Epidemiology is the quantitative study of the distribution or frequency of, and the determinants or factors associated with, a particular issue affecting the public. For example, an interpersonal violence epidemiologist may study the nature and extent of homicide across nations. In epidemiology, investigated events are generally counted, or quantified, in terms of incidence and prevalence. However, the field is concerned with more than counting; it also identifies characteristics of affected individuals, event characteristics, and environmental characteristics. In addition, researchers investigate other important aspects, including how did the event take place? And why did the event take place?
Epidemiological research is challenging in a single setting, but it is exponentially more challenging across nations. To put it directly, one must ensure that the violence of interest is counted in the same way across jurisdictions. This is especially difficult because how violence is counted is contingent on how it is defined, legitimated, and sanctioned from nation to nation. These affect how policing agencies measure, collect, and verify violent acts in each locale. Even data collected from sources other than police agencies are problematic. Data from victimization surveys are influenced by a nation’s political and cultural milieu in that they affect how respondents recognize, view, and report victimization experiences. A further complication arises when considering that all of these factors have fluctuated over time within countries.
Even given investigative difficulties including differing definitions, measures, and data collection, this cross-national research is worth the effort since all nations are affected by interpersonal violence.
Official Police Data
International interpersonal violence research primarily relies on two types of data: official police data and victimization surveys. Both types of data are essential because neither is capable of providing all the information about the extent and nature of interpersonal violence. Together they can provide a more complete picture.
There are several sources of official police data in the world. Most data are generated by large international organizations such as the United Nations. Other data come from sources such as Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. In this essay, the most widely used sources of police data on interpersonal violence are reviewed. A widely used data source comes from the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operation of Criminal Justice Systems. This collection, initiated in 1977, is based on a compilation of a wide range of official crime and criminal justice statistics taken from multiple waves of questionnaire distribution. The surveys are administered to national officials by the United Nations Statistical Office and cover topics such as crimes reported to the police; arrests, prosecutions, and convictions; the extent and types of formal punishments; and criminal justice system resources (e.g., personnel, budgets). The number of nations participating in this effort has varied over time, and depending upon which survey is being administered. Participating nations have ranged from a low of about 65 nations to a high of approximately 100 nations. Most recently, the ninth survey was fielded, which generated statistics from 2003 to 2004.
A second widely cited official police data source is the International Criminological Police Organization, also known as Interpol. Interpol cross-national data collection began in 1950 and is ongoing. Interpol data are published biennially. At present, police agencies from more than 180 member countries supply data on a wide range of topics, including murder, sex offenses, white collar crime, child pornography, and weapons smuggling. The Comparative Crime Data File (CCDF) is a collection of statistics on crime compiled by Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner and is found in their 1984 publication Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective. This collection includes information on crimes such as murder, homicide, assault, robbery, rape, and property theft. Like the other data, CCDF data are gathered by nations that volunteer information. However, information is also gathered through available documentation. Statistics from over 100 countries are included in this data collection, which goes through 1982. And finally, the World Health Organization compiles what is generally considered the most complete and reliable source of death and homicide data across nations. These data are gathered from national public health organizations and published volumes.
Official police data are limited in well-documented ways. These shortcomings include reflecting only crime known to law enforcement agencies and variation in definitions of crime across nations. Further, because reporting of violence to the police and police recording of incidents differs from nation to nation, one cannot be certain whether international differences in these statistics reflect actual crime differences or merely crime reporting and recording differences. Because of these limitations, it is generally agreed that comparisons of interpersonal violence across data sets—especially for nonlethal violence like rape, assault, and robbery—are problematic. And it has been demonstrated that comparisons between individual nations are also inappropriate. However, international crime data do offer information on homicide that researchers view as reliable, especially when the findings are corrected for identified definitional differences.
Victimization Survey Data
In an effort to correct for some of the limitations of official police records, and to allow for the comparison of crime rates across nations independent of the idiosyncrasies of police records, the International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS) series was created. These standardized questionnaires, which have been fielded four times now, with the most recent being in 1990, are distributed in several countries. The first wave of ICVS surveys was fielded in 1989. The fourth, and most recent wave, was fielded in 47 nations during 2000. Nations in the sample include industrialized nations, developing nations, and nations in transition. Industrialized countries were surveyed nationwide using random-digit-dialing, while developing and transitional nation surveys were restricted to face-to-face interviews in urban areas (primarily capital cities). Because of these differences, researchers discourage the comparison of victimization statistics of developed and developing countries. The ICVS series queries respondents about several forms of personal violence, including robbery, sexual assault, and nonsexual assault. Sexual assault questions are asked only of female respondents.
The ICVS series offers useful information on global interpersonal violence; however, data from this series are limited in certain ways. Most obviously, the ICVS series cannot offer information on homicide, the most severe of all interpersonal violence, as ICVS data are based on self-reported experiences of victimization. In addition, cultural and political differences among nations may affect a respondent’s willingness or ability to disclose victimization. In addition, like all retrospective surveys, respondents’ answers are based on the accurate memory of events, and the details of those events, that occurred during the previous 12 months. Information on offenders is limited and reflects the victim’s perception. Though the ICVS is a large survey, sample sizes from each country are relatively small, ranging from about 1,000 to 6,000 interviews, with corresponding variation in sampling error. Finally, response rates among nations range from less than 40% to almost 90%.
Interpersonal Violence Data
Though many things conspire to make comparisons of interpersonal violence across nations difficult, there are several general findings that emerge from the data. Findings show that in the aggregate, the risk of being victimized by interpersonal violent crime is about one in five. Findings also demonstrate great variation in personal violent victimization rates from nation to nation. Data suggest that the level of development of a nation is related to the rate of violence its inhabitants experience. More developed nations tend to be characterized by the lowest rates of violence, transitional countries tend to have higher violence rates, and developing nations the highest rates of violence. While this is generally true, it is also important to recognize that there is a great deal of variation in rates of violence among nations of each type of development. For several types of violence, victimization rates are higher in Latin America and in sub-Saharan Africa. Not surprisingly, data suggest that where people are economically deprived, violence rates are generally higher. This is especially the case among younger persons, who tend to be victimized at higher rates than others.
However, individual risk of victimization is not randomly distributed among nations or persons. Gender differences in interpersonal violence are found throughout the world. The rates of lethal and nonlethal victimization are higher for males than for females. International data suggest that developed Western countries are characterized by the highest rates of assault against males. In contrast, victimization against females is highest in Latin America, Africa, and new world countries. Though lower than male rates in general, there is great variation in female victimization rates. For instance, in nations with widespread poverty, and in countries where women have low social status, women are victimized at higher rates.
Homicide, the most severe form of interpersonal violence, varies across nations. Research suggests an inverse relationship between a nation’s development level and its homicide rates. In other words, homicide rates tend to be higher in developing nations, and lower in developed nations. Again, though, there is great variation within groups of developed and developing nations. Among the developed nations, the United States has the highest rate of homicide. Substantially lower homicide rates characterize other developed nations, such as New Zealand, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan. The homicide rate in the United States is comparable to rates found in Eastern European nations such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Homicide rates greater than those of the United States are found in nations such as Mexico, South Africa, Colombia, and Lithuania.
Homicide risk is not randomly distributed among individuals in the populations. In general, relationships among risk factors found in the United States are applicable to those in other nations. For instance, males are more likely to become a victim of homicide than are females, regardless of the nation considered. Further, younger people—teens and those in their 20s—are victims of homicide at higher rates than older people. This is the case again regardless of the nation under consideration.
Homicide rates are thought to be related to several factors aside from development. Most hotly debated is the relationship between firearm availability and homicide rates. It is thought that where firearms, especially illegal firearms, are readily available, homicide rates are higher.
The nonlethal forms of interpersonal violence most often examined include robbery, nonsexual assault, and physical assault. It has been demonstrated that the homicide rate is not a valid proxy for nonlethal violence (or vice versa). Indeed, though the homicide rate in the United States sets it apart from other developed nations, the nonlethal victimization rate in the United States is much more like that of similarly developed nations. For example, nonlethal violent victimization rates in the United States are generally similar to those found in Sweden.
Robbery rates differ greatly among nations. Like homicide rates, robbery rates are lowest in developed nations and higher in developing nations. Also like homicide rates, there is considerable variation in robbery rates among developed nations, as well as among developing nations. Further, the differences in these rates change from year to year and depending upon the data considered. In general, however, it appears that among developed nations, Canada and the Netherlands tend to have higher robbery rates than do nations such as the United States, Scotland, and Australia.
Nonsexual assault rates tend to be higher in developing nations than in developed nations. However,
assault rates are not generally lower in the industrialized countries of the world than in the urban areas of east and central Europe. The relationship between assault and gender is contingent on the nation considered. In the United States, Canada, and Australia, assault rates are generally higher than robbery rates. This is not the case in other industrialized countries where assault and robbery occur at similar rates. In developed nations, males are more likely to be a victim of assault than are females. In developing nations, males and females experience assault at similar rates. This is especially the case where assault is very prevalent.
Like much interpersonal violence data, data on sexual assault suggest that it is more frequent in developing nations than in developed nations. However, there is considerable variation among developed countries with regard to sexual assault rates. For instance, data suggest that females in the United States, Australia, and England are at greater risk than are females in Japan, Northern Ireland, Poland, and Portugal. In developing nations, the highest rates of sexual assault have been recorded in the areas of Northern Africa and Latin America and the lowest rates of sexual assault have been measured in Asian nations.
- Basch, P. (1999). Textbook of international health. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Koop, C. E., Pearson, C. E., & Schwarz, M. R. (2002). Critical issues in global health. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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