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This is a puzzle because crime is more common among the poor; the percentage of poor Americans has been trending up since about 2000. But this head-scratcher is just part of a larger puzzle – understanding long-term trends in America’s criminal violence.
The overall story is that homicide rates declined substantially (as did rates of interpersonal violence of all sorts). Scholars have offered several explanations for the centuries’-long decline of violence in the West. Government: Over many generations, political authorities gained greater policing power and legitimacy.
Economics: Greater and more broadly distributed wealth reduced people’s motivation for crime and raised the costs of getting into trouble.
Culture: Over the centuries, westerners increasingly came to feel that violence was uncouth and distasteful.
How might any of this explain the latest – the post-1990s – downswing in homicide and in criminal violence more generally?
Researchers point to some similar factors, although they disagree about their relative importance. Recently, scholars have added yet another explanation: Immigration – although not in the way that some people might expect. In a wider view, perhaps the more puzzling part of the story is the rapid upswing in violence from around 1960 to 1990 (see the first graph above).
In a paper that I published in 2001 in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, I showed that homicide rates over a period of about half a century were consistent with a random walk (a process in which change scores are white noise). Sadly missing from this article is any reference to the upheavals of racism, the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and the Great Migration. Would love, love, love to see a graph comparing western European murder rates to US since the 1700s.
I wonder what effect the emergence of modern emergency medicine (or for that matter, the availability of modern medical treatment in general) has had on these trends?
Listen to PI social science editor Nikki Jones in conversation with sociologist Karen Sternheimer about the sometimes strange relationship between an ethnographic researcher and the neighborhood she’s studying. LGBT people of color are simultaneously present and excluded in the neighborhoods where they live and in mainstream LGBT organizations.
The Public Intellectual has been for us a fascinating experiment in bringing academic work to a general audience.

Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. He was the founding editor of Contexts, the American Sociological Association’s magazine of sociology for the general reader, and edited the magazine through 2004. Historians refer to the “civilizing process,” a phrase German sociologist Norbert Elias used to describe how the royal courts of Europe suppressed bloody feuds among lords. The rates are now at roughly the level of the least violent era in American history, the late 1950s. Some stress government authority, namely that longer criminal sentences and the prison-building boom kept many more bad actors off the streets longer.
Two generations of scholars have yet (it appears to me) to satisfactorily explain why that happened.
Eckberg (1995) corrected the raw federal data for missing states in the early part of the century. That the fluctuations in the 20th century were just stochastic, or that this applies to larger frames of time.
Nikki was in the field for three years for her first book, Between Good and Ghetto, and lived in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco for three years for her forthcoming book, The Hustle: Why it’s Hard to Make Good in the New Inner City.
They might be more active in promoting LGBT advocacy efforts if they felt those efforts included their voices and incorporated more of the issues that are important to them. The number of violent crimes dropped by about 6 percent from the same period a year before.
This gap persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in our homicide rate in the last 15 years or so. The repression of violence spread to the bourgeois who, in turn, taught it to the working classes – or forced it on them through, for example, schooling. Others point to the economic boom of the 1990s, when unemployment, even in poor communities, sunk to low levels. Some of the upswing in crime can be attributed to the baby boom: Put a lot more 15-to-25-year-old males into a society and you will get an upsurge of violence. It’s the upsurge of violent crime starting in the early 1960s that is now ending that remains the larger puzzle.
Random walks can look like trends for significant stretches of time, but the appearance can be illusory. Surely, you concede the major point of the post, that there really is such a thing as a modernization curve?

Nikki is also producing a short film, The Camera Rolls, the story of one man’s decade-long effort to document daily life in a tough San Francisco neighborhood. Keck is a professor of English and Gender Studies as well as an associate editor of Southern Indiana Review. We have been heartened by the support of our readers and the generosity of the writers who have worked with us since our launch last year. Americans have been notably more violent than western Europeans since about the mid-to-late 19th century. Over time, hitting, knifing, and shooting came to seem (to most people) as vulgar as smelling from body odor or defecating in the castle hallway.
And others argue – although it is difficult to confirm with hard data – that a cultural shift occurred, that increasing revulsion toward violence eventually spread into even the most violent communities and corners of the United States.
Some of it has to do with what happened in the black ghettos of the North: The population grew rapidly just when the well-paying blue-collar jobs for men were disappearing.
However I think an inclusion of statistics regarding shootings and stabbings that don’t lead to death is important too, and not overly prohibitive.
As a freelance journalist and fiction writer, she explores issues of class, labor, and gender in contemporary American life.
Philip Cohen considers these questions and takes a look at the 2010 numbers in two great graphs. The graph also shows that progress was hardly uniform, as there were many upswings of violence. And perhaps some of the upswing reflected a short-term cultural shift – maybe the baby boomers’ rejection of authority – that encouraged violence.
Spurts often coincide with wars and the aftermaths of war – notably having many demobilized soldiers, trained and armed fighters, roaming the land.
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