There are many different definitions of interpersonal violence. For example, some include inflicting verbal or emotional harm as violence, while others do not. Some specify that intent to cause harm by the perpetrator be present, while others do not. The National Academy of Sciences defines interpersonal violence as any behavior by an individual that intentionally threatens, attempts, or inflicts physical harm on others.
It is also helpful to classify acts of interpersonal violence into subtypes. One distinction is between instrumental and expressive acts of violence. Instrumental acts of violence are those in which violence is a means to an end, such as an armed robbery. The threat of force or actual use of force in cases of robbery is used to help accomplish the robbery, but it is not an end in and of itself. Expressive acts of violence, on the other hand, are those in which the motivations are expressive of some emotional state, such as anger or jealousy. In these cases, the violence serves to fulfill some internal or intrinsic desire. As the name implies, the violence is expressing something. Acts of interpersonal violence can also be categorized into different crime types, such as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault.
Acts of interpersonal violence are often private and hidden, such as violence that occurs in the home. As such, estimating the magnitude of interpersonal violence is difficult. For many reasons, including the stigma attached to some types of violence such as rape and intimate partner (e.g., spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend) violence, the fear of perpetrators retaliating, and numerous other safety concerns, estimating incidence rates of interpersonal violence has always been difficult. Scholars, policymakers, and activists alike typically rely on a number of different sources of data for information on the nature and scope of interpersonal violence, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Reports To Police
The most enduring source of statistical information about violent crime in the United States is the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The UCR has collected information about criminal incidents of violence that have been reported to the police since 1930. These data rely on voluntary participation in the program by state, county, and city law enforcement agencies across the United States.
For the crime of homicide, information about both the victim and the offender (e.g., the gender and race of both, the relationship between the victim and offender, the weapon utilized) is obtained in a separate reporting program called the Supplementary Homicide Reports. Unfortunately, such detailed information is not collected for other crimes in the UCR. To remedy this problem, in 1988 the FBI implemented a change in its collection of crime information that includes more characteristics of the incident and is appropriately called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
NIBRS data are very specific and include many more offenses and many details of an incident for which local agencies must report, including the characteristics of the victim such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, and resident status and characteristics of lost property. In all, NIBRS categorizes each incident and arrest in one of 22 basic crime categories that span 46 separate offenses. A total of 53 data elements about the victim, property, and the offender are collected under NIBRS. Not surprisingly, it takes a great deal of time and money to make this change and fill out this paper work at the local police department level. Consequently, only about half of all states currently use the NIBRS format for collecting information about reported crimes.
Both the UCR and the NIBRS data collection methods are problematic when estimating incidence rates of violence primarily because if victimizations are not reported to police, they are never counted in either data collection effort in the first place. This condition is particularly problematic for certain types of violence, such as rape and violence that occurs between intimates such as spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends. A large percentage of these victimizations are never reported to police. In fact, based on comparisons with national survey data, it is estimated that only about 40%–50% of crimes become known to police.
Random Sample Surveys
Because of this weakness in police reports, random sample surveys of the population have begun to be used as the social science tool of choice for uncovering incidents of violent victimization. However, as can be imagined, surveys employing diverse methodologies and different definitions of violence have resulted in tremendously diverse estimates. Taking violence against women as an example, survey estimates of how many women experience violence by an intimate partner annually range from 9.3 per 1,000 women to 116 per 1,000 women. Further, the methodological differences across survey methodologies often prevent a direct comparison of estimates across studies.
Without going into too much detail, to estimate incidence rates of the general population, surveys must be based on probability sampling theory, meaning that respondents in a survey must be randomly selected. This theory means that every person in the population of interest has an equal probability of being selected, ensuring that a sample will be representative of the population to which one wishes to make a generalization.
Because of space limitations, this essay reviews only two surveys used to measure various types of interpersonal violence. The first was designed to more accurately measure crime victimization and is sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is called the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Instead of focusing on victimizations, the second survey is designed to measure the offending behavior of adolescents, and is called the National Youth Survey (NYS).
The NCVS interviews over 65,000 individuals ages 12 or older annually and is the second largest ongoing survey sponsored by the U.S. government. It measures both violent and property crime victimizations. But asking respondents to recall incidents of victimization is a tricky business. After several changes and redesigns, the NCVS currently uses the following screening questions:
- Other than any incidents already mentioned, has anyone attacked or threatened you in any of these ways: (a) with any weapon—for instance, a gun or knife; (b) with anything like a baseball bat, frying pan, scissors, or a stick; (c) by something thrown, such as a rock or bottle; (d) include any grabbing, punching, or choking; (e) any rape, attempted rape, or other type of sexual attack; (f) any face to face threats; and/or (g) any attack or threat or use of force by anyone at all? Please mention it even if you are not certain it was a crime.
- Incidents involving forced or unwanted sexual acts are often difficult to talk about. Have you been forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity by (a) someone you didn’t know before, (b) a casual acquaintance, and/or (c) someone you know well? If respondents reply affirmatively to one of these latter questions, interviewers next ask, “Do you mean forced or coerced sexual intercourse?” to determine whether the incident should be recorded as rape or as another type of sexual attack.
- People often don’t think of incidents committed by someone they know. Did you have something stolen from you, or were you attacked or threatened by (a) someone at work or school, (b) a neighbor or friend, (c) a relative or family member, and/or (d) any other person you have met or known?
Notice that these screening questions rely on very behavior-specific wording instead of asking directly about victimizations using crime jargon such as “Have you ever been robbed?” This wording is important. A great deal of survey research has demonstrated that asking questions using behaviors instead of terms uncovers a significantly greater number of victimizations, particularly when victims may not self-identify as crime victims. Asking people about their experiences in this way uncovers many more victimizations than those reported only to police.
Relying on police reports to estimate who is most likely to perpetrate acts of violence suffers the same problems as using these data to estimate who is most likely to be victimized. Are offenders who are arrested for violent offending actually representative of all offenders? The quick answer is no. In fact, early self-report surveys of offending behavior in the 1940s revealed that a relatively large number of committed offenses were not detected by the police. For example, although police report data at the time indicated offenders were more likely to be minorities from low socioeconomic backgrounds, self-report data revealed that a great number of self-reported offenses in surveys were being reported by people from relatively privileged backgrounds, but these offenses rarely came to the attention of the police. If they did, they rarely resulted in an arrest. Based on these early studies, researchers interested in offending behavior, like those interested in victimization, began to rely on survey methodology instead of police reports.
One of the most thorough contemporary surveys to measure offending behavior is the National Youth Survey (NYS), which was first collected in 1976 from a national probability sample of 11to 17-year-olds. These youth were interviewed many times during the following years, with the last interview collected in 1995. The questions used to measure the violent offending behavior in the NYS are also behaviorally specific instead of relying on the use of crime categories and labels. For example, respondents are asked if they had carried a hidden weapon other than a plain pocket knife, attacked someone with the idea of seriously hurting or killing him or her, been involved in a gang fight, and/or tried to take something from someone with the use of force or with the threat of force.
In sum, there is a great deal of evidence that documents the large gap between the true extent of victimization and offending and the amount of crime known to police. The major sources of this gap are the inability of police to observe all criminal activity and the reluctance of crime victims and witnesses to report crime to the police. In addition, there is a great deal of variability in estimates of violent victimization and offending across survey methodologies. Generally, surveys that employ behaviorally specific questions with many cues about various types of offenders, including intimates and other known offenders, are more valid than those that do not.
- Alvarez, A., & Bachman, R. (2008). Violence: The enduring problem. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Reiss, A. J., & Roth, J. A. (1993). Understanding and preventing violence. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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