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Lethal Violence: A Global View on Homicide

Summary and Keywords

As the most serious crime, homicide is both relevant and suitable for cross-national comparisons. The global homicide rate of ca. 6 per 100,000 people is an average of hugely diverging national rates ranging from 0.25 in Singapore to ca. 100 in El Salvador. The validity of global homicide statistics suffers from various differences in definitions as well as reporting and registration processes. Both criminal justice and causes of death statistics are used by the World Health Organization to construct rates, yet these are available only for a minority of countries. An overview on homicide in history and non-state societies shows that violence levels were considerably higher compared to those in today’s developed world and have dropped dramatically in Europe and North America during the early modern period. The rates first increased and then declined between ca.1960 and today in most developed nations in a synchronized manner, hinting at common influences. In recent years, homicide trends have shown a polarizing pattern, with increasing rates in Latin America and decreasing rates in most other world regions, especially East Asia and the Pacific, where rates have fallen below the European average concurrent with rising scores on the Human Development Index. Except in Eastern Europe, the frequency of homicide is strongly linked to the use of firearms, which account for 44% of homicide cases worldwide.

Longitudinal studies have produced robust evidence for the pivotal role of deprivation and inequality in fostering lethal violence and of social welfare policies in reducing it. Although the transition to democratic political systems seems to increase homicide rates temporarily, the legitimacy of state institutions and the suppression of corruption are connected to lower homicide rates. Because of conceptual and methodological problems, questions concerning the generalizability of effects across space and time remain. Nevertheless, the research findings are sufficiently robust to draw important conclusions for violence prevention: reductions in poverty and income inequality, investments in welfare policies and gender equality, and improvements in the legitimacy of state institutions will help to bring homicide rates down.

Keywords: homicide, violence, cross-national comparison, social inequality, poverty, modernization, developing countries, crime causation

Introduction

As the most serious crime, homicide has always attracted the special attention of scientists and the general public. Estimates set the worldwide annual number of homicide victims at around 400,000. The global distribution of lethal violence is highly skewed: half of all homicides happen in countries with only 10% of the world population, whereas 3 billion people live in countries with low homicide rates (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC], 2014, p. 12). The variability of homicide rates has fascinated social scientists since the 19th century. In contrast to most other crime types, the definition of homicide is relatively similar across the globe, and no other crime is registered and investigated to the same degree by state authorities. Thus, commonly accepted as the most complete and least biased crime data, homicide statistics have kept a unique role in cross-national crime research until today. Although homicide rates do not necessarily reflect violence levels of societies generally (Zimring & Hawkins, 1997), there is no doubt about their salience as an indicator of grave social problems. Cross-national homicide research focuses on macro-level societal conditions influencing the volume of lethal violence. The global variability in homicide rates and socioeconomic, political, and cultural indicators offers a perspective on crime causation that is missing in most research focusing on single countries and individual-level processes. Thus, this article concentrates on cross-national homicide research using large samples of nations.

Definitions

The term “homicide” is of Latin origin and means “killing of a human being.” Yet official definitions of homicide are less universal than this simple term may suggest. The most common understanding of homicide includes the two attributes “intentional” and “unlawful” (Smit, de Jong, & Bijleveld, 2012; UNODC, 2014). This definition excludes non-intentional killings, such as road traffic deaths, as well as lawful killings, such as judicial executions or justifiable self-defense (Alvazzi del Frate, Mugellini, Pavesi, & Karimova, 2012). Aggravated assault leading to death constitutes a gray area, as the intent to kill may be difficult to establish or to exclude in many cases (Lysova & Shchitov, 2015, p. 260). In addition, the definition is restricted to cases of individual acts of interpersonal violence, which normally include only a few perpetrators and victims, in contrast to killings in armed conflicts during wars and civil wars. Thus, UNODC, which monitors homicide trends worldwide defines intentional homicide as “unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person” (UNODC, 2014, p. 9).

There are numerous examples, though, in which lethal violence defies a clear-cut classification, potentially leading to a serious under- rather than overestimation of homicide counts. Killings by law enforcement authorities are in most countries seen as lawful by definition, even if evidence points at the excessive use of force or patterns of extrajudicial and arbitrary executions that are clearly unlawful (Geneva Declaration, 2015; UNODC, 2014). In the United States, civil rights groups criticize the fact that cases of excessive use of force by police officers against unarmed citizens are rarely prosecuted in criminal courts. Thus, the number of around 1,000 people killed by police officers annually—based on data collected by newspapers, as the FBI reports only around 450 cases of justifiable killings—does not contribute to the homicide count in the United States (Davis & Lowery, 2015; Zimring, 2017). The homicide estimate for Venezuela for 2016, published by a non-government organization (NGO) and including police killings, was 30% higher than the official homicide rate, which excluded this category (McEvoy & Hideg, 2017, p. 28). Many Latin American countries have a tradition of widespread extrajudicial killings and the involvement of police forces in death squads that kill with impunity (Cruz, 2016; Denyer Willis, 2015). The most recent and blatant example of extrajudicial killings by police forces is the “war on drugs” in the Philippines, estimated to have claimed 12,000 lives in 2016 and 2017, which would double the official homicide count (Human Rights Watch, 2018, p. 429). Another example of unclear demarcation is large-scale lethal terror attacks, which have been recorded as homicides in some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Norway, but not in others, such as the United States and Spain (UNODC, 2014, p. 60, FN 38). In countries suffering from multiple forms of lethal violence and on the verge of or after civil war, such as Iraq or Columbia, the distinction between armed conflict, terrorism, and homicides related to organized crime may be exceedingly difficult (Eisner, 2013; UNODC, 2014, p. 102).

To summarize, the definition of intentional homicide excludes other forms of lethal violence from the radar. In order to achieve a full picture of lethal violence, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, a supranational group of governments and UN organizations, has published estimates of the global tally of violent deaths. According to the estimate for 2016, 380,000 (68%) out of 560,000 killed were victims of intentional homicides, and 99,000 (18%) were casualties of armed conflicts, including terrorism (McEvoy & Hideg, 2017, p. 20). Remaining categories were unintentional homicides (10%) and killings in legal interventions (3%). Although the overall count of violent deaths has increased in recent years, McEvoy and Hideg (2017, p. 52) report a shift from intentional homicides, which have decreased, to deaths in armed conflicts, which have increased, mainly because of civil wars in the Near East. Yet only two of the five countries with the highest rates of lethal violence in 2016 are experiencing armed conflicts (Syria and Afghanistan), whereas the counts are driven by intentional homicide in the three other countries (El Salvador, Honduras, and Venezuela), all situated in Central and South America. Thus, intentional homicides constitute by far the largest segment of the total violent death toll globally.

Measurement and Statistical Data

Most current international studies on homicide use hybrid statistics based on both criminal justice and health data sources. The WHO has emerged as the prime data supplier, as its causes-of-death statistics are often regarded as superior to police and criminal justice data, especially for comparative purposes (Andersson & Kazemian, 2018; Koeppel, Rhineberger-Dunn, & Mack, 2015; LaFree et al., 2015). In parallel, UNODC runs the United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (UN-CTS), which primarily draws on criminal justice data but incorporates WHO health data where deemed more reliable, just as the WHO does vice versa. Although this hybrid approach succeeds in providing the best possible empirical data, homicide statistics still cover only around a third of all countries and leave wide gaps for large parts of the world, especially in Africa, East Asia, and Oceania, where no official data of either source exist. Thus, research on global homicide is dependent on country samples, which are biased toward the richer and more developed countries (Kanis et al., 2017).

In an attempt to overcome these limitations, the WHO has started to produce model-based estimates of homicide rates for countries with missing data, using covariates that explain variation in levels of homicide for the existing country sample (WHO, 2014, p. 64). The set of covariates includes, among others, the infant mortality rate, the gender equality index, and religious fractionalization. In a number of countries, not even these social indicators are available and information is instead imputed based on WHO regional data (WHO, 2014, p. 64). This estimation approach is currently applied to ca. 70% of all countries, mostly in Africa and Asia (UNODC, 2014, p. 110). Kanis et al. (2017) have alerted researchers to the potential tautology if such estimated homicide rates were associated with social indicators identical or similar with those used to arrive at these estimates in the first place.

As for countries with existing statistics, the WHO uses either health or criminal justice data, whichever is higher, and adjusts these data upward based on different rules and following a general assumption that homicides are underreported in most countries (WHO, 2014, p. 63). In many highly developed countries with well-organized police forces and high homicide clearance rates, the criminal justice statistics tend to report slightly more homicide cases than the causes-of-death statistics, whereas in most less developed countries with dysfunctional law enforcement agencies and where both statistics can be compared, the causes-of-death statistics report much higher homicide cases and thus appear to be closer to the “true” homicide count (Lappi-Seppälä & Lehti, 2014, p. 138). Apart from bureaucratic dysfunction, deliberate distortions may lead to an underestimation of homicide rates in autocratic regimes. Lysova and Shchitov (2015), examining the quality of homicide data in Russia, found grounds to assume that both statistics are being manipulated downward for political reasons. As the homicide counts in Russian police statistics decreased during the 2000s, from 34,000 to 18,000, the counts of “unidentified bodies” increased from 37,000 to 78,000, suggesting potential misclassifications both because of deliberate manipulation as well as a lack of investigative resources. The latter problem is not restricted to Russia, but pertains to other countries as well. A stark example is Mexico, where thousands of people, many of whom are presumably homicide victims, have disappeared in hidden graves and thus have not entered any statistics (Wade, 2017). In some countries, certain population groups are particularly vulnerable yet insufficiently protected by law enforcement. For example, in Canada over 100 indigenous women have been missing since 2015 and most of these cases are considered suspicious (http://www.cbc.ca/missingandmurdered/). No country is immune from the problem of undetected homicides. In the absence of bodies or of suspicion (i.e., in the case of elderly and frail persons), homicides may completely escape detection and prosecution. A forensic medical study has estimated that up to 1,200 homicides per year may go undetected in Germany (which would double the homicide count), a country in which post mortem examinations have been reduced for fiscal reasons (Brinkmann et al, 1997; Zack et al., 2017).

Even where homicide data appear reliable, the scope of information is severely limited to the bare facts such as the age and sex of victims and perpetrators (if known) and the killing method. A few countries have initiated more advanced homicide reporting systems, which routinely collect detailed information on each case, as the National Violent Death Reporting System operated in many U.S. states (Parks, Johnson, McDaniel, & Gladden, 2014) and the European Homicide Monitor jointly run by Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Liem et al., 2013; for Australia, see Bryant & Bricknell, 2017). Although these data sources offer more opportunities for in-depth analyses, so far they cannot support global studies on homicide.

In sum, although efforts to provide reliable data have improved homicide statistics and enlarged their global scope, large parts of the world remain blind spots, and deficient data collections result in figures that are likely to be under- rather than overestimated, especially in less developed countries. At present, both the WHO and UNODC are the best available sources of national homicide rates, and researchers are well advised to carefully consider the limitations to their validity, in particular when using larger country samples beyond the Western world.

Homicide in Prehistory and Non-State Societies

Are completely peaceful human societies imaginable? Are modern and complex societies more or less violent than traditional and simple societies? Such fundamental questions about the human potential for violence and its control have intrigued many scholars and widened the focus to societies outside the civilized world, stimulated by a conflict between the “Rousseauian” view of the “peaceful savage” versus the “Hobbesian” assumption of the pacifying role of the modern state (Nivette, 2011b, p. 580; Pinker, 2011, p. 35). Research on lethal violence in premodern and prehistorical times as well as in contemporary nonstate societies is severely hampered by the lack of systematic data. However, historians, anthropologists, and even archeologists have produced rough estimates of rates of lethal violence (as well as rich qualitative information) from patchy data sources including court records, ethnographic fieldwork, and osteological evidence. Skulls and other skeletal remains throughout human prehistory show marks of fatal violence inflicted with sharp instruments (Kelly, 2005; Walker, 2001).

The broad picture that emerges from these studies is one of large variation across human societies of all periods and constitutions, rather than a clear trajectory of increasing or decreasing violence with modernization (Eisner, 2013; Nivette, 2011b). Estimates of lethal violence rates among non-state societies range from less than 2 per 100,000 in parts of Africa, up to several hundred or even 1,000 per 100,000 in New Guinea and among Native American peoples (Nivette, 2011b, p. 583). Thus, some of these “primitive” societies were as peaceful as the least violent-prone contemporary societies like Iceland, whereas others suffered from violence levels that by far exceeded the highest homicide rate currently recorded for Central American cities such as Caracas (UNODC, 2014, p. 150). On average, though, the homicide rates of prehistory and non-state societies are likely to have been well above those of even the more violent present-day societies (Pinker, 2011).

One core problem interpreting these estimates is the blurred distinction between in-group and out-group killings. Although the former are individual acts of interpersonal violence, the latter are seen as collective raids or “primitive warfare” between tribes (Keeley, 1997; Knauft, 1991; Wrangham, Wilson, & Muller, 2006). For example, people inhabiting the Andaman Islands are said to be extremely hostile toward outsiders but to shun violence in internal conflicts (Nivette, 2011b, p. 590; Wrangham & Glowacki, 2012, p. 12). In contrast, ethnographic evidence collected by Chagnon (1988, 2013) describes the Yanomami people of the Amazonas rainforest as extremely violent both within as well as between groups. According to Chagnon’s (1988, p. 985) calculations, almost a third of male adults were killed, and almost half of them participated in killings. Although some ethnographers have questioned Chagnon’s account (Sponsel, 1998), there is enough evidence across space and time to acknowledge that lethal violence is no anomaly, but a universal feature of human societies, and that extremely high rates of homicides have occurred in various types of societies. The causes for variation in lethal violence among non-state societies remain largely unexplored. Some studies have found correlations with the preponderance of strong kin ties over “weak” ties linking different clans, and with harsh socialization practices (Eisner, 2013). Some anthropologists believe that violence increased considerably with the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer to sedentary agricultural societies because of increasing conflicts over territory and property (Allen, 2014; Fry & Söderberg, 2014; Lee, 2014), whereas others stress the major role of resource scarcity as the driving force of violence (Allen et al., 2016).

Homicide Trends in Premodern European History

The estimates of long-term homicide trends become more reliable with the emergence of archival sources in premodern Europe, long before the start of national crime statistics in the early 19th century. Court records of capital cases started during the 13th and 14th centuries in some cities and districts in England, Germany, and Italy, and became much more frequent during early modern times. Manuel Eisner (2001, 2003), aggregating many historical studies based on local or regional sources, estimated that the homicide rate ranged between ca. 20 and 50 per 100,000 in many European countries during late medieval times before declining to 1 to 2 per 100,000 in the mid-20th century. According to this picture, large parts of Europe have seen a massive drop in lethal interpersonal violence by a factor of 10 to 50 (Eisner, 2013, p. 88).

Despite patchy data series, there is little doubt that this secular decline initiated during the 16th century in Northwestern Europe (England, Low Countries) and spread to Scandinavia in the 17th century. Around 1800, at the eve of the Industrial Revolution, homicide rates in these countries were already as low as ca. 1 per 100,000. A similar decline has been reported for the New England colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries (Eisner, 2003, p. 107; Roth, 2009). The decline occurred later in Central Europe (i.e., the German-speaking countries) and started only during the late 19th century (and from a much higher level) in South Europe. Within Central and South European countries, a north–south and center–periphery divide emerged during this long transition period, with higher homicide rates in southern and more rural and traditional regions, a pattern that was already apparent to early sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. By the mid-20th century, shortly after World War II, European homicide rates had converged to a historic minimum of less than 1 per 100,000 in North and West Europe and around 1 in Central and South Europe. The 1950s and early 1960s mark a turning point in the long-term homicide trend across many developed nations, as the decline came to an end, and rates started to rise again (Eisner, 2008; see “Global Homicide Patterns Since 1950”). The United States, too, fit broadly into this historical pattern, despite a generally higher level and a less clear-cut downward trend during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The secular decline of homicide in most of Europe has only slowly attracted the interest of violence researchers, although it may hold important lessons for contemporary efforts to reduce violence globally if it can be attributed to general causes (Eisner, 2017). Scholars generally agree that the historical trend repudiates crude assumptions about social disorganization as the consequence of industrialization and urbanization. Explanations have evolved around the grand theories of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Norbert Elias, both focusing on the parallel development of macro-level structures in state and economy and of micro-level socio-psychological adjustments favoring restrained and civilized behaviors (see “Explanations–Economic Development and Modernity”). Honor and retaliation are key concepts for the understanding both of historical as well as contemporary patterns of homicide (Brown & Osterman, 2012; Eisner, 2003, p. 129). In premodern Europe, a large proportion of killings happened in public between male adults in an aggressive defense of reputation. In stark contrast to present-day patterns, lethal violence was not concentrated in lower class and marginal populations, but fairly common also among higher social strata, including the nobility, as violent rituals like dueling indicate (Cooney, 1997; Eisner, 2003, p. 116). However, in the absence of systematic data for historical periods before roughly the mid-20th century on almost all relevant social mechanisms, the major contribution of historical homicide research may be rather to inspire and generate hypotheses than to test and validate them.

Global Homicide Pattern and Trends Since 1950

The burden of homicide, its patterns, and trends vary enormously around the globe. Looking at the latest available figures, the world’s most violent country in 2015 was El Salvador, with a homicide rate of 108.6 per 100,000, whereas the most peaceful was Singapore, with a rate of 0.25 per 100,000, which translates into a more than 400-fold difference between the two extremes. In absolute numbers, Mexico was (after Brazil) the second most deadly country, with a victim count of 25,339 in 2017, whereas Japan, a country of equal population size, reported just 395 victims in 2014, 1.6% of Mexico’s volume. A global map of homicide rates reveals distinct patterns of world regions featuring broadly similar levels of homicide (UNODC, 2014, p. 23). Around a third of the variation of national homicide rates lies between 16 world subregions (including North Africa but excluding sub-Saharan Africa). The three subregions of Latin America lead the table, with population-weighted mean homicide rates of around 25 (Central America), 23 (South America), and 16 (Caribbean). However, South Africa as a single country has an even higher homicide rate of over 30. WHO estimates for most of sub-Saharan Africa (where no homicide statistics exist) are similar to the Latin American figures. In contrast, most Asian regions except East Asia have homicide rates (often based on WHO estimates too) close to the global average of 6. The three major countries in East Asia—China, Japan, and South Korea—all have very low homicide rates of less than 1, and India’s homicide rate (3.2 in 2014) is below the U.S. rate (4.9 in 2015). The low rates of the most populous Asian nations set the overall population-weighted rate for Asia at 2.9, slightly below the European rate of 3.0. Within Europe, the main distinction is between Eastern Europe, with a mean rate of around 5, and all other parts of Europe, with rates around or less than 1. The higher burden of violence in Eastern Europe is entirely attributable to Russia’s very high homicide rate (11.3 in 2015), whereas the rates of most other Eastern European countries are very similar to those in Western Europe.

This snapshot of the current cross-national variability of homicide rates is the product of developments over the last decades, which have resulted in a more pronounced global polarization of violence masked behind a moderate decline of the global volume of homicide. Latin America and South Africa, already the most violent world regions, have shown high-stable or even increasing trends in recent years, whereas most other regions, in particular Europe, North America, and Asia, reported declining rates. Applying formal tests to these national trends, LaFree et al. (2015) found significant consistency in the trends only for the wealthy nations, but not for Asia and Latin America, probably because of larger heterogeneity within these regions. Diverging trends in different world regions seem to contradict the notion of a global pacification process, which Steven Pinker (2011) and the advocates of the modernization hypothesis have proposed. The following brief overview is based on recent in-depth studies of global homicide trends (Baumer & Wolff, 2014; LaFree et al., 2015; Lappi-Seppälä & Lehti, 2014).

Looking at Europe and North America first, homicide trends since the 1950s were marked by a strong upswing from the historical low after World War II until the early 1990s, when rates started to fall again until today. Central and Eastern European countries experienced a much more dramatic rise of homicide rates after the breakdown of communist rule, which may be explained by rapid social change (Pridemore & Kim, 2007, see “Explanations - Economic Development and Modernity”). With some delay, rates have come down again too, and a similar convergence to the low rates of West Europe has also been observed in the West Balkan region after the end of the Yugoslavian civil war (Alvazzi del Frate & Mugellini, 2012). The same cyclical pattern, marked by an upswing from the 1960s to the 1990s and a drop since then, applies to Canada and, albeit on a much higher level, the United States.

Not only does the reversal of the historical homicide decline in Europe and North America since the 1950s pose a challenge to theoretical explanations of a long-term and linear modernization process (Thome, 2007), but the synchronization of cyclical trends in many nations suggests common causal processes transgressing country borders (Messner, Pearson-Nelson, Raffalovich, & Miner, 2011, p. 77). LaFree (1998) and Eisner (2014) proposed that sociocultural change in the postwar period resulted in a loss of legitimacy and self-control that increased violence. The optimistic take is that it may have been a temporary aberration from the long process of civilization (Pinker, 2011, p. 121).

However, to the extent that improvements in the medical treatment of victims, resulting in higher survival rates, have an impact on this long-term trend, the decline in homicide rates would not necessary represent a decline in serious interpersonal violence. This issue is rarely touched on as very little systematic data is available to gauge the impact of medical treatment. An epidemiological study from the United States showed that although homicide fatal firearm injuries declined by 0.38 per 100,000 annually between 2001 and 2013, homicide nonfatal firearm injuries (which more than double fatal injuries) increased by 0.43 per 100,000, thus resulting in an overall increase of firearm-related violence (Kalesan et al., 2017).

An optimistic interpretation is also conceivable in the case of Asia (where homicide data are much more patchy). Although not as congruent as Europe and North America because of a large heterogeneity in economic and political development, Asia has seen a long-term decreasing pattern since the 1950s, and the strongest decline of all world regions between 1992 and 2010 (Baumer & Wolff, 2014, p. 256; LaFree et al., 2015, p. 493). Contrary to Western developed nations, Japan’s homicide rate has been in an uninterrupted decline since 1950, and countries such as Thailand, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka recorded homicide drops of 50% to 70% over the last decade. Coincidentally, East Asia and the Pacific has also been the world region with the steepest increase in the Human Development Index since 1990 (United Nations Development Program , 2015, p. 60, see “Explanations–Economic Development and Modernity).

Latin America’s experience poses a marked contrast to that of Asia, North America, and Europe, especially during the last two decades. It was the only world region (with sufficient data) to record an increase in homicide rates between 1990 and 2010 (LaFree et al., 2015, p. 494). Homicide rates have increased dramatically since 1993 in many Caribbean and Central American countries, such as Mexico (+116%), Venezuela (+41%), Jamaica (+52%), and El Salvador (+192%). Only some countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and particularly Colombia have seen drops in recent times, but these still remain very violent compared to the global average. Volatile changes in homicide rates appear to be related to civil wars and changes in drug markets in many Latin American countries (Chioda, 2017; World Bank, 2010).

Spatial as well as temporal variations in the quantity of lethal violence are associated with typical shifts in its composition. Almost universally, higher homicide rates are connected with higher shares of young male perpetrators and victims of organized crime and gang-related homicides, of homicides committed with guns, with fewer cleared cases and convictions, as well as with lower shares of partner-/family-related violence and female victims. This nexus between the volume and the structure of lethal violence reflects the fundamental fact that variations in the frequency of homicides are foremost variations in violent competition among unrelated young males fighting for influence, honor, or material gain (Eisner, 2008, 2013). As a general rule, perpetrators and victims of homicide—with the important exception of intimate partner homicide—tend to be from the same demographic groups. In their Global Study on Homicide, the UNODC (2014) distinguishes between “homicide related to other criminal activities,” for example, committed by organized criminal groups; “interpersonal homicide” between intimate partners, family members, and acquaintances; and “socio-political homicide,” for example, terrorism and hate crime. Globally, the homicide rate of males is four times higher than the female rate, and young men aged 15 to 29 have the highest victimization risk, accounting for 43% of all victims (UNODC, 2014, p. 28).

Because the variation in total homicide rates largely depends on the volume of violence among the young male population, countries with lower homicide rates tend to have higher proportions of female homicide victims. This inverse relation has since long been known as the “static law” (Lappi-Sepällä & Lethi, 2016, p. 428). Throughout the postwar decades from the 1950s to the 2000s, Lappi-Säpällä and Lethi (2016, p. 459) found a strong negative association between total homicide rate and the female-to-male homicide ratio, accounting for 60% of the variance. In high-violence countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and El Salvador, only between 7% and 11% of homicide victims are women, whereas in low-violence countries like Norway, Austria, and Singapore, the share is between 35% and 50% (UNODC, 2014, p. 134). The very few instances where the female-to-male homicide ratio is close to parity are all high-income, low-violence countries (McEvoy & Hideg, p. 63). Stöckl et al. (2013) estimated that globally, 43% of female homicide victims but only 6.5% of male homicide victims relate to intimate partner violence. At the same time, countries with higher male homicide rates also have higher female homicide rates (and both rates are largely influenced by the same predictors; see Koeppel et al., 2015, p. 73; Lappi-Seppälä & Lehti, 2016, p. 462; Stamatel, 2014), yet the variability of the latter is much less pronounced.

The frequency of homicide is also strongly linked to the proportion of cases involving firearms in most world regions except Eastern Europe. Globally, 44% of homicides were committed with a firearm in 2016 (McEvoy & Hideg, 2017, p. 48). This share varied between 10% in Oceania, 13% in Europe, and 66% in the Americas (UNODC, 2014, p. 66). Again, the group of Central and South American countries with extremely high homicide rates report also high proportions of firearm use, in the range of 70% to 80% (Muggah & Tobon, 2018, p. 28). The United States stands out among the wealthy nations both as a high-violence country and as the only country with a proportion of gun homicides above 50%. The situation is less clear-cut in Europe: a positive correlation between homicide frequency and proportion of firearms use exists in the Balkan region; in contrast, the share of gun-related homicides is generally very low in countries of the former Soviet Union and not linked to homicide levels. Although these findings partially support the view that firearms are an important “enabler” of lethal violence (UNODC, 2014, p. 65), a causal link between the availability of guns and homicide frequency has not been conclusively found (see “Explanations – Guns and Alcohol”).

Societal Costs of Homicide

The costs of homicide start with the loss of human lives and the traumata afflicted to witnesses and persons close to the victims. However, homicides also carry monetary and economic costs, impede businesses, and reduce the wealth of nations (Soares, 2015). DeLisi et al. (2010, p. 507) have estimated the monetary costs of a single homicide in the United States at $6.5 million. Multiplied by 15,000 victims, this would amount to a monetary loss of ca. $100 billion per year. The World Bank (2010, p. 32) reported estimated total costs resulting from all types of violence at ca. 8% of gross domestic product (GDP) for Guatemala and around 10% of GDP for Honduras and El Salvador, and the projected boost in the economic growth rate for a 10% decrease in the homicide rate was reported as 0.7% to 1.0% per annum. Beyond economic effects, excessive homicide rates are likely to decrease trust, social capital, and the legitimacy of state institutions among people, and may foster support for authoritarian policies as vigilantism and extra-judicial killings (Nivette, 2016). This cost perspective not only underlines the potential nationwide benefits of crime prevention but should also alert scholars to the bidirectional effects of violence and socioeconomic factors, such as economic prosperity and social capital, when searching for the causes of violence.

Explanations

Concepts and Methods for Cross-National Research

As soon as systematic crime statistics became available in European countries in the early 19th century, moral statisticians such as Guerry (1833) and Quételet (1835) started to use them as social indicators and relate them to societal conditions. While creating sociology as a scientific discipline, Emile Durkheim used spatial variations in suicide, as well as homicide rates, for his theory of social integration and regulation during the genesis of modern societies. Since the 1970s, an increasing stream of studies has analyzed the associations of national homicide rates with various social indicators, with the ultimate aim of advancing the understanding of the causes of lethal violence. Not surprisingly, the research field initially was dominated by well-established criminological concepts, in particular anomie and social disorganization theories, which both focus on socioeconomic structure as the “root cause” of crime. Reflecting the wide spectrum of stages of societal development beyond the industrialized world, modernization and cultural theories have supplemented these classic approaches.

Cross-national analyses of aggregate crime data entail specific conceptual and methodological opportunities and problems. Compared to studies within single countries, the cross-national approach not only increases the variation in homicide rates but, more importantly, introduces variability of societal contexts, which is essential for testing macro-sociological theories of violence (Messner & Zimmerman, 2012). Many aspects of the socioeconomic and political structure, such as income inequality and political legitimacy, are genuine properties of nation states, and their potential impact on violence can thus only be assessed using sufficiently large country samples. However, the macro level is, of course, just one of several levels on which social processes are shaped, and thus statistical correlations at the national level cannot offer exhaustive evidence to test theories of crime causation. The advantage of cross-national analysis turns into a disadvantage when it comes to the social mechanisms that are assumed to translate macro-level structural conditions into micro-level contexts of violence (Kittel, 2006). Aggregate data analysis is notoriously inapt in shedding light on social processes, and macro-sociological theories of violence tend to neglect the micro foundation of the assumed effects of structural conditions on individual behavior (Messner, 2012).

To illustrate this fundamental problem with two examples, the Gini coefficient of income inequality and the divorce rate are fairly robust correlates of country homicide rates, but exactly which individuals in which contexts are more likely to use lethal violence because of which proximal causes remains very cloudy in cross-national studies. Scholars usually do not assume that individuals directly affected by a divorce develop an increased likelihood for lethal violence, but rather interpret the divorce rate as an indicator of a weakened normative order in societies at large (Messner et al., 2011, p. 86). Yet a valid measurement of this latent concept is hard to achieve, let alone for many countries. Multinational survey programs, such as the World Values Survey, have been used to fill this gap (e.g., Nivette & Eisner, 2012; Schaible, 2012). Likewise, income inequality is often assumed to instigate feelings of injustice and frustration that, according to psychological theories, can provoke violent reactions or, according to evolutionary psychology, spur male competition for reproductive success (Daly, 2016). However, it would be reductionist to assume that this mechanism exists in all types of societies or that it is the only conceivable mechanism (Chamlin & Cochran, 2005). Again, the assumed micro-level process—the frustration–aggression link or alternative mechanisms—have rarely been tested empirically in cross-national studies.

The majority of studies have used cross-sectional data and multiple regression analysis, often pooling homicide rates of several years for improved robustness. Cross-sectional designs are vulnerable to the problem of omitted variable bias: unmeasured country properties could be confounded with the homicide rate, rendering its associations with predictors spurious. Associations found in cross-sectional models can in most cases not be interpreted as causal, as effects could work in both directions. For example, meager economic growth or low police legitimacy could instigate violence, but both could also be a consequence of epidemic violence (Soares, 2015).

Since the 2000s, longitudinal designs using fixed effects models or, more recently, random effects models have become widespread. Fixed effects models remove any country differences and focus purely on changes over time of homicide rates in relation to time-variant predictors, avoiding endogeneity and moving closer to the identification of causal effects (e.g., Fajnzylber, Lederman, & Loayza, 2002; Messner et al., 2011). Yet, considering enormous and partly inert global differences in societal conditions, an exclusive focus on time-dynamic effects may impede a comprehensive understanding of country effects on lethal violence (Fearon, 2011). Random effects models that simultaneously estimate between- and within-country effects seem an interesting solution to this problem and have become increasingly popular (McCall & Brauer, 2014; Tuttle, 2018; cf. Bell & Jones, 2015).

Longitudinal designs are almost obligatory in order to capture dynamic, nonlinear effects on homicide. According to some theories inspired by Durkheim’s anomie theory, societal change affects homicide only temporarily before a new balance of social norms and forces is found; two examples are changing family structures (Messner et al., 2011) and the transition to democratic rule (Neumayer, 2003). Also, the same social indicator may represent very distinct processes, depending on the temporal dimension. GDP as a cross-sectional and static variable is often understood as an indicator of the level of societal development (including state institutions), whereas short-term changes in GDP can be seen as an indicator of increasing or decreasing wealth, but also of rapid, anomic social change (Neumayer, 2003).

Studies looking for interaction effects (e.g., between social inequality and social support) often overlook the technical problem that multiplicative interaction terms may miss significance levels if the highly skewed homicide rate has been log-transformed or if negative binomial regression analysis is applied (Greene, 2010; Svensson & Oberwittler, 2010).

Several systematic review articles have in recent years summarized and discussed the current state of cross-national homicide research (Eisner, 2013; Koeppel et al., 2015; Messner & Zimmerman, 2012; Trent & Pridemore, 2012). The reviews by Koeppel et al. (2015) and Trent & Pridemore (2012) include detailed tabular overviews of relevant studies. Nivette (2011a) has published the only meta-analysis so far. The following overview on findings is largely based on these reviews and supplemented by the most recent studies in the field. Although most studies use WHO homicide data for the dependent variable, the choice of predictors and the coverage of countries and years as well as the modeling approaches are sufficiently diverse to produce a very heterogeneous picture. No single hypothesis is supported unanimously in the literature; nevertheless, a number of fairly robust findings do emerge.

Deprivation, Inequality, and Welfare Policies

Deprivation and unequal distribution of wealth within societies are among the most extensively studied predictors of homicide, following a long tradition in criminology and influential theoretical perspectives, such as Robert Merton’s anomie theory. As briefly mentioned above, relative deprivation is assumed to provoke feelings of injustice and frustration, in particular if material inequalities are reinforced by ascribed social inequalities and discrimination (Blau & Blau, 1982; Chamlin & Cochran, 2005; Messner, 1989). With some exceptions, the majority of cross-national studies found significant positive effects of the Gini coefficient of income distribution on homicide rates (Koeppel et al., 2015, p. 75; Messner & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 5359; Nivette, 2011a, p. 116; Trent & Pridemore, 2012, p. 128). In one of the most rigorous and widely quoted studies, Fajnzylber, Lederman, and Loayza (2002, cf. Jacobs & Richardson, 2008) confirmed this effect, applying fixed effects modeling to a sample of 39 countries (half of them from the industrialized world) spanning the years 1965 to 1994. A change of income inequality was associated with a corresponding change in homicides, controlling for other influences. The mean effect size of income inequality ranks very high in Nivette’s (2011a) meta-analysis, making it one of the most robust predictors of homicide. Yet some econometricians disagreed, as they did not find causal effects (Chioda, 2017; Neumayer, 2003). It is interesting to note that the recent downturn in homicide rates in Europe and North America seems to coincide with an increase in income inequality.

William Pridemore (2008, 2011) has recently warned that research has unduly neglected the deleterious impact of absolute deprivation over its preoccupation with income inequality. Using the infant mortality rate (IMR) as a widely available indicator of absolute poverty, he found that it outperformed income inequality and rendered the latter nonsignificant in a reanalysis of previous cross-national studies. Messner, Raffalovich, and Sutton (2010) observed that the IMR was a stronger predictor of homicide than direct measurements of absolute poverty but that it may in fact reflect more relative than absolute poverty (cf. Daly, 2016, p. 69). Baumer and Wolff (2014) showed that a substantial part of the global variability in the development of homicide rates between 1989 and 2008, can be explained by within-country changes of poverty, a composite index of per capita GDP, and infant mortality.

Yet infant mortality may not just reflect material deprivation but also carry cultural dimensions such as access to education and gender inequality, two characteristics that may have important effects on violence in their own right. The bivariate correlation between infant mortality rate and the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) gender inequality index was r = 0.76 in a sample of 94 countries (Heirigs & Moore, 2017). This interpretation is supported by epidemiological research on the predictors of IMR showing that it strongly depends on women’s access to education independently of material deprivation (Schell et al., 2007). This example illustrates the inherent ambiguity of most macro-level indicators that appear equally suitable for testing competing theories. Crucial dimensions of societal conditions may be distinct theoretically but hard to investigate in isolation as they are closely interrelated empirically.

Several studies have supported the hypothesis inspired by institutional anomie theory that welfare policies intended to “tame” free-market capitalism and alleviate social disadvantage can buffer the deleterious effects of poverty and social inequality (Messner & Rosenfeld, 1997; Pratt & Godsey, 2001; Savage, Bennett, & Danner, 2008; Savoleinen, 2000). Welfare policies compensating for inequalities produced by the free market are often called “decommodification” (Esping-Anderson, 1990). Based on a cross-sectional analysis of data from 30 OECD countries, Rogers & Pridemore (2013, 2017) found a significant negative interaction between welfare expenditures and poverty, and concluded: “The strength of the association between poverty and homicide rates is weaker in nations that provide greater social protection to their citizens” (Rogers & Pridemore, 2013, p. 590). A couple of studies have recently confirmed this conclusion analyzing within-country changes (McCall & Brauer, 2014; Thames & McCall, 2014; Tuttle, 2018). However, because of limited data availability, most of these studies have been restricted to OECD or European countries, thus excluding whole world regions with much lower standards of social protection. Also blurring the picture, Nivette (2011a, p. 121) notes the ambiguity of results depending on divergent operationalizations of social policies.

Attempts to factor in cultural dimensions of capitalist societies as the preference for competition and the “fetishism of money” did not yield clear evidence of their assumed anomic impact (Hughes, Schaible, & Gibbs, 2015). Elgar and Aitken (2010) found that interpersonal trust was weaker in countries with more social inequality and that interpersonal trust partially mediated the impact of social inequality on homicide rates. Yet their analysis did not guard against endogeneity, and Baumer and Wolff (2014) did not find an effect of trust in their random effects panel study. Using data from the World Values Survey to operationalize Merton’s anomie theory, Schaible and Altheimer (2016) built typologies of societies characterized by different combinations of materialistic goals and (il)legitimate means to achieve them. Controlling for structural effects, countries with an imbalance between goals and cultural means had higher homicide rates. Chamlin and Cochran (2006) found that a lack of legitimacy of the economic and political system was associated with higher homicide rates, but only in modern countries where “individuals become less willing to accept the exploitation of social institutions,” thus weakening “the moral authority of conventional norms and values” (Chamblin & Cochran, 2006, p. 249). Finally, the effects of capitalist culture could differ in different world regions, according to the study by Antonaccio and Tittle (2007). A factor score consisting of four welfare state indicators interacted with “Eastern religion” (Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism) so that “unrestrained capitalism” was associated with higher homicide rates in Christian countries but with lower homicide rates in countries with Eastern religion, in other words, in Asia.

Economic Development and Modernity

Most studies include single or composite indicators of economic development, if only as a control variable in models focusing on relative deprivation. The most often used indicators are per capita GDP (or gross national product [GNP]; also part of the UN Human Development Index), the share of industrial or service sectors, energy consumption, and technological infrastructure; these are all seen to reflect the complexity and modernity of societal organization, which is hard to measure directly. Yet the distinction between absolute poverty and development seems difficult. All recent review articles conclude that economic development has a rather weak and inconsistent, or nonlinear impact, yet there is a tendency toward negative, violence-reducing effects (Koeppel et al., 2015, p. 75; Messner & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 5348; Nivette, 2011a, p. 117; Trent & Pridemore, 2012, p. 127). The share of urban population is often used as a separate predictor and generally found unrelated to homicide. It is interesting to note that the homicide rate is negatively correlated with urbanicity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but positively in many other world regions (UNODC, 2014, p. 27), potentially canceling out diverging effects.

Extending the perspective backward to European history since the Middle Ages, modernization processes have undoubtedly played the key role in the “big violence decline” (Eisner, 2014, p. 67). The transition from traditional, agrarian societies to modern, (post‑)industrialized societies was a complex process affecting socioeconomic conditions on many levels, and this process is still taking place in other world regions under different conditions. Thus, the arguably most dramatic homicide reduction in world history may have important messages for today’s global violence. Emile Durkheim’s social theory was one of the first systematic attempts to chart the social consequences of modernization, including the propensity for rule-breaking behavior and lethal violence (DiCristina, 2004; Eisner, 2003, 2013). Quite contrary to the erroneous interpretation of some scholars who associated his views on modernization with disorganization and chaos (e.g., Chamlin & Cochran, 2006), Durkheim (1970) predicted that the rise of individualism would decrease homicide rates as long as social relations were controlled by “organic solidarity” and the pace of social change remained sufficiently slow to prevent anomic conditions (Thome, 2007). Durkheim explained higher homicide rates of traditional societies with a prevailing collectivist mindset inducing people to passionately defend their and their family’s honor. This hypothesis is congruent with the emergence of the state monopoly of power as a crucial mechanism in Norbert EIias’s 1994 theory of the civilization process (Elias, 1994), which has become the most widely accepted explanation for the homicide decline (Eisner, 2013; Pinker, 2011). Donald Black (1983; cf. Cooney, 2003) has formulated a generalized theory of the pacifying force of the state monopoly of power: Where it is lacking and for whom it is unavailable, retaliatory violence is the last resort of conflict regulation, and honor is a crucial asset for self-defense (Brown & Osterman, 2012; Elster, 1990). Phenomena such as blood feuds and honor killings, as well as homicides related to organized crime, drug markets, and gangs, can be understood as a consequence of a weak or nonexistent state monopoly of power.

As the historic modernization process in Europe came to a preliminary end in the mid-20th century, well before reliable cross-national socioeconomic indicators became available, there have been very few attempts to test the theories of Durkheim and Elias. Eisner (2014) has recently presented a historical time series of cultural phenomena, such as book production and the spread of literacy, that can plausibly be associated with the waves of violence decline. With a view on the ongoing transition processes in poorer and predominately agrarian societies outside Europe, the question arises whether the modernization theories derived from the European experience offer useful analytical approaches. Although this question has not been systematically addressed, the violence-reducing effects of GDP growth could be seen as a confirmation. Also, some more specific studies lend support to the generalizability of these theories. Karstedt (2006, cf. Stamatel, 2016a) found that collectivist versus individualistic values predicted cross-national homicide rates around 1970, controlling for GDP and social inequality. Durkheim’s theory of anomic violence in times of rapid social change has been used to understand the homicide spikes in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia after the end of communism (Pridemore, Chamlin, & Cochran, 2007; Pridemore & Kim, 2007; Stamatel, 2009).

Demography

Demographic variables are often used in cross-national studies as control variables, with less attention paid to the theoretical statement and the interpretation of results (Nivette, 2011a, p. 112). However, it is frequently assumed that higher numbers of young people and a sex ratio shifted toward males will increase homicide rates because these demographic groups are more likely to commit violence. Surprisingly, there is no robust evidence for this assumption (Koeppel et al., p. 76; Messner & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 5349; Trent & Pridemore, 2012, p. 130). In their systematic review, Rogers and Pridemore (2017b) concluded that the share of young people was not a significant predictor of homicide rates in over 80% of studies and questioned its routine use as a control variable. As an exception, Baumer and Wolff (2014) reported strong negative effects in within-country changes of the ratio of persons ages 45–64 to persons ages 15–24. They labeled this ratio “youth oversight” and argued that demographic changes toward aging populations increase the potential for informal social control over young people.

Against expectation, various studies reported higher homicide rates for countries with a higher ratio of females to males (Antonaccio & Tittle, 2007, p. 944; Rogers & Pridemore, 2013; p. 589; Savolainen, 2000, p. 1033; Schaible & Altheimer, 2016, p. 951; ), but only Savolainen (2000) speculated that this could be a case of reverse causality (predominantly male homicide victims shift the sex ratio toward women). Barber’s (2009) explanation, rooted in evolutionary psychology that men are faced with a stronger mating competition because of more female extramarital sexuality, seems speculative and has found no support in the literature. Population growth showed a more consistent association with homicide rates; countries with higher population growth tend to report more homicides (Messner & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 5349; Nivette, 2011a, p. 112; Trent & Pridemore, 2012, p. 129).

Many studies include the divorce rate as an indicator of social disintegration, yielding very consistent positive effects, which ranks fifth—equal to the decommodifcation index—in Nivette’s (2011a, p. 117) list of mean effect sizes. Messner et al. (2011) argued that the divorce rate signifies not only the disruption of families but more generally an eroded legitimacy of the social order, which may fuel lethal violence. They found robust positive effects of yearly changes in the divorce rate in a fixed-effects panel model spanning the period 1950–2005. Perhaps related to this finding, a measure of traditional family values from the World Values Survey (misleadingly labeled “communitarianism”) had a strong negative effect on homicide rates in Schaible and Hughes’s (2011) study of 46 nations. Qualifying the salience of divorce as an indicator of social disintegration, Stamatel (2009) reported that it did not impact homicide rates in post-communist Europe because of the diverging pattern of family formation under communist rule.

Ethnic/Cultural Heterogeneity

Immigration and ethnic or cultural heterogeneity are often seen as an impediment to social cohesion and a potential source of conflict, and are part of classic social disorganization theory. In Europe and North America, the alleged proneness toward violence of immigrants from poorer countries, often fleeing from large-scale violent unrest or civil wars, is a contentious issue in political debates. In the developing world, state boundaries were drawn by the colonial powers without regard to ethnic homogeneity, often resulting in competition and conflicts between ethnic groups. Again, which social mechanisms link macro-level ethnic composition with homicide rates remains an important question. From homicide research in wealthy nations, we know that intra-ethnic homicides (where both offender and victim are from the same ethnic group) are much more likely than inter-ethnic homicides, which may suggest that subcultural rather than conflict theory helps to understand this macro-level association. Disadvantaged ethnic minorities, who are facing problems to integrate into the host society and are socially disadvantaged, may turn to local subcultures offering alternative and illegal avenues to social status and economic success.

Most studies measured ethnic or language heterogeneity using the Herfindahl fractionalization index (Alesina et al., 2003), and the evidence overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that heterogeneity increases homicide rates (Koeppel et al., p. 76; Messner & Zimmerman, 2012, p. 5350; Nivette, 2011a, p. 117; Trent & Pridemore, 2012, p. 131). Among the most recent studies, Tuttle (2018) and Chon (2017), too, found positive effects of ethnic heterogeneity, whereas Rogers and Pridemore (2017) did not find an effect. Awaworyi Churchill and Laryea (2017), applying an instrumental variable approach to avoid endogeneity problems, found an unexpected negative effect, and de Soysa and Noel (2018) reported that not fractionalization, but polarization (which exists if two very large ethnic groups dominate the population), was associated with higher homicide rates. Yet with a sample size of 140 nations, their study may be prone to the problem of imputed data (see “Measurement and Statistical Data”, cf. Kanis et al., 2017). Both de Soysa and Noel (2018) and Baumer and Wolff (2014) considered the influence of recent migration and found a negative or no effect on homicide rates, in accordance with the prevailing evidence from the United States (Ousey & Kubrin, 2018).

Theory suggests that not ethnic heterogeneity as such, but its combination with disadvantage, matters for violence. In Blau and Blau’s (1982) pioneering study using regional data from the United States, the composite predictor “inequality in race” yielded the strongest effect. Messner (1989) used an index of “economic discrimination” that taps into an important dimension of economic inequality based on ascribed ethnic or cultural criteria and found strong positive effects, whereas ethnic heterogeneity had no effect. Avison and Loring (1986) reported that the effect of income inequality was much stronger in countries with higher levels of ethnic heterogeneity, while Altheimer (2007) and Rogers and Pridemore (2017) did not find such interaction effects.

Governance and Legitimacy

Political dimensions have only recently come into focus of global homicide research, following the spread of democratic regimes in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of communism, as well as in Latin America and South Africa, where military dictatorships and apartheid regimes were terminated. In the ideal world of political theory, democratic societies should provide people with fair and accountable governments and the rule of law, thus enhancing trust and legitimacy, solving conflicts peacefully, and ultimately reducing the causes for violence (Karstedt, 2006, 2008; Karstedt & Lafree, 2006). Yet the apparent rise of homicide rates in many recently democratized countries points to the opposite effect. Modernization and conflict theories try to explain why the transition from autocratic to democratic regimes may either temporarily or permanently increase tensions, instability, and anomie, leading to higher homicide rates (LaFree & Tseloni, 2006). Much earlier, LaFree (1998) had argued that the crime wave in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s was the consequence of a loss of legitimacy of core institutions, including the economy and the government. Thus, the type of political regime and the degree of trust and legitimacy that it enjoys among the people may be two unrelated dimensions of the political sphere.

Studies that used panel data to systematically test the impact of autocratic versus democratic political regimes, as well as of the transitional process, tend to confirm the pessimistic view. These studies added types of government indices, such as the Freedom House indices (Neumayer, 2003; Stamatel, 2016a) and Polity indices (Awaworyi Churchill & Laryea, 2017; Fearon, 2011; LaFree & Tseloni, 2006), to the existing set of socioeconomic indices in order to isolate the unique contribution of the political system to the cross-national variation in homicide rates. Fearon (2011) estimated the homicide rate during 2000–2005 to be 67% higher in democratic regimes than in autocratic regimes cross-sectionally, and to rise by 22% during the transition from autocracy to democracy in a panel analysis. Neumayer (2003) as well as LaFree and Tseloni (2006) and Rivera (2016; cf. Lappi-Seppällä & Lehti, 2014) reported an inverted U-shaped association in which homicide rates initially increased during the transition to democracy before dropping again in fully democratic systems (yet not below the level of autocratic systems). In a panel analysis focusing on Central and Eastern European countries, Piatkowska, Messner, and Raffalovich (2016) detected a positive effect of accession to the EU, controlling for GDP growth (which reduces homicide rates) and other covariates, implying that the faster socioeconomic change forced onto these countries in order to meet the EU accession criteria may have increased the anomic pressure.

A few studies employed survey data and other data sources to explore the role of “soft” and more specific dimensions of sociopolitical culture beyond governmental typologies. Stamatel (2016a, cf. Karstedt, 2006) used a combined scale of individualism and egalitarianism along with the Freedom House democracy index and found that both predicted lower homicide rates in European countries during 2006–2010, contradicting previous studies. Nivette and Eisner (2012) found that a multi-source index of political legitimacy constructed by Bruce Gilley had a strong negative effect on homicide rates in a cross-sectional analysis of 65 nations, controlling for socioeconomic indicators. This study lends strong support to the role of legitimacy of state institutions as an inhibitor of lethal violence. Other governance indicators should be used with caution (Fearon, 2011). For example, as part of the World Bank “Worldwide Governance Indicators” (Kaufmann et al., 2010), the “rule of law” index includes data on homicide and other offenses, thus rendering associations with homicide rates tautological (e.g., Lappi-Sepällä & Lehti, 2014; Weiss, Testa, & Santos, 2018). The same problem applies to the highly intransparent International Country Risk Guide (e.g., de Soysa & Noel, 2018).

Finally, it seems surprising that corruption has rarely been tested as a predictor of homicide, considering the role of corruption in shady business practices and dysfunctional governance. As exceptions, Antonaccio and Tittle (2007) as well as de Soysa and Noel (2018) found that more corruption was associated with higher homicide rates, controlling for other economic indicators.

Guns and Alcohol

Guns as well as alcohol are often seen as “facilitators” or “enablers” (UNODC, 2014, cf. Clarke, 2012) of lethal violence, as situational factors that, according to opportunity-based theories, play a role in crime causation independent of structural and motivational factors commonly addressed as the “root causes” of crime. Because of this conceptual distinction, the role of guns and alcohol are not being routinely considered in cross-national homicide research, but are the focus of a small and specialized research field.

Nearly half of all homicide victims worldwide were killed with firearms, and the Americas have both the highest homicide rates and the highest proportion of firearm homicides of all world regions (McEvoy & Hideg, 2017, p. 48, see above). This coincidence, as well as the extreme outlier position of the United States among the wealthy nations in relation to gun violence, has begged the question whether firearms facilitate lethal violence and whether the availability of firearms has a causal influence on the frequency of homicides. Macro-level research on the effects of varying quantities of firearms and of different regulatory approaches to gun ownership may help to shed light on this important issue, yet cross-national research on this issue has been sparse and inconclusive (Cook, 2018; Stroebe, 2013). Data on gun availability are very patchy, and for obvious reasons the volume of illegal guns, which is most relevant for homicides, is largely unknown. The proportion of suicides committed with firearms is often used as a proxy measure as it is widely available (Cerqueira, Coelho, Fernandes, & Junior, 2018).

Hemenway, Shinoda-Tagawa, and Miller (2002) and Killias, van Kesteren, and Rindlisbacher (2001) reported an association between gun availability and female, but not male, homicide rates, using data from a limited number of developed nations. They argued that guns stored in the household raise the likelihood that spousal disputes end lethally, in line with research showing that gun availability selectively impacts non-stranger homicides (Stroebe, 2016) and is the strongest of all risk factors for intimate partner homicides (Spencer & Stith, 2018). Konty and Schaefer (2012), using a larger country sample and more control variables, did not find effects, and the study by Altheimer and Boswell (2012) showed that effects could be conditional on social and cultural context, as they found a positive association in Latin America but a negative in Eastern Europe. This result fits to the fact that the country-level correlation between total homicide rates and the percentage of homicides committed with firearms only exists in the Americas but in no other world region (UNODC, 2014; own computation).

Killias and Markwalder (2012), exploiting detailed case information from the European Homicide Monitor, added important insights into the possible mechanisms of gun use. Whereas both legal gun availability and homicide rates are high in Finland compared to the European context, homicides predominantly happen by other means between male acquaintances under the influence of alcohol, whereas in the Netherlands the proportion of firearm homicides is much higher despite low gun availability, often related to organized crime and presumably involving illegal rather than legal guns. Switzerland is another example of a country with very high gun availability yet a very low homicide rate. In some countries, such as the United States, reverse causation could be an issue, as many people buy guns as a reaction to crime threats (Rosenfeld et al., 1997). More than intentional homicides, accidental killings as well as suicides are major causes of deaths that have been shown to be significantly influenced by the availability of firearms (Kalesan et al., 2017; Levine & McKnight, 2017). The international evidence for homicide reductions following more restrictive firearms regulations is mixed, but Australia, Austria, and the United States offer some positive examples (Kalesan et al., 2016; König et al., 2018; McPhedran et al., 2018; Santaella-Tenorio, Cerdá, Villaveces, & Galea, 2016).

Cross-national studies on the effects of alcohol consumption on homicide rates have been inconclusive. Wolf, Gray, and Fazel (2014) and Stamatel (2016b) did not find any effects of total alcohol consumption or hazardous consumption patterns, whereas Weiss et al. (2018) and Hockin, Rogers, and Pridemore (2018) reported positive effects, the latter study only for beer and spirits, but not for wine consumption. Given the relatively clear evidence for a causal link between alcohol consumption and homicides from more sophisticated longitudinal studies in countries such as Finland (Lehti, 2014) and Russia (Pridemore & Chamlin, 2006), this state of cross-national research seems surprising.

Gender Differences in Homicide Victimization

The big majority–around 80%–of homicide victims and 95% of homicide perpetrators worldwide are male (UNODC, 2014, p. 13). As victim–perpetrator relations are not routinely registered, no systematic cross-national data exist on the prevalence of intimate partner homicides (IPH). Stöckl et al. (2013) estimated that around 14% of all homicides and 43% of homicides with female victims were IPHs. The strong gender imbalance in IPH—many more men kill their female partners than vice versa—is almost a universal truth, which has stimulated feminist theories of patriarchal power (Baker, Gregware, & Cassidy, 1999) and the “male proprietariness hypothesis” rooted in evolutionary psychology (Daly & Wilson, 1988; Wilson & Daly, 1993). In these perspectives, intimate partner homicides as well as so-called honor killings in traditional collectivist societies both follow the fundamental motive of controlling female sexuality (Oberwittler & Kasselt, 2014). In a cross-national perspective, interest has focused on the question whether social change and modernization, that is, toward stronger gender equality, have had beneficial or adverse effects on female homicide rates. Although the “amelioration hypothesis” assumes that stronger gender equality reduces victimization risks for women, the “backlash hypothesis,” on the contrary, predicts that men who resent women’s increasing independence will respond with increased violence.

Based on sparse cross-national research, it seems that both women and men profit from increased gender equality and that no particular effects on female homicide victimization exist. Because of the much larger cross-national variability of male homicide rates, the ratio of female-to-male homicide victims is inversely related to the overall homicide rate, and in countries with a low volume of lethal violence, up to half of the victims are women, lending superficial support to the backlash theory. Hockin et al. (2018) and Stamatel (2014) compared regression models for male and female homicide rates, and found by and large the same effects for both genders. Possibly the only exception is gun availability, discussed in the previous paragraph. Gender equality indices had a decreasing effect on both male and female homicide rates (Heirigs & Moore, 2017; Stamatel, 2016), and Chon (2016) did not find significant effects of gender equality indicators on either female homicide rates or the female-to-male homicide ratio when controlling for other structural indicators. Lappi-Sepällä & Lehti (2014, p. 467; cf. Baumer & Wolff, 2014, p. 261; Selmini & McElrath, 2014) concluded that “gender equality seems to go along with general welfare indicators which reduce all types of lethal violence in society, and male victimization decreases then usually even faster than female victimization.”

Homicide and Suicide

Suicide and homicide are two different types of lethal violence, the first directed against the self and the latter against other persons. Following the observations by 19th-century moral statisticians and Durkheim’s theory of social integration, which saw homicide and suicide as opposed expressions of human aggression and predicted homicide rates to decline and suicide rates to increase with modernization, scholars have developed the “stream analogy of lethal violence” (SALV). SALV assumes that human aggression resembles a stream of water that is nurtured by some common “root causes” but channeled into different directions by social forces that induce people to either blame themselves or blame others for their misfortunes (Unnithan, Huff-Corzine, Corzine, & Whitt, 1994). A couple of cross-national studies have exploited the higher variability of relevant society-level conditions for empirical tests of SALV. Suicide statistics have their own methodological problems and may be even more biased than homicide statistics because of the social and religious taboo against suicide in many traditional countries (Kapusta et al., 2011). Juxtaposing homicide and suicide rates by world regions, the initial impression in fact lends support to SALV, as homicide rates are high and suicide rates are low in the Americas and Africa, whereas the opposite is true for Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific region (Krug et al., 2002, p. 11). Bills and Li (2005) used WHO data on 65 countries to explore the bivariate correlations between homicide and suicide rates by world regions. Although the overall correlation was nonsignificant, they found negative correlations in the Americas and Asia Pacific, but a strong positive correlation in Europe, which was mainly driven by Eastern European countries, where both rates are high. Yet their findings appear to be vulnerable to outliers.

Studies regressing both rates as well as the suicide–homicide ratio (SHR) on socioeconomic indicators produced some robust results supporting SALV: social inequality is associated with higher homicide relative to suicide rates, whereas economic development measured by GDP is associated with higher suicide relative to homicide rates, in line with the interpretation of economic development as an indicator of modernization (Chon, 2013, 2017; He, Cao, Wells, & Maguire, 2003; Tuttle, 2018; Unnithan & Whitt, 1992). Fernquist (2002) found that a composite indicator of welfare state interventionism (which he misleadingly labeled “collectivism”) strongly increased suicide relative to homicide rate, and an indicator of religiosity decreased suicide relative to homicide rates, again in line with the predictions made by Durkheim.

Conclusion

A mounting literature has contributed substantially to the understanding of global pattern and trends in homicide, especially over the last decade. Yet, the research field suffers from some hard-to-overcome limitations and a lack of consistency (Nivette, 2011a; Trent & Pridemore, 2012). Data availability in many, especially less developed word regions remains a problem, both for homicide and socioeconomic data. Almost nothing is known about Africa and parts of Asia, and estimating the bias in existing data is difficult. Macro-level proxy indicators are often ambiguous and loosely connected to theoretical concepts, and separating the effects of socioeconomic and political country attributes may be desirably in theory but difficult to achieve in practice. No country-level effect has remained entirely undisputed, and generalizability across space and time is constrained, partly for a lack of replications. The particular challenge in cross-national homicide research is the need to identify the dynamic and time-varying effects of socioeconomic processes while accounting for relatively stable country differences. Only a minority of studies have done this convincingly, and it seems that random effects (within-between) models are preferable to cross-sectional designs.

Having mentioned these conceptual and methodological issues, it would be an undue depreciation of the current state of research to declare the glass half empty, as Trent and Pridemore (2012, p. 133) have done. There is sufficiently congruent evidence to see the glass as half full, thanks in particular to the first meta-analysis by Nivette (2011a). Some socioeconomic and political indicators are robust predictors of country homicide rates: an unfair economic system characterized by poverty, high income inequality, and feeble welfare policies fosters violence, and so does social disintegration indicated by ethnic heterogeneity and high divorce rates, as well as low legitimacy of the government system (Nivette & Eisner, 2013). The reach of the explanatory power of these structural indicators has been underlined by Baumer and Wolff (2014), who analyzed the homicide trends of 65 nations between 1989 and 2008. Changes in poverty, age, structure, and political legitimacy could explain ca. 90% of the cross-country variation in homicide trends.

Still, substantial level differences in lethal violence between world regions remain unexplained after controlling for socioeconomic factors. In particular, East Asia has lower and Latin America has much higher homicide rates than expected on the basis of socioeconomic conditions alone. Historical and cultural dimensions, which are difficult to measure or defy easy quantification—a deficient state-building process, a long history of civil wars and military rule, organized crime and drug markets, a machismo mentality—should be considered in addition to socioeconomic structures to understand excessive violence in Latin America (Cruz, 2016; Huhn & Warnecke-Berger, 2017; Rodríguez Ferreira, 2016; World Bank, 2010).

Cross-national homicide research has successfully directed the attention toward the macro-level causes of lethal violence that remain hidden in the large bulk of single-country studies. Countries do not vary in the volume of violence because of a varying number of potential murderers with psychopathological risk factors; on the contrary, the proportion of such perpetrators decreases with the volume of homicide (Eisner, 2013). What differentiates high-violence countries from low-violence countries is structural contexts in which homicide more often becomes a strategic option in the views of more people. However, the micro-foundation of macro-level theories of crime causation remains one of the biggest “black boxes,” and more research efforts, in particular cross-cultural comparative studies, are needed to identify the social mechanisms of violence down to the individual level and to answer the question whether these mechanisms and risk factors are the same in different types of societies.

Violence Prevention

Global homicide research has some important messages for violence prevention: substantial reductions in homicide rates have taken place in many parts of the world in relatively short time spans, and the scientific knowledge on how societal-level conditions should develop in order to achieve such reductions does exist: reductions in poverty and income inequality, investments in welfare policies and gender equality, and improvements in the legitimacy of state institutions will help to bring lethal violence down. Some may view this as an over-optimistic scenario, but some of these changes have happened in various countries, and with beneficial effects on lethal violence. Eisner and Nivette (2012) demonstrated that it would be possible to reduce the global homicide rate to 2 per 100,000 within 50 years if high-violence countries would achieve an annual reduction of 4% of their homicide rates. They computed the mean annual reductions of homicide rates in historical and contemporary societies, with results between 3% in early modern Sweden and 4.5% in Colombia since 1991. The mean annual reduction of homicide rates between 1992 and 2010 were 3.8% in Asia and 2.8% in Eastern Europe (LaFree et al., 2015, p. 493).

The importance of socioeconomic development for the provision of peaceful and safe living conditions is clearly acknowledged in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Le Blanc, 2015). Nevertheless, crime prevention efforts in the international context are often directed toward the individual, and in particular toward children and adolescents, following the well-established principles of early interventions (Farrington & Welsh, 2007). On the global level, the WHO is the primary institution organizing prevention campaigns. The latest WHO report includes systematic information on action plans and state provisions for violence prevention in more than 130 countries (WHO, 2014), and the World Bank has recently published a comprehensive analysis of violence prevention in Latin America that addresses the important question of whether prevention strategies developed in wealthy nations are transferable to other world regions (Chioda, 2017; cf. Eisner & Nivette, 2012).

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Alexandra Lysova for comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

Further Reading

Handbooks and Monographs

Brookman, F., Maguire, E. R., & Maguire, M. (Eds.) (2017). The handbook of homicide. Chicester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:

    Daly, M. (2016). Killing the competition: Economic inequality and homicide. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.Find this resource:

      Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.Find this resource:

        Liem, M. C., & Pridemore, W. A. (2012). Handbook of European homicide research: Patterns, explanations, and country studies. New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

          Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. London, U.K.: Penguin.Find this resource:

            Non-Academic and Policy Reports

            McEvoy, C., & Hideg, G. (2017). Global violent deaths 2017: Time to decide. Geneva, Switzerland: Small Arms Survey.Find this resource:

              Muggah, R., & Tobon, K. (2018). Citizen security in Latin America: Facts and figures. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Igarapé Institute.Find this resource:

                United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2014). Global study on homicide 2013. Trends, contexts, data. Vienna, Austria: UNODC.Find this resource:

                  Word Bank. (2010). Crime and violence in Central America: A development challenge. Washington, DC: World Bank.Find this resource:

                    Systematic Reviews, Methods, and Theory

                    Black, D. J. (1983). Crime as social control. American Sociological Review, 48(1), 34–45.Find this resource:

                      Eisner, M. (2009). The uses of violence: An examination of some cross-cutting issues. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 3(1), 40–59.Find this resource:

                        Eisner, M. (2013). What causes large-scale variation in homicide rates? In H.‑H. Kortüm & J. Heinze (Eds.), Aggression in humans and other primates: Biology, psychology, sociology. (pp. 137–162). Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.Find this resource:

                          Kanis, S., Messner, S. F., Eisner, M. P., & Heitmeyer, W. (2017). A cautionary note about the use of estimated homicide data for cross-national research. Homicide Studies, 21(4), 312–324.Find this resource:

                            Messner, S. F., & Zimmerman, G. M. (2012). Understanding cross-national variation. In G. Bruinsma & D. Weisburd (Eds.), Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 5345–5355). New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

                              Nivette, A. E. (2011a). Cross-national predictors of crime: A meta-analysis. Homicide Studies, 15(2), 103–121.Find this resource:

                                Stroebe, W. (2013). Firearm possession and violent death: A critical review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(6), 709–721.Find this resource:

                                  Trent, C., & Pridemore, W. A. (2012). A review of the cross-national empirical literature on social structure and homicide. In M. C. A. Liem & W. A. Pridemore (Eds.), Handbook of European homicide research: Patterns, explanations, and country studies (pp. 111–135). New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

                                    Global Homicide Trends

                                    Baumer, E. P., & Wolff, K. T. (2014). The breadth and causes of contemporary cross-national homicide trends. Crime and Justice, 43(1), 231–287.Find this resource:

                                      Eisner, M. (2003). Long-term historical trends in violent crime. Crime and Justice, 30, 83–142.Find this resource:

                                        LaFree, G., Curtis, K., & McDowall, D. (2015). How effective are our “better angels”? Assessing country-level declines in homicide since 1950. European Journal of Criminology, 12(4), 482–504.Find this resource:

                                          Lappi-Seppälä, T., & Lehti, M. (2014). Cross-comparative perspectives on global homicide trends. Crime and Justice, 43(1), 135–230.Find this resource:

                                            Selected Cross-National Studies

                                            Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D., & Loayza, N. (2002). Inequality and violent crime. Journal of Law and Economics, 45, 1–41.Find this resource:

                                              Heirigs, M. H., & Moore, M. D. (2017). Gender inequality and homicide: A cross-national examination. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 42(4), 273–285.Find this resource:

                                                LaFree, G., & Tseloni, A. (2006). Democracy and crime: A multilevel analysis of homicide trends in forty-four countries, 1950–2000. Annales of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 605(1), 25–49.Find this resource:

                                                  McCall, P. L., & Brauer, J. R. (2014). Social welfare support and homicide: Longitudinal analyses of European countries from 1994 to 2010. Social Science Research, 48, 90–107.Find this resource:

                                                    Messner, S. F., Pearson-Nelson, B., Raffalovich, L. E., & Miner, Z. (2011). Cross-national homicide trends in the latter decades of the twentieth century: Losses and gains in institutional control? In W. Heitmeyer, H.‑G. Haupt, S. Malthaner, & A. Kirschner (Eds.), Control of violence: Historical and international perspectives on violence in modern societies. (pp. 65–89). New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

                                                      Nivette, A. E., & Eisner, M. (2012). Do legitimate polities have fewer homicides? A cross-national analysis. Homicide Studies, 17, 3–26.Find this resource:

                                                        Rogers, M. L., & Pridemore, W. A. (2017). How does social protection influence cross-national homicide rates in OECD nations? Sociological Quarterly, 58(4), 576–594.Find this resource:

                                                          Prevention

                                                          Chioda, L. (2017). Stop the violence in Latin America: A look at prevention from cradle to adulthood. Washington, DC: World Bank.Find this resource:

                                                            Eisner, M., & Nivette, A. (2012). How to reduce the global homicide rate to 2 per 100,000 by 2060. In R. Loeber & B. Welsh (Eds.), The future of criminology (pp. 219–228), New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                              World Health Organization. (WHO). (2014). Global status report on violence prevention. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO.Find this resource:

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