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Violent crime is the illegal, intentional, and malicious physical injury of one person by another. Social scientists seeking to document and explain violent crime typically rely on official statistics from police, court, and public health agencies, and on victimization and self-report surveys. While each of these sources has limitations and biases, they can be used to estimate the prevalence of and trends in violent crime, and the characteristics of the people involved in it.
Violent crime rates vary greatly over time. In Europe and North America, for example, serious interpersonal violence decreased dramatically after the sixteenth century, probably as a result of the expansion of state powers, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of modern individualism. Violent crime rates also vary greatly among societies, even relatively similar ones. In countries with extreme inequalities in income and wealth, weak collective institutions of social protection, and few restrictions on firearms, violent crime rates are higher.
Young, economically disadvantaged males predominate among both victims and perpetrators of violence. Females are more likely to be victims than perpetrators and most female victims are attacked by males they are related to or intimately involved with. Violent crime is much more likely to occur between relatives or persons well known to each other than between strangers. Sociological explanations of violent crime focus on the individual, situational, and/or structural-cultural levels of analysis. Individual-level analyses look for characteristics that predispose people to or fail to discourage them from violence. Situational approaches attend to the context and processes immediately surrounding violent events, such as the presence of weapons or bystanders. Structural-cultural approaches look at broader social forces, processes, and value systems shaping violent motivations and opportunities. With recent changes in global politics and governance, sociologists are currently evaluating accepted knowledge about violent crime by studying such violent behaviors as terrorist acts and war crimes.
- Eisner, M. (2003) Long-term historical trends in violent crime. In: Tonry, M. (ed.), Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol. 30. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp. 83-142.
- Jackman, M. (2002) Violence in social life. Annual Review of Sociology 28: 387-415.