Modernity Strikes Back? A Historical Perspective on the Latest Increase in Interpersonal Violence (1960–1990)


  • Manuel Eisner



There is a plethora of criminological explanations why criminal violence increased during the three decades between the early 1960s and the early 1990s. This paper argues that most available interpretations are lacking in three respects: they lack a historical perspective that anchors the three critical decades in a wider understanding of long-term trends; they take the nation-state as their unit of analysis and disregard important commonalities across the Western world; and they pay insufficient attention to different trends in broad categories of physical violence. This paper therefore takes a macro-level and long-term perspective on violent crime, focussing on European homicide during the past 160 years. It demonstrates that the period of increase was preceded by a long-term decline and convergence of homicide rates from the 1840s to the 1950s. Also, it shows that both the decline and the increase primarily resulted from temporal variation in the likelihood of physical aggression between men in public space. It argues that explanations of these common trends need to take into account broad long-term cultural change common to Western societies. In particular, the paper suggests that shifts in culturally transmitted and institutionally embedded ideals of the conduct of life may provide an explanation for long-term change in levels of interpersonal violence.


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