner homicide and gang homicide, are also important and are proving more useful in suggesting ways to prevent such deaths than are the more general approaches.

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