Understanding Violence and Criminal Violence

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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The subject of violence is often associated with an attack on someone whom we as people in a society either deems deserving or undeserving, but the outcome makes an impact on society (Riedel and Weir, 2001:1). For example; the young man in the wrong place at the wrong time, who was “violently” attacked for no reason by a stranger, and is now on a life support machine or the “violent” demonstration outside a paedophiles house where the accused was attacked by his neighbours, these are some of the images was associate with violence. However, on further examination of this topic, writers suggest that, violence takes many forms. As Guggisberg and Weir (2009) suggest, the term violence is used in many different contexts, it takes many different forms either covertly or overtly and is very much subject to condemnation or approval by the society or culture in which it is happening (Guggisberg & Weir, 2009).

As the examination of understanding violence continues, the focus must start with how violence has been defined by theorists over the years, as the it will become evident there has been mixed responses on how exactly to define violence.

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Collins Dictionary (2006) defines violence as ‘(1): use of physical force, usually intended to cause injury or deconstruction. (2): Great force or strength in action, feeling or expression’ (Collins, 2006:882).

Whereas, Riedel and Welsh (2001) found defining violence particularly hard, therefore, they have suggested that the closest definition of violence came from Weiner, Zahn and Sagi, (Riedel and Welsh 2001:1). This definition suggests that, “The threat or attempt, or use of physical force by one or more person’s that result in physical or non-physical harm to one or more person’s” (Riedel and Welsh 2001:1). Lecturer of Law and Barrister, Stephen Jones (2001), author of Understanding Violence also goes as far as to suggest that ‘violence does not have a standard fixed definition’ (Jones, 2001:3). Marc Riedel and Wayne Welsh are of the same opinion as Jones, and go as far as to say this is due to the there being various kinds of violence.

Edwin Megargee (1982) suggests that the term violence ‘Is reserved for the more extreme forms of aggression or aggressive behaviours that are likely to cause significant injuries to a victim. Although violence is typically attributed to, physical aggression, it can be applied to psychological stress that causes suffering and trauma’ (Megargee, 1982:85). The U.S National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence: (NCCPV) limited their definition to ‘Behaviour by persons against persons that intentionally threatens, attempts, or actually inflicts physical harm’ (Megargee, 1982).

These definitions highlight only a small sample of the ones examined and they all have the same main emphasis, that the element of physical force whether it actually causes physical harm or not, is enough to be labelled violent. However, Megargee (1982) and Collins (2006), also consider the issue of psychological harm in their definitions. This psychological violence is considered a type of non-physical violence and this is associated with persistent negative attributions to others, particularly those close to the speaker. An example of this would be the controlling husband, who hands very little money in for housekeeping them complains and berates his wife, for the food quality served by her (Riedel and Weir, 2001:2).

Going back to Guggisberg and Weir (2009), they put forward the idea that violence is omnipresent, that it is everywhere in society and that what is defined as violence is actually determined by the society and cultures we live within, they also open up the idea of what is ‘reasonable force’ and when is it suitable to use this force They continue by suggesting that suitable force used in one country or culture may not be an acceptable means in another (Guggisberg and Weir, 2009:1). Riedel and Welsh (2001) also explore the area of reasonable force however they do go as far as to associate it with social activities. An example of this would sports violence, which is not only legal but acceptable, examples of this would be professional fighting, like Cage fighting, where the opponents fight each other in the ring, however if this fighting where on the street or ‘underground fighting’ then this would be deemed violence and would be illegal to most cultures. However, there would be a subculture group who would still find this an acceptable activity, but the mainstream culture would not (Riedel and Welsh, 2001:2).

As violence has such a large scope, this paper will now turn attention to Understanding Criminal Violence. Now that the definitions of violence have been established, the following section will look at explanations of criminal violence for the Biological, Psychological and Sociological Perspectives.

When does violence become criminal?

Criminal violence Megargee (1982) argues is a subcategory, of the sub category of violence. He carries on to argue that violence can be further subdivided as “angry and instumental”.

Angry has the injury of the target as its primary objective, and is further reinforced by the suffering of the victim. On the other hand Instrumental violence ‘is extreme aggression employed in some other end’(Megargee, 1982:86).

Culture, society and law, deem certain acts as illegal and criminal violence is reserved for acts that involve realtively serious physical or psychological injury or property destruction.

Every country has a Criminal Justice System with their own categories of crime, and some countries will have different laws and opinions on what violent crime is.

An instance of this would be female mutilation, in the UK

In the United Kingdom, violent crime is currenty divided into Three main categories, which are; Violence against the person; Sexual Offences and Robbery. Althought this may appear to seem a rather small number of categories, the scope of these categories is rather large. An exampple of this is the category of violence against the person; this include, homicide, threats/conspiracy to murder; moreserious wounding and other offences, however there was an a change to what was deemed violent crime in 1998, and this saw the inclusion of common assualt and assualt against a constable.Althought classified violent crime, some of these crimes will result in no injury but may have serious psychological effect on the target. The introduction of these new offences have helped raise the number of recorded violent offences by 250,000 by 1999 ( Thorpe and Robb, 2006 as cited in Maguire et al, 2006:693).

Biological Explanation’s for Criminal Violence

As this part of the paper will be looking at explain why people may be subject to participating in violent acts more than others would do. One explanation put forward is under the Biological and Genetic perspective of Violence. The contention here is that people may have a predisposition to violent or aggressive behavior, due to no fault of their own. Much of the literature surrounding this topic indicates that, people often have a predisposition or a weakness for violent behavior due to defects in the brain, genetics, gender and hormones. Jasmine Tehrani and Sarnoff Mednick (2000), indicate that there is often a confusion between ‘biological’ and ‘genetic’ terminology, mainly because they overlap in what is being discussed. However, each of these have their own inclusive factors such as the biological theories lie in the psycho-physiological, physiological, biochemical, neurological and genetics relationships to violent crime. The genetic factors theory lies in traits, inherited by the individual from their parents.

There is various discussion on the etiology of criminal behavior in particular those which are of a violent/ aggressive or nature.This has lead to various forms of research, which includes the study of, Twins and adoption, this particular research looks at the genetic influences on criminal behaviour. In the case of violent offenders Tehrani and Mednick (2000), examine the study and suggest that the evidence is not as clear as first thought. Tehrani and Mednick suggest that there is more evidence to support that violent behaviour is not hereditary but violence is a consequence of the individual having genetically inherited mental illness or alcoholism (Tehrani and Mednick, 2000).

Further research into violent crime and offenders has come from Adrian Raine (1995). Who carried out brain imaging research, which appears to have revealed a new relationship between the individual and their predisposition to violence and why they participate in violent offending.

Adrian Raine’s research in 1995 on brain functioning and genetic composition concluded with a groundbreaking hypothesis and this still hold particular interest of the many writers on the subject of biological predispositions to violent crime/behaviour. These results showed that there was a difference in the way that the violent criminal’s brains responded compared to that of a control group. He found this by comparing 22 murderers to 22 carefully matched control subjects the researchers found that the murderers had much lower levels of glucose uptake in the prefrontal cortex. Raine further explains his research as having found that ‘Damage to this brain region, can result in impulsivity, loss of self-control, immaturity, altered emotionality, and the inability to modify behaviour, which can all in turn facilitate aggressive acts. Other abnormalities seen in the murderers included reduced glucose metabolism in the superior parietal gyrus, left angular gyrus, and the corpus callosum, and abnormal asymmetries of activity in the amygdala, thalamus, and medial temporal lobe’. Defects of these brain areas, the researchers say, have been associated with violence or to cognitive defects associated with criminality (Raine, 1997:495-508).

The hypothesis that biological factors have a place in understanding that individuals have a predisposition to having violent tendencies, appears to be not only to cover a vast array of topics but also it appears to hold some weight. Positive links have been found through research by such people as Raine (1997) and other studies have been refuted to a degree, as the Tehranio and Mednick (2000) suggest in regards to the twins and adoption research.

Psychological Hypothesis of Violent Crime

Literature on this particular subject is vast and varied and again there are many hypotheses that have to be considered when looking at the psychopathology of a person and their behaviour, particularly violent behaviour. These views and hypotheses refer to people as having predispositions to certain types of behaviour and that how those behaviours may arise from personality characteristics, biological issues and social interactions.

Sigmund Freud (1861), founder of the Psychoanalytical Theory, hypothesized that the most common element that contributed to criminal behaviour was the faulty identification by a child with their parents. Freud (1861), argue that early socialisation is important and if this process is twisted or warped in anyway then the child may develop a disturbed personality. Freud (1861) advocates that depending on how the child projects their antisocial impulses; either internally or externally, would determine whether the child would become neurotic or a criminal (Freud, 1861).

Larry Siegel (2009) examines research by Barbara Otnow Lewis on children who kill. Lewis suggests that theses children may suffer from the effects of having multiple psychological abnormalities such as neurological impairment, low intelligence, and psychotic problems such as paranoia, illogical thinking and hallucinations. Although, Siegel (2009) does go on to remind us that Lewis’ research is not unique, and that other types of research have found correlations between abnormal personalities such as dishonesty, aggression, depression pathological lying borderline personality syndrome and psychopathology and various forms of violent behaviour.

James W. Kalat (2008) examines the frustration-aggression hypothesis, which was discussed in (Dollard et al:1939), which looks at the main cause of anger and aggression and that is frustration. Frustration explains Kalat (2008), is ‘an obstacle that stands in the way of doing something or obtaining some expected reinforcer’ (Kalat, 2008). Kalat (2008) discusses this further and suggests that frustration makes a person angry and only when you actually believe this person has done something to you intentionally. For example a person bumps into you in the pub and spills a drink over you. You would be angry and frustrated and therefore you would believe that they had intended to do what was actually an accident.

Leonard Berokowitz (1983), takes this a stage further and offers a more in depth theory where he suggests the fight or flight impulse. Here the similarity lies with that of frustration-aggression theory, however, for Berkowitz the person with be faced with an unpleasant frustration and the will trigger the sympathetic nervous system into fight or flight mode. He suggests that if you are in the scenario above, and you think that you can take on the person without any harm coming to you then you may decide to attack the person, however if you feel that you will come off the worst you may just decide to leave it. What Berkowitz (1983), was suggesting was that you choose how you react and your choice is dependent on the circumstances.

When looking at the psychological hypothesis for criminal acts of violence, the literature informs us that there is usually some form of personality or psychological disorder. The idea here is that the person who committed the crime has developed a corrupt or defective personality, which is based on conflict, impulsiveness and aggression. This person will also have no ability to show empathy, remorse or guilt for their actions, they also have no sense of right or wrong. The childhood for the psychological perspective is relevant, as they believe that the problems caused there will cause deviant behaviour later in life. However, the literature does not suggest that the problem lies with the violent reactions, they are just that reactions, the problem does however, lie within the mental illness.

Sociological Hypothesis of Violent Crime

The sociological approach looks to the individual’s environment in an attempt to understand why the person behaves in the way that they do.

Sociologists have adopted the behaviourist theory of Albert Bandura (1977). This theory is The Social Learning Theory, where Bandura (1977), suggests that aggression and violence is actually learned through the process of behaviour modelling (Bandura, 1977). Bandura rejected the idea that people inherited violence or aggression tendencies, and he showed through his research that violence is in fact learned.

Bandura (1977), argued that people particularly children, can and will learn violent behaviour form their peers, media and the environment that they live in. His research came for the Bobo Doll experiment, where he showed half his sample group adults being violent to a Bobo Doll, and the other half the adult being nice to the doll. The half that were exposed to the violence towards the doll, then went on to display the same violent behaviour to the same doll, whereas, the other group reacted positively to the doll. This claimed Bandura showed that a child has the ability to model behaviour if they receive the right reinforcement. The reinforcement in this particular case was not punishment for being violent or misbehaving.

Reinforcement for Bandura is a key issue in violence or aggressive behaviour. When looked at the issues of media violence, Bandura believed that if a young person were to watch a violent film, where the “Hero” used a gun and the young person saw that the “Hero” was getting some gain, like money or a girl or adoration, then in theory the young person would know how to use a gun. This would happen through observational learning, and that young person would know how to hold a gun and what to do to shot someone, however they may not fully understand the consequences, but they would be capable of re-enacting the scene.

Many sociologists have expanded Bandura’s theory to suit their own views such as Edwin Sutherland (1939), whose theory was Differential Association, argued that individuals learn motives for criminal behaviour, values, attitudes and techniques, when they are young for their peer groups (Sutherland 1939:25). This indicates like Bandura (1977), that people can learn anything, from motivation to commit the offence through to actually committing the offence. Sutherland (1939), argues that people lives are defines by their own personal experiences, and use these experiences to frame their future actions.

Both of these contentions appear to suggest that violence breeds violence, in other words what an individual is exposed to in their early years; such as violent reaction, may result in that individual responding the same way.

Although this paper has looked at the sociological theory from learning behaviours, attitudes and values, it does not however ignore other theorist such as Albert Cohen’s 1995 Sub-Culture Theory of Delinquent Gangs and other theorists. It has been highlighted however, to show there was a common thread of thought that behaviour could be learned.

Through this paper there has been an examination of how best to understand violence and in particular criminal violence. The paper has discussed the definition of violence, what turns violence into a criminal matter, and what crimes are deemed violent. Then the focus turns to Biological, Psychological and Sociological perspectives of understanding why people act in an aggressive or violent manner. The explanations are vast and varied like the Biological hypothesis such as predispositions to violent behaviour, due to mental illness or antisocial personality disorder, genetics etc. Psychological hypothesis such as, how they deal with aggression or violence psychologically, through frustration-aggression hypothesis or the fight or flight theory and the Sociological hypothesis of learning the behaviour, values and motives form peer groups.

Fourth Year Dissertation Research Project: “Prison Based Violence”

The following part of this paper shall look at further research I am interested in following up in my dissertation year. The particular topic I will be following up is “Violence in Prison’s”. I wish to look further into how many people are caught up in prison violence, how often it occurs, why it occurs and what their reactions are to their experience of prison violence. I would like to carry out a survey of prisoners, using a semi structures questionnaire. The reason for this is that I feel it would make more sense to ask both open and closed question, as I feel this would allow me to access qualitative data, in regards to trends and patterns and it would also give a better chance of the person revealing information that I may not have looked at.

Sample Size

I would conduct my research with approx 50 prisoners. There would be no limitations, on who was included in the research, as this would help to make it random. A voluntary sample would in my opinion be the best way of forming a sample group.

I understand that there are both strengths and weaknesses to this form of research and these are:


The questionnaire would be used to accumulate the required data quickly.

The participants have the chance to give their points of view.

Full confidentiality for the respondent, therefore they can answer honestly without fear of reprisal.

The questionnaire would be only around 20 questions.


Risk of questions being interpreted differently by each respondent.

If I was using a large sample group then, I may have difficulty processing all the information.

It may be difficult to access willing participants.


These are the assumptions I would have to make if I was given access to complete this questionnaire.

Prisoner has access to pen or pencil.

Prisoner can read and write.

Prisoner has mental capability to understand the questions posed.

That the prisoner is being honest and not exaggerating

That the prison staff would be willing participants, in helping me, by collecting the questionnaires in for me to collect.

In addition to this research questionnaire, I would also do library-based research, where I would look at specific material such as, recorded prison violence statistics, theories on prison violence and how violence in prison is dealt with.

I feel that other than gaining access through the questionnaire, there should be not ethical issues that would prevent me doing this research.


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Jasmine Tehrani and Sarnoff Mednick 2000: Crime Causation: Biological Theories – Genetic Epidemiological Studies, Gene-environment Interactions, Sex Differences In Genetic Liability To Criminality, Is There A Genetic Liability To Violence Accessed on 28th March 2010: 21.00pm.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/apr/20/tonymartin.ukcrime3 :

Audrey Gillan, (2000), Guardian.co.uk news article on Tony Martin, accessed on 27th March 20011:05.17am

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Understanding Violence and Criminal Violence. (2019, Apr 01). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/social-scientist-methodological-essay-dissertation-proposal-understanding-violence-and-criminal-violence/

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