Homicide, the killing of one person by another, can have many motivations. Retaliation, which is simply getting even with another person for some real or perceived wrong, has long been a motivation for committing homicides. Some experts argue that culture, defined as knowledge, beliefs, and values shared by members of society, can help explain higher rates of retaliatory homicides among certain segments of society.
As early as the 1930s, criminologist Thorsten Sellin argued, in a monograph titled Culture Conflict and Crime, that the beliefs and values people immigrating to America brought with them often clash with those of mainstream American society. To illustrate his theory, Sellin discussed an actual case of an immigrant who killed a young man accused of dishonoring his daughter. The immigrant, who had responded in the way he had been socialized to respond in the old country, was surprised when arrested for murdering the young man. Marvin E. Wolfgang, a former student of Sellin’s, and Italian legal scholar Franco Ferracuti delved further into the role of culture in homicide by identifying what they termed a subculture of violence. Examining homicide rates among African Americans, which were six times higher than rates for Whites, Wolfgang and Ferracuti suggested that the Black subculture in fact values violence as a means of punishing those who violate subcultural norms. Noteworthy is their theory that members of this subculture of violence interpret stimuli such as a jostle, a derogatory remark, or the presence of a weapon in the hands of others differently from the way those in the dominant culture interpret them.
Subsequently, those attempting to confirm the subculture of violence theory discovered that the South and West experienced significantly higher rates of retaliatory homicides. Several studies have confirmed that in these regions a “culture of honor” exists in which insults are perceived by males much more negatively than by their counterparts in other regions, prompting violent and sometimes lethal responses.
Some of the most interesting and insightful findings were made by Elijah Anderson, an ethnographer who conducted research in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Anderson found that there exists among low status African American young men a “code of the streets,” which dictates how they respond to shows of disrespect and personal attacks by other males.
Failing to respond violently to such displays is interpreted by others as weakness and makes the man vulnerable to further victimization. So ingrained is the code in certain neighborhoods that even family members and neighbors give lip service to such retaliatory violence. Preliminary quantitative research has confirmed some of Anderson’s qualitative findings.
Recent research attaches greatest importance to the role of structural disadvantage in explaining how culture spawns retaliatory homicide in certain neighborhoods. As persuasive as the evidence is for cultural retaliatory homicide, there remains disagreement on appropriate data and methods of analysis. Legal scholars contend that as important as culture may be in shaping individual behavior, it is not yet an acceptable defense for committing retaliatory homicide.
- Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: Norton.
- Kubin, C. E., & Weitzer, R. (2003). Retaliatory homicide: Concentrated disadvantage and neighborhood crime. Social Problems, 50, 157–180.
- Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Sellin, T. (1938). Culture conflict and crime. New York: Social Science Research Council.
- Wolfgang, M. E., & Ferracuti, F. (1967). The subculture of violence. London: Tavistock.
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