In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homicide

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Trends
  • Comparative Research
  • Measuring Homicides
  • The Social Construction of Homicides
  • Intimate-Partner Homicides
  • Homicide-Suicides
  • Parricides and Siblicides
  • Child Homicides
  • The Elderly as Homicide Victims
  • Serial Homicides
  • Felony Homicides
  • Gang-Related Homicides
  • School Homicides
  • Workplace Homicides
  • Justifiable Homicides by Civilians
  • Justifiable Homicides by Police
  • Arrest Clearances
  • The Death Penalty Pre-Furman
  • The Death Penalty Post-Furman

Criminology Homicide
Marc Riedel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0092


Homicide is one of the oldest moral and legal prohibitions, viewed throughout history from a large variety of perspectives. One of the earliest accounts of homicide is the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. The prohibition of homicide is one of the oldest laws, although how it is implemented has varied among cultures. For example, in the Roman Republic, homicide victimization was a matter for families to settle, not the government. Homicide is explored in depth and variety in literature. “Murder most foul” is explored in fiction from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to detective stories and beyond. Finally, social sciences such as history, political science, and psychology have their own detailed bodies of literature. The criminological and criminal justice approach taken here is to examine homicide from the perspective of social sciences, primarily sociology and criminology, although political violence is not included. The 8th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary defines homicide as “the killing of one person by another.” The killing of another, whether lawful or not lawful, is homicide; there is no “crime of homicide,” says Brian Garner in Black’s Law Dictionary. Criminal homicide is divided into murder and manslaughter. Justifiable homicide is divided into justifiable homicide by civilians such as self-defense, justifiable homicides by police, and state-sanctioned killings such as executions. What may be confusing is that researchers frequently use the term “homicide” without distinguishing between murder and manslaughter. The research does, however, consistently distinguish between criminal homicide and justifiable homicides. As Black’s Law Dictionary goes on to point out, there are a variety of homicide laws that are not given much attention by researchers.

General Overviews

Criminologists, as Sellin 1938 has indicated, must be free to define their own terms “based on the intrinsic character of his material and designating properties in that material which are assumed to be universal.” Law, as noted in Swigert 1989, is a social construction, like other social institutions, which means it can be an object of study. Thus, while the event of homicide is anchored in law, the characteristics can be the object of criminological study and explanation in a manner that need not duplicate legal distinctions. For example, research has shown that homicide and aggravated assault are similar with respect to socioeconomic status, temporal patterns, race, age, and gender distributions. Legally, the charge for causing serious injury is aggravated assault, but if the victim later dies, the charge is changed to criminal homicide. For criminological purposes, rather than having a theory of homicide and a theory of aggravated assaults, explanations look at both as serious forms of violence. An examination of the various major characteristics of homicide is the sourcebook Smith and Zahn 1999. The twenty-five contributions are reviews and evaluations of important topics in the study of homicide. Brookman 2005 reviews the various aspects of homicide in the United Kingdom. While journalistic treatments of homicide emphasize the dramatic, Simon 1991 is unusual because the author had unlimited access to a Baltimore homicide unit and does a remarkable job of describing day-to-day activities. Another way of getting a general picture of homicide is to read studies of homicides in large urban areas. Among the first of three that have stood the test of time is Wolfgang 1975 (an update of the 1958 classic), a study of homicide in Philadelphia, one of the early quantitative studies. Lundsgaarde 1977, a qualitative study of homicide in Houston, explored the variations in victim/offender relationships. Garner 2009 is a useful legal dictionary. Finally, Block 1986 is a study of homicide in Chicago that examines patterns and trends from 1965 to 1981.

  • Block, Carolyn Rebecca. 1986. Homicide in Chicago: Aggregate and time series perspectives on victim, offender, and circumstance, 1965–1981. Chicago: Loyola Univ. of Chicago.

    Research is based on detailed information on 12,872 homicides reported to the police. In addition to suggesting a typology of homicides, Block examines aggregated patterns of homicides, as well as homicide trends from 1965 through 1981.

  • Brookman, Fiona. 2005. Understanding homicide. London: SAGE.

    While Brookman’s book focuses on the United Kingdom, it draws on international literature and research as well. A comprehensive review of biological, psychological, and sociological theories. The book also looks at gender differences in homicide, child homicides, multiple homicides, and mass killings. It also examines the process of prosecution as well as prevention.

  • Garner, Bryan A., ed. 2009. Black’s law dictionary. 9th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West.

    Standard legal resource for lawyers, law students, and laypeople. Most-cited legal dictionary in print.

  • Lundsgaarde, Henry P. 1977. Murder in space city: A cultural analysis of Houston homicide patterns. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An anthropological study of homicide victim/offender relationships in over two hundred cases from the Houston Police Department. What is noteworthy is that while most of the homicides resulted in the arrest of offenders, only a small number of those arrested were indicted. Homicides involving intimate relationships were subject to less serious sanctions than homicides involving strangers.

  • Sellin, Thorsten. 1938. Culture conflict and crime. New York: Social Science Research Council.

    This slim document outlines a theory of culture conflict to explain crime. What is most important is Sellin’s discussion of how criminological explanations of such events as homicide are both related to legal definitions and distinct from them.

  • Simon, David. 1991. Homicide: A year on the killing streets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    With full access to the work of a squad of homicide detectives, Simon describes how homicide detectives work, the kinds of cases that result in quick arrests, those that never result in arrests, and homicides such as child killings that result in extra effort by conscientious law enforcement.

  • Smith, M. Dwayne, and Margaret A. Zahn, ed. 1999. Homicide: A sourcebook of social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Each of the twenty-five chapters was written by leading scholars in the topic. The chapters review empirical literature and social theories to explain homicide, as well as methodological issues. The range of coverage not only includes types of homicides, but also the death penalty, gun control, public health programs, and public-health policies to prevent homicides.

  • Swigert, Victoria L. 1989. The discipline as data: Resolving the theoretical crisis in criminology. In Theoretical integration in the study of deviance and crime: Problems and prospects. Edited by Steven F. Messner, Marvin D. Krohn, and Allen E. Liska. 129–135. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    This chapter takes up the issue of the appropriate definition of crime. Crime is a social construction, and its definition should not be limited to how lawyers, judges, and legislators conceive of it. In broadening the concept of crime, is it useful to treat those who violate the law as a distinct group? Is it useful, for example, to distinguish between the legal and illegal appropriation of property?

  • Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1975. Patterns in criminal homicide: Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania

    In addition to exploring patterns of homicide in Philadelphia, Wolfgang introduces the concept of victim-precipitated homicide. Victim precipitation occurs in those homicide events in which the victim is the first to use physical force. Of the 588 cases, 150 involved victims that were the first to use physical force and were subsequently slain.

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