Posted: March 10th, 2022

Criminal Justice – Gender and Crime

Criminal Justice – Gender and Crime


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HOMICIDAL CRIMES and GENDER DIFFERENCES I. Demographic and Historical Distribution:


Criminologists have long believed that crime rates are at least partially attributable to social factors in society that affect individuals differently (Macionis, 2003). In particular, race, social class, age and gender correlate strongly to incidence of criminal behavior. Race has been implicated as one factor by virtue of the fact that while Caucasians account for nearly 70% of all criminal arrests, African-Americans account for a disproportionate amount of crime in relation to their representation in the population. Specifically, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), African-Americans accounted for 31% of all arrests for property crimes and 37.8% of all violent crimes including homicide in 2000, despite representing only 12.3% (Macionis, 2003).


Historically, social class is also closely related to criminality, in that economically deprived social environments and the relative lack of the same vocational opportunities available in poor communities correspond to higher crime rates than observed in middle class and upper class communities (Schmalleger, 2001). However, sociologists have pointed out that much of the difference between those figures relates to the fact that criminal statistics tend to focus much more on street crimes, property crimes, and crimes of violence against persons. When so-called “white collar” crimes are included in the statistical overview of criminality and social class, much less disparity is observed.


Likewise, even though low-income communities are associated with higher reported crime rates, most individuals living in those communities are not involved in criminal activity; in fact, a small number of individuals tend to perpetrate the vast majority of crimes in socially deprived communities (Macionis, 2003). More importantly, the crime of homicide is committed by an even smaller subset of criminals, both in general as well as within socially deprived communities (Keel, 2008).


Age is associated with crime and the statistical evidence demonstrates a marked increase in crime during the adolescent years and spike most sharply in the late teen years (Macionis, 2003). According to the FBI, individuals between the age of fifteen and twenty-four accounted for nearly 40% of all arrests for violent crimes and nearly half of all property crimes in 2000 despite the fact that this age group represented only 14% of the population. The FBI reports that arrests for the most serious crimes (i.e. rape, robbery, arson and homicide) increased steadily throughout the decade preceding those 2000 statistics (Macionis, 2003).


For as long as criminal statistics have been recorded, the vast majority of all crimes have been attributed to males (Schmalleger, 2001). Specifically, whereas each gender represents approximately half the population, male offenders have accounted for approximately three-quarters of all reported crimes. More particularly, males account for an even higher percentage (approximately 83%) of crimes of violence including homicide (Macionis, 2003).


In general, the disparity between male and female criminality varies closely in proportion to the degree of physical violence involved with males consistently being involved more often in physical assaults and homicidal crimes. This relationship appears consistent regardless of the source or types of data compiled (Scmalleger, 2001).


However, whereas homicides committed by males span a much wider range in terms of their particular circumstances, those committed by females illustrate a very distinct pattern. Specifically, the largest class of homicides committed by females involve crimes against husbands or significant others rather than crimes against strangers or homicides committed in furtherance of other criminal activity such as in connection with property crimes or assaults for the purpose of monetary gain (Ogle, Maier-Katkin & Bernard, 1995).


Male homicides frequently involve family and significant others as well; in fact, males still commit homicides much more frequently against their spouses and significant others (in addition to infanticide and eldercide) than females. However, whereas male homicides are spread across the myriad circumstances in which such crime may occur, female homicide is clustered very narrowly around domestic crimes of intimacy involving significant others (USDOJ, 2007).


Various explanations have been offered to explain the disparity, including greater biological tendencies toward violence (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2005), law enforcement biases (Macionis, 2003), as well as various applications of sociological theories of deviance and criminality, such as gender role identity, General Strain Theory, Merton’s Strain Theory, and more recently, the Structured Action Theory of crime as it relates to gender.


II. Criminology Theories and Gender Differences in Homicidal Crimes:


A. Merton’s General Strain Theory of Deviant Behavior


Emile Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie in the 19th century, to describe the general sense of purposelessness experienced by individuals who lacked a strong sense of personal social identity, many of whom also perceived themselves to be out of synch with societal goals and normative values (Macionis, 2003). Twentieth century sociologist and professor Robert Merton used Durkheim’s anomie concept as the basis for his strain theory of deviant behavior, according to which modern society establishes a set of values or criteria for defining the characteristics expected of individuals. Merton suggested that the individual who successfully achieves the goals and expectations promoted by society is comparatively happier, more content, and better adjusted than the individual who fails to do so (Macionis 2003).


As pertains to criminality, Merton’s strain theory also suggests that one of the underlying causes of deviance (including but not strictly limited to criminality) is the internal psychological discord (or strain) associated with the individual’s frustration at failing to achieve major elements of one’s socially expected role in society. While strain theory does not relate specifically to homicide, it still offers a very relevant view of possible reasons some individuals become criminals. Merton According to criminologists, homicides committed in the course of furthering criminal enterprises (as opposed to homicides motivated by animus or rage toward another person) are planned deliberately much less often than they simply occur in the course of pursuing other criminal activity, most often for profit (Keen, 2008).


In fact, Merton’s strain theory explains more about why individuals despondent over their perceived failures turn to crime than why criminals perpetrate the specific crime of homicide. On the other hand, those who are criminally inclined by virtue of social strains are obviously at a much higher risk of committing homicide than are non-criminals.


In contemporary society (as well as in many primitive societies), the social role prescribed for males is more susceptible to triggering the strains described by Merton than the corresponding roles expected of females. Generally, males have traditionally been expected to become providers for their families and to fill various other competitive roles. In principle, females are also susceptible to social strains, but their roles more often relate to motherhood and the private care of their families at home.


Certainly, women who remain single longer than they wish or who remain barren in marriage experience social strains arising from their “failures” but their degree of shame and frustration is less likely to rise to the level of that experienced by males who fail to achieve any social power or status, or who cannot hold a steady job, or who must fill subservient roles that they consider demeaning just to earn a living (Macionis 2003).


But criminality does not present an alternate means of achieving the goals expected for females to reach (i.e. motherhood) the way it does provide some means for males to mimic social success by acquiring some of the benefits or symbols of social success (i.e. monetary wealth or material possessions).


Therefore, males who experience a high degree of social strain might very well suffer more from it; more importantly, they have a much greater opportunity to acquire some of what they have failed to achieve in socially positive ways through criminally deviant behavior. To the extent that strain theory relates to criminal deviance (including the proportion of crime that leads to homicide), it would provide some explanation for dramatically higher rates of homicide (as well as other crimes) among males than females by virtue of both increased intensity of the individual’s response to social strains as well as greater opportunity to achieve certain goals expected of men in the manner described by Merton’s strain theory of deviance.


B. Agnew’s Strain Theory of Criminology


Agnew (1992) expanded the scope of Merton’s original proposition by suggesting that strain theory is not necessary limited to issues of social status and to the specific notion of adopting a life of crime as an alternate means of achieving what the individual has failed to achieve with respect to societal expectations and relative social status.


Agnew did not discount the possible role of strain theory as a factor in the individual’s descent into deviance and criminality. Rather, Agnew suggested that strain applied much more generally to a wider range of frustrations and personal disappointments.


Significantly, Agnew (1992) emphasized the degree to which anger contributed to responses described by general strain theory. Instead of conceiving of strain theory as something that pertained only to the individual’s relative success (or lack thereof) with respect to fundamental roles, responsibilities, or characteristics prescribed by society, Anew suggested that strain resulted from myriad sources of social and emotional strains and that the resulting anger contributed to increased deviance including criminal deviance. In that regard, Agnew’s version of strain theory no longer explains the marked difference in male and female homicide rates, simply because it downplays the importance of the types of strains described by Merton. Whereas Merton’s strains were associated more with the types of failures more likely to be experienced by males, Agnew’s strains included many types of strains that, at least arguably, could be said to plague females even more than males.


Merton conceived of the source of strain as predominantly a function of identity roles and social success as defined in the cultural environment; Agnew added the many other sources of potential strain that relate to expectations of the individual rather than necessarily of society (Macionis 2003). More specifically, Agnew (1992) suggested that individuals vary substantially from one another and form many elements of their ideal “role model” more autonomously: whereas some individuals (of either gender) may value their athleticism, for just one example, others might maintain completely different criteria for defining their own self-worth. Therefore, in Agnew’s formulation of Merton’s strain theory, the specific components of the value system are arbitrary except in their subjective importance to the individual. However, the consequences to the individual (at least in terms of strain theory) are substantially similar, regardless of the particular values underlying the self-perception of failure.


In many respects, females are more susceptible to the cumulative effect of long- term social strains that include emotional issues, self-perception, attractiveness, and self- worth than their male counterparts. Contemporary society places greater value on the importance of physical appearance of women and it has often been suggested that this alone accounts for higher rates of low self-esteem in adolescent females in particular, but also among females in general (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2005). Therefore, at least on first glance, it would seem that Agnew’s strain theory provides no explanation for differences observed in rates of homicide and other crimes as between males and females.


However, Broidy (2001) and others have pointed out that females may be better equipped than males to cope with social strains. In general, females tend to form more intimate friendships than males both in childhood as well as throughout life. In addition to apparently greater natural inclination on the part of females to seek emotional support from peers and within the family, they are socialized to express their emotions more freely than males. Conversely, males tend to form friendships that are more superficial with their peers and they receive social messages from childhood on that value stoicism and bravery over emotional interdependence (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2005).


In response to similar strains, females often cope better than males because their personal relationships and communication styles are both conducive to minimizing the emotional toll of individual strains. Men, by contrast, are less likely to seek or accept emotional support and much more likely to avoid actually dealing with their feelings altogether. Consequently, males tend to accumulate higher levels of emotional discord and anger in response to long-term exposure to the strains described by Merton and Agnew. Ultimately, this would suggest either that: (1) females are less susceptible to deviant criminal conduct (and therefore, to homicidal crimes as well) because society (under Merton’s view) places more pressure on males to exemplify goals that some may never reach; or (2) females are less susceptible to accumulating anger and hostility-based deviance (and therefore, to homicidal crimes as well), because (under Agnew’s view), they are better equipped to deal with strains than males. C. Structured Action Theory of Criminology


West and Zimmerman (1987) offered a different explanation of gender-based differences in criminality. According to their “Doing Gender” concept, individuals receive substantially different messages throughout their lives, but particularly during the early socialization process, to associate certain traits and behaviors with the male identity and a very different set of traits and behaviors expected of females in society. In addition to any evolutionary tendencies toward gender-specific social behaviors, the structured action theory relates much of male competitiveness, dominance urge and aggression to reinforcement by social expectations and role modeling in the predominant societal environment. The structured action theory of gender-based behavioral differences suggests that males “doing” male gender behaviors are more likely to rebel and take risks, as well as to repress their anger, respond aggressively and engage in criminally violent social deviance like homicide than females “doing” their gender.


III. Research Methods for Analyzing Gender Differences in Homicidal Crimes:


A. Preferred Research Method for Studying Homicide and Gender


Ideally, research into gender-based differences in homicidal crime would incorporate many research methods, including surveys, interviews, ethnography and official crime statistics. Among them, the best single choice for this issue would likely be interviews. Statistics are valuable, but provide only quantitative information demonstrating that the discrepancy between the behavior of two groups exists.


In principle, surveys fulfill many of the same functions of interviews but as a practical matter, it is much more difficult to structure surveys sufficiently in depth to elicit the same information as an interview. Even if a survey could be composed that was long and detailed enough to attempt to do so, the element of follow up questions and redirecting the focus of conversation in the manner most conducive to maximizing the value of the inquiry is absent without a face-to-face dynamic. Finally, human communication includes many more variables and mechanisms than could possibly be represented by the written format of a survey. Particularly in the case of criminally deviant conduct and homicidal rage, the one dimensional character of surveys omits a tremendous amount of potentially relevant information available to interviewers.


B. Least Beneficial Method for Studying Homicide and Gender


To the extent that ethnography focuses on a “holistic” or “all-inclusive” approach to understanding human behavior, it may add a valuable component in applicable inquiries. However, in relation to the gender-based difference in homicidal crimes, ethnography is comparatively ineffective, primarily because it concerns the effects of differential gender behavior rather than the cause. As with the strict statistical approach, ethnography would help provide a picture of all the different ways that female behavior differs from male behavior, but without much emphasis (or ability to identify) the underlying reasons that males and females respond differently, either to similar long-term situations or to specific incidents. Unlike statistical analysis, the ethnographic approach to studying human behavior introduces significant elements of subjectivity (Macionis 2003) that detract from its usefulness in this study.


IV. Prior Research – Homicidal Crimes and Gender Differences: Evolutionary biologists have long known of the common analogues apparent between various aspects of human behavior and animal behavior that is observable in other species (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2005). In general, the males of most animal species (and certainly the “higher” mammals) are larger, more physically dominating and more aggressive than females. No doubt this plays some role in the observed differences in male and female criminal tendencies.


However, beyond evolutionary biology, society contributes significantly to human behavior and behavioral choices. Comparatively less is known conclusively about the social influences on violent behavior than about the hard-wired components of human behavior, in part, because of the myriad possible variables at issue. Nevertheless, various recent peer-reviewed studies seem to corroborate elements of strain theory of deviance and the structured action theory of criminal behavior with respect to homicidal tendencies of the two genders respectively.


In the study Measuring Gender Differences in Partner Violence: Implications from Research on Other Forms of Violent and Socially Undesirable Behavior (Hamby, 2005) presents convincing evidence documenting that the largest class of female homicide relates to the killing of a spouse or significant other; while males still commit spousal homicide more often, it is the only category of violence or homicide where females incidences even approach that of males. More importantly, Hamby (2005) discloses that whereas males who kill their spouses are more likely than not to have a criminal history and prior incidents of violence in their lives, females who kill their spouses usually do not have any such prior history.


Finally, Hamby (2005) demonstrates that among females who do ultimately kill their spouses, most of those incidents arise within the context of an overreaction to a continual pattern of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse by the victim. The implication is that, as large as the discrepancy is between male and female homicide, female homicide is still overrepresented in comparison to males, because so much of it occurs in this particular context. In that regard, the Hamby analysis would also seem to support Agnew’s strain theory in that: (1) social strains relevant to homicidal crimes include much more than those associated just with Merton’s original class of social strains, and (2) the eventual eruption of a homicidal rage is at least partially attributable to accumulated anger over being victimized by an abusive spouse. The study Explaining the Decline in Intimate Partner Homicide: The Effects of Changing Domesticity, Women’s Status, and Domestic Violence Resources (Dugan, Nagin & Rosenfeld, 1999) complements the Hamby analysis perfectly because it discloses a reduction in female homicide committed against abusive domestic partners linked to increased domestic abuse resources for battered women. Similarly, females who were empowered by vocational success, peer support and a corresponding higher degree of self-worth were less likely to resort to violence (including homicide in particular) than females dependent on others for support, with less peer support and fewer opportunities for resources (Dugan, et al., 1999). This would seem to corroborate the importance of the coping mechanism that Agnew (1992) suggested are more available to females than to males by virtue of various components of gender-based differential socialization with respect to dealing with emotions and trauma.


The study a Theory of Homicidal Behavior Among Women (Ogle, Maier-Katkin & Bernard,1995) was slightly older than the other studies, but contains information so directly relevant to this entire project that it was included strictly on the basis of its academic value. Generally, females are more likely to seek (and accept) assistance from peers that enables them to cope with high strains better than males (Agnew 1992).


However, in certain situations, certain females may internalize their anger as guilt and shame (Ogle, et al., 1995) without ever experiencing it as anger or acknowledging their predicament. Such is particularly likely where the woman accepts cultural teachings about the subservient role of women, for example. In those cases, women are susceptible to the same consequences of accumulated anger as males who never acknowledge their building rage. Just as also suggested by Hamby (2005) and Dugan, et al. (1999), the study seems to confirm the importance of Agnew’s strain theory and Hamby’s analysis of the comparative incidence of female homicide. Ultimately, females experience less social strain; they are better able to deal with strains positively; and their socialization makes homicide and other crimes of violence less likely for them than for males.




Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a General Strain Theory. Criminology, Vol. 30, No.1, pp. 47-87.


Broidy, L. (2001). Test of General Strain Theory; Criminology, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 9-35


Dugan, L., Nagin, D., Rosenfeld, R. (1999). Explaining the Decline in Intimate Partner Homicide: The Effects of Changing Domesticity, Women’s Status, and Domestic Violence Resources; Homicide Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 187-214. Gerrig, R., Zimbardo, P. (2005). Psychology and Life 17th Edition.


Boston: Allyn & Bacon


Hamby, S. (2005). Measuring Gender Differences in Partner Violence: Implications from Research on Other Forms of Violent and Socially Undesirable Behavior; Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, Jun/05.


Macionis, J. (2003). Sociology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall


Ogle, R., Maier-Katkin, D., Bernard, T. (1995). A Theory of Homicidal Behavior Among Women; Criminology, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 173-193.


Schmalleger, F. Criminal Justice Today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.


USDOJ. (2007). Homicide Trends in the U.S.: Trends by Gender. Retrieved August 16, 2008 at


West, C., Zimmerman, D. (1987) Doing Gender; Gender & Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp.125-151

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