In Milwaukee, in 2011, more than three-quarters of homicide victims had prior arrests or citations. This is consistent with many national studies over the years, which have demonstrated that there is a surprisingly large overlap between victim and offender populations. In political rhetoric, there seems no end of scorn for criminals or sympathy for victims, but they are very often one and the same. In fact, at least one study has found that the best predictor of whether an individual will commit an act of violence is whether the individual has been a victim of violence.
A fascinating new article now explores the underlying reasons why victims are so often offenders, and vice versa. Authored by criminologist Mark Berg and colleagues, the article is “The Victim-Offender Overlap in Context: Examining the Role of Neighborhood Street Culture,” 50 Criminology 359 (2012).
One theory that has already been considered in the literature is that the propensities to offend and to suffer victimization both result from the same sorts of underlying personality traits or deficiencies.
Though plausible, this theory has been undermined by empirical research:
Known as a risk-heterogeneity perspective, this view maintains that the “processes which produce high rates of offending . . . are also productive to high rates of victimization” (Gottfredson, 1984: 17). For example, researchers propose that low self-control accounts for the empirical connection between offending and victimization (Schreck, 1999). Likewise, other key indicators of risk heterogeneity, such as impulsivity and low verbal ability, theoretically serve as sources of spuriousness (Berg, 2011). Contrary to these predictions, however, empirical research finds that violent offending promotes victimization risk and vice versa, after controlling for low self-control, impulsivity (Haynie and Piquero, 2006; Schreck, 1999), verbal intelligence, stress, and time-stable unobserved heterogeneity (Berg and Loeber, 2011; Hay and Evans, 2006; Loeber et al., 1999). (363)
Thus, Berg et al. propose a new theory that emphasizes the role of neighborhood culture. In neighborhoods in which there is a strong “subculture” or “honor culture,” they hypothesize, individuals are more likely to resort to violence to resolve disputes than in neighborhoods with “mainstream conduct norms.” They explain:
Social scientists often use the conceptual labels of “subculture” or “honor culture” interchangeably when referring to the character of this alternative system (Anderson, 1999; Cooney, 1998; Horowitz, 1983; Pitt-Rivers, 1966; Wolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967). The set of norms inhered in a modern honor culture place a premium on the maintenance of respect, lower the threshold of personal insult (Horowitz, 1983), define violations of self in an adversarial manner (Cooney, 1998; Horowitz and Schwartz, 1974), and endorse violence as an appropriate means to regulate interpersonal disputes. An individual’s reputation often hinges on having the ability to overcome adversaries with brute force. Anderson (1999) referred to the honor culture he observed in poor neighborhoods as the “street code“ (see also Horowitz, 1983). By his account, young men will precipitate violent altercations to promote their street credibility, and many “crave respect to the point that they would risk their lives to attain and maintain it” (Anderson, 1999: 76).
Cultural systems that are organized around codes of honor often sanction retaliatory aggression as an appropriate response to an affront. Where an honor culture is entrenched, conflicts are prone to evolve into ongoing physical confrontations (see Cooney, 1998). An individual who has been disrespected is expected to “immediately enforce [his or her] precedence” by punishing wrongdoers with violence of like proportion (Horowitz, 1983: 82). Status is assigned to those who do not allow others to exploit them easily. Victims who opt against retaliation may run the risk of imperiling their own reputations (Horowitz and Schwartz, 1974). Mixed-method research on lethal violence has found that disputants from distressed neighborhoods often believe they have little choice but to retaliate, even over relatively trivial transgressions (e.g., Kubrin and Weitzer, 2003). Under these circumstances, occasional displays of aggression are “instrumental for marketing [one's] reputation as a badass” (Katz, 1988: 184).
Moreover, within these environments, many residents, especially young men, come to believe that violence is critical to the maintenance of an intimidating image. A behavioral imperative exists that one must not yield to challengers because doing so conveys weakness, which ultimately enhances one’s probability of future victimization (see also Felson and Steadman, 1983). By Anderson’s (1999) account, the context of poor, high-crime neighborhoods is organized around the code of the street; although residents have an interest in avoiding violence, the constant threat of exploitation, coupled with the lack of legal recourse, provides a strong incentive for young men to develop an aggressive image (pp. 110, 116). As an illustration of these notions, an informant in a recent study reasoned that even if the smallest affront is overlooked, others will “try to come at me, the same day, the next day because [they’ll] think, Aw he’s a punk . . . he can’t handle it” (Jacobs and Wright, 2006: 32). (364-65)
Conventional modes of conflict resolution often have little force where norms of honor are salient because the criteria for respect are based on principles that discourage peaceful resolutions of disputes (Jacobs and Wright, 2006; Schwartz, 1987: 215). A prevailing climate of legal hostility also sustains the code of honor, making residents reluctant to enlist the State to intervene in conflicts (Cooney, 1998). Many come to perceive the criminal justice system as unfair, unresponsive, and discriminatory against minorities. In fact, several studies demonstrated that young men avoid any interaction with the police, as a result of collective fears about being harassed or targeted for unwarranted searches (Brunson, 2007; Carr, Napolitano, and Keating, 2007). Cooperation with the authorities, even if only to report being victimized, may make one look vulnerable and appear as a “snitch” (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright, 2003). In fact, studies conducted in poor, high-crime neighborhoods demonstrated that punishments administered by the legal system are considered far less intimidating compared with violent methods of informal social control (Horowitz, 1983: 82; Jacobs and Wright, 2006). A salient belief among street criminals is that regardless of the circumstances, any interaction with police is likely to invite undeserved legal trouble; therefore, many strive to “avoid the police whenever possible” (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright, 2003: 298). An honor culture emerges as a type of “street justice” to fill the void left by the virtual absence of formal law. In this context, then, the victim–offender overlap should be especially strong. (366)
This account of the honor culture is interesting to me, in part, because it provides another way of understanding why frequent police stops of minority youth may prove counterproductive to crime-reduction goals. (See my post here.)
Berg and his coauthors set out to test their hypothesis about the role of neighborhood culture by using data collected from 763 African-American children living in 71 neighborhoods (census tracts) across Georgia and Iowa. The kids, aged 10-13, were interviewed once in 1997 (T1) and then again two years later (T2). By the second interview, 27% of the kids reported that they had suffered violent victimization, while 28% admitted to violent offending.
The data analysis had two parts. In the first part, the researchers focused on the individuals who reported offending at T1 and tried to determine the risk factors among this group for victimization at T2. In the second part, the researchers flipped the variables, determining the risk factors for victims at T1 to be offenders at T2. In both parts, the researchers considered the correlation of offending and victimization with several other variables, including a neighborhood-level honor-cuture variable, which was calculated based on responses to various questions by the kids’ caregivers.
As a bottom line, the researchers did confirm that neighborhood culture matters. In honor-culture neighborhoods, the overlap between victimization and offending is much more robust than in “mainstream” neighborhoods.
Here are the details:
Consistent with expectations, the results displayed in table 2 show a significant and positive cross-level interaction term, suggesting that neighborhood street culture magnifies the effects of offending on victimization. More specifically, the results suggest that violent offending increases respondents’ risk for violent victimization by approximately 68 percent ([e (.52) = 1.68 – 1.00]× 100) when neighborhood street culture is at its average level. It is worth highlighting other findings from table 2; for instance, among the study variables, prior violent victimization exhibits the strongest effects. (376)
When street culture is at its sample mean, victims of violence are 55 percent more likely to commit violent behavior. With an increase in levels of street culture, the magnitude of this relationship intensifies. (378)
Looking at the table, we observe that in neighborhoods where street culture is “high,” adolescents who engage in violent delinquency increase their chances of victimizationT2 by approximately 169 percent ([e(.99) = 2.69 – 1.00]× 100). By contrast, in neighborhoods where levels of street culture are “low” (β= .12, SE = .16) or “extremely low” (β= .03, SE = .07), violent offending does not significantly predict the risk for violent victimization. (379)
For instance, the positive effect of victimization on violent delinquency is not significant in places where the street culture is “low” or “extremely low.” Stated otherwise, victimization does not promote violent offending in the absence of a strong street culture. By contrast, victimization increases the risk of violent delinquency by approximately 203 percent ([e (1.11) = 3.03 – 1.00]× 100) among youth who reside in high street culture neighborhoods. All combined, the fact that we do not observe a significant relationship between offending and victimization, or vice versa, is important because it suggests street culture is a mechanism that causes the victim–offender overlap to be more or less divergent. Neighborhood street culture, therefore, plays an important role in the genesis of the victim–offender overlap. (379-80)
The research thus suggests that cycles of retaliatory violence fuel violent crime in honor-culture neighborhoods, which dissolves the distinction between offenders and victims.
This finding, in turn, raises the question of how an honor-culture can be weakened and mainstream dispute-resolution norms strengthened.
Do police have a role? It seems that police may do some good by enhancing their reputation for effectiveness in resolving disputes and by consistently treating citizens with fairness and respect. (See, e.g., my discussion of procedural justice here.)
On the other hand, it strikes me that police culture itself may be one that has traditionally been deeply marked by “honor” elements. If this is true, does it suggest that at least some police officers may have an unconscious tendency to reinforce honor norms through their conduct, regardless of what official department policies and priorities might be?
On still another hand, police honor culture may be an asset. By virtue of their deep familiarity with an honor culture, thoughtful, well-trained officers may be uniquely well-positioned to defuse honor-related violence.