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Rural Crime - Theoretical Explanations Of Rural-urban Crime Differences

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A consideration of urban-rural crime rate differences has important implications for criminological theory and crime policies. As Weisheit and Wells note, the tendency has been for theories to be developed for urban crime problems and then to assume these have universal application—a perspective that has been called "urban ethnocentrism." Perhaps ironically, the earliest theories in criminology were characterized by a nonurban perspective, reflecting the predominantly rural backgrounds of the early theorists in sociology and criminology. But as Weisheit and Wells suggest, "contemporary criminology has come full circle from these origins and dramatically reversed this bias" (p. 383).

Table 1 SOURCE: Uniform Crime Report Data, 1996.

For example, several criminological studies assert that poverty is a cause of crime; however, it is important to note that poverty is a common problem in the rural United States where unemployment is generally higher, and for those who are employed, wages are generally lower. Therefore, theories of crime that invoke poverty as a potential cause have difficulty explaining the fact that crime rates are generally lower in rural jurisdictions.

Criminologists have also argued that the high rates of gun ownership in the United States are related to violent crime. However, Wright, Rossi, and Daly (1983) observed that gun ownership is much more prevalent in rural as opposed to urban areas—in rural areas over 75 percent of citizens are gun owners, while in large cities only 25 percent of citizens own guns. And while many rural gun owners are hunters who primarily use rifles, the percentage of citizens owning handguns is also higher in rural areas than in central cities. Interestingly, however, while rural residents are more likely to own guns, they are less likely to use them in the commission of crime (Weisheit et al.).

In 1941, George Vold argued that the higher crime rates of urban areas could be explained using two basic hypotheses. The first of these held that there had been a selective migration from rural areas to cities of the individuals who were most likely to commit crimes, thereby increasing crime rates in cities and decreasing those in rural areas. The second hypothesis was that the city itself has an influence on the life of its inhabitants that tends to promote and facilitate criminality. More recently, theorists have developed what are known as the "determinist" and "compositional" models in attempts to explain rural urban crime differences. The determinist argument asserts that urban residence itself contributes to crime in these areas; the compositional argument, on the other hand, suggests that urban residence itself has no significant effect on the risk of crime victimization. Instead, the differences in crime rates between rural and urban areas are better explained through reference to the social and demographic characteristics of the populations who reside in each type of place (Sacco et al.; Tittle).

Related to the compositional argument, it is commonly believed that rural areas are more governed by informal social control, which is facilitated by the fact that many residents of rural communities, including the police, know each other socially—as George Vold commented in a 1941 article, "in the open country... every person is a policeman" (p. 38). Rural populations are generally more stable, and the social networks in rural communities are largely overlapping rather than segmented, and characterized by a higher density of acquaintanceship (Freudenberg). In contrast, as Wirth contended, urbanism as a way of life promotes social estrangement and alienation, which allows urban dwellers to escape the regulatory influences of the informal social controls that tend to operate in less urbanized places. These differences in urban and rural lifestyles need to be considered when examining differences in crime rates.

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