Cross-National Homicide Trends in the Latter Decades of the Twentieth Century: Losses and Gains in Institutional Control?

  • Steven F. Messner
  • Benjamin Pearson-Nelson
  • Lawrence E. Raffalovich
  • Zachary Miner


This study explores cross-national trends in homicide rates over the 1950–2005 period. At a descriptive level, we apply spline regression to address the following questions: How prevalent were appreciable, sustained increases or decreases in levels of homicide? Among nations characterized by increasing or decreasing homicide levels, how prevalent were reversals in the trends, suggesting homicide cycles? Which nations exhibited homicide cycles, and what can be learned from the timing of increases, decreases, and reversals in homicide levels? Our second overarching objective is to assess Gary LaFree’s hypothesis that national trends in crime reflect changes in the legitimacy of the basic institutions of a society. We focus on the institution that traditionally has been assigned primary responsibility for informal control—the family. The results of our spline regression analyses indicate that sustained, substantial increases in lethal violence were virtually universal in the latter decades of the twentieth century for the sampled nations. At the same time, the majority of nations that exhibited an appreciable upturn in homicide rates also exhibited a distinct turnaround, suggestive of homicide cycles. With respect to the timing of the phases of homicide cycles, we observe that Nordic and northern European nations were in the vanguard for increasing homicides, whereas Central/South American and Caribbean nations exhibited a rise in homicides decades later. Finally, the results of fixed-effects regression models for the pooled, cross-sectional time-series dataset reveal that the divorce rate is a significant, robust predictor of homicide rates, which is supportive of LaFree’s arguments concerning institutional legitimacy, institutional control, and changes in levels of crime.


Gross Domestic Product Divorce Rate Spline Regression Homicide Rate Informal Social Control 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We are grateful to Susanne Karstedt, Christoph Birkel, and an anonymous reviewer for comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


  1. Adams, B. N. and Trost, J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of World Families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Amaro, F. (2005). The family in Portugal: past and present. In B. N. Adams and J. Trost (Eds.), Handbook of World Families (pp. 330–346). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. Antonaccio, O. and Tittle, C. R. (2007). A cross-national test of Bonger’s theory of criminality and economic conditions. Criminology, 45, 925–958.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Blumstein, A. and Rosenfeld, R. (1998). Explaining recent trends in U. S. homicide rates. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 88, 1175–1216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Butchart, A. and Engstrom, K. (2002). Sex- and age-specific relations between economic development, economic inequality and homicide rates in people aged 0–24 years: a cross-sectional analysis. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 80(10), 797–805.Google Scholar
  6. Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of american marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848–861.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dicristina, B. (2004). Durkheim’s theory of homicide and the confusion of the empirical literature. Theoretical Criminology, 8, 57–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Eisner, M. (2003). The long-term development of violence: empirical findings and theoretical approaches to interpretation. In W. Heitmeyer and J. Hagan (Eds.), International Handbook of Violence Research (pp. 41–59). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  9. Eisner, M. (2008). Modernity strikes back? The latest increase in interpersonal violence (1960–1990) in historical perspective. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 2, 288–316.Google Scholar
  10. Forsberg, H. (2005). Finland’s families. In B. N. Adams and J. Trost (Eds.), Handbook of World Families (pp. 347–363). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  11. Fukuyama, F. (1999). The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. New York, NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
  12. Gartner, R. (1990). The victims of homicide: a temporal and cross-national comparison. American Sociological Review, 55(February), 92–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gartner, R. (1995). Methodological issues in cross-cultural large-survey research on violence. In R. B. Ruback and N. A. Weiner (Eds.), Interpersonal Violent Behaviors: Social and Cultural Aspects (pp. 7–24). New York, NY: Springer.Google Scholar
  14. Gurr, T. R. (1981). Historical trends in violent crime: a critical review of the evidence. Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, 3, 295–350.Google Scholar
  15. Heston, A., Summers, R., and Aten, B. (2006). Penn World Table Version 6.2, Center for International Comparisons of Production, Income and Prices at the University of Pennsylvania, September.Google Scholar
  16. Huang, Wilson W. S. (1995). A cross-national analysis of the effect of moral individualism on murder rates. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 39, 63–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hunnicutt, G. and LaFree, G. (2008). Reassessing the structural covariates of cross-national infant homicide victimization. Homicide Studies, 12, 46–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jacobs, D. and Richardson, A. M. (2008). Economic inequality and homicide in the developed nations from 1975 to 1995. Homicide Studies, 12, 28–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Joanes, A. (2000). Does the New York City Police Department deserve credit for the decline in New York city’s homicide rates? A cross-city comparison of policing strategies and homicide rates. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 33, 265–311.Google Scholar
  20. Karstedt, S. (2006). Democracy, values, and violence: paradoxes, tensions, and comparative advantages of liberal inclusion. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 605, 6–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kiernan, K. (2000). European perspectives on union formation. In L. J. Waite (Ed.) (coeditors C. Bachrach, M. Hindin, E. Thomson, A. Thornton), The Ties That Bind (pp. 40–58). New York, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  22. LaFree, G. (1998). Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America. Boulder, CO: Westview.Google Scholar
  23. LaFree, G. (1999). A summary and review of cross-national comparative studies of homicide. In M. D. Smith and M. A. Zahn (Eds.), Homicide: A Sourcebook of Social Research (pp. 125–145). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  24. LaFree, G. and Drass, K. A. (2002). Counting crime booms among nations: evidence for homicide victimization rates, 1956–1998. Criminology, 40, 769–800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. LaFree, G. and Kick, E. L. (1986). Cross-national effects of developmental, distributional, and demographic variables on crime: a review and analysis. International Annals of Criminology, 24, 213–235.Google Scholar
  26. LaFree, G. and Tseloni, A. (2006). Democracy and crime: a multilevel analysis of homicide trends in forty-four countries, 1950–2000. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 605, 26–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Marsh, L. C. (1983). On estimating spline regressions. Proceedings of SAS Users Group International, 8, 723–728.Google Scholar
  28. Marsh, L. C. (1986). Estimating the number and location of knots in spline regressions. Journal of Applied Business Research, 3, 60–70.Google Scholar
  29. Marsh, L. C. and Cormier, D. R. (2002). Spline Regression Models. Sage University Papers Series on Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences, 07-137. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  30. Messner, S. F. (2003). Understanding cross-national variation in criminal violence. In W. Heitmeyer and J. Hagan (Eds.), International Handbook of Violence Research (pp. 701–716). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  31. Messner, S. F., Deane, G., Anslin, L., and Pearson-Nelson, B. (2005). Locating the vanguard in rising and falling homicide rates. Criminology, 43, 661–696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Messner, S. F., Thome, H., and Rosenfeld, R. (2008). Institutions, anomie, and violent crime: clarifying and elaborating institutional-anomie theory. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 2, 163–181.Google Scholar
  33. Neapolitan, J. L. (1997). Cross-National Crime: A Research Review and Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood.Google Scholar
  34. Neuman, W. L. and Berger, R. J. (1988). Competing perspectives on cross-national crime: an evaluation of theory and evidence. Sociological Quarterly, 29, 281–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Neumayer, E. (2003). Good policy can lower violent crime: evidence from a cross-national panel of homicide rates, 1980–1997. Journal of Peace Research, 40, 619–640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Parker, K. F., McCall, P. L., and Kenneth, C. L. (1999). Determining social structural predictors of homicide: units of analysis and related methodological concerns. In M. D. Smith and M. A. Zahn (Eds.) Homicide: A Sourcebook of Social Research (pp. 125–145). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  37. Pearson-Nelson, P. L. (2008). Understanding Homicide Trends: The Social Context of a Homicide Epidemic. New York, NY: LFB Scholarly Publishing.Google Scholar
  38. Pratt, T. C. and Godsey, T. W. (2003). Social support, inequality, and homicide: a cross-national test of an integrated theoretical model. Criminology, 41, 611–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pridemore, W. A. (2008). A methodological addition to the cross-national empirical literature on social structure and homicide: a first test of the poverty-homicide thesis. Criminology, 46, 133–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. QMS (2007). EViews-6, User’s Guide II. Irvine, CA: Quantitative Micro Software.Google Scholar
  41. Raffalovich, L. E. (1994). Detrending time series: a cautionary note. Sociological Methods and Research, 22, 492–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Raffalovich, L. E. (1999). Growth and distribution: evidence from a variable-parameter cross-national time-series analysis. Social Forces, 78, 415–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Savolainen, J. (2000). Inequality, welfare state, and homicide: further support for the institutional anomie theory. Criminology, 38, 1021–1042.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Spierenburg, P. (Ed.) (1998). Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Stamatel, J. P. (2006). Incorporating socio-historical context into quantitative cross-national criminology. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 30(Fall), 177–207.Google Scholar
  46. Stamatel, J. P. (2009). Correlates of national-level homicide variation in post-communist East-Central Europe. Social Forces, 87, 1423–1448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Stretesky, P. B., Schuck, A. M., and Hogan, M. J. (2004). Space matters: an analysis of poverty, poverty clustering, and violent crime. Justice Quarterly, 21, 817–841.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Thome, H. (2007). Explaining the long-term trend in violent crime: a heuristic scheme and some methodological considerations. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 1, 185–202.Google Scholar
  49. Trost, J. and Levin, I. (2005). Scandinavian families. In B. N. Adams and J. Trost (Eds.), Handbook of World Families (pp. 347–363). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  50. United Kingdom (2008). Population Estimates Unit, Office for National Statistics: Crown Copyright.Google Scholar
  51. United Nations (2008). United Nations Statistics Division. New York, NY: United Nations.Google Scholar
  52. World Bank (2008). Health, Nutrition and Population Statistics Database (HNPStats). The World Bank. Washington, DC. Accessed August 28, 2008.
  53. Zimring, F. (2007). The Great American Crime Decline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven F. Messner
    • 1
  • Benjamin Pearson-Nelson
    • 2
  • Lawrence E. Raffalovich
    • 1
  • Zachary Miner
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity at Albany, S. U. N. Y.AlbanyUSA
  2. 2.Indiana University-Purdue UniversityFort WayneUSA
  3. 3.University of Albany, S.U.N.Y.AlbanyUSA

Personalised recommendations