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When Common Crime Mirrors War: Untangling the Roots of Social Violence

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

According to the World Health Organization, in 2004 there were 182,000 war related deaths and 598,000 deaths due to interpersonal violence. In other words, deaths related to common crime were almost 3 times more recurrent than war casualties, yet social violence is studied more in the field of criminology and less in the conflict and development literature.

Generally, the study of social violence is limited to the impact of socio-economic factors on violence, which puts economic development and governance on the top of the agenda. From this perspective, it has been found that poverty and inequality can be highly correlated to murder rates. However, this approach in many cases has proven limited.

Take Venezuela, for example: with more than 19,000 homicides in 2011, Caracas has become one of the most violent cities in the world. According to the 2009 National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Citizen Insecurity, the murder rate in Venezuela reached 74.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants- in neighboring countries like Colombia and Mexico, the rate was 39 and 12 respectively. However, Venezuela’s GDP grew 4% percent in 2011 and is expected to grow 5% in 2012. At the same time, according to the UN’s 2012 State of the Cities in Latin America Report, Venezuela has the lowest rate of income inequality in the region. How can this be explained?

In an effort to incorporate other dimensions of social violence, recent research analyzed the impact of both socio-economic and political-institutional factors in 120 countries. Using data from the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Project as an indicator of social violence for the years 2002 and 2004, researchers found that political regimes that are weakly institutionalized or ‘hybrid’ in nature -as opposed to strong autocratic or democratic regimes- are more prone to social violence. In other words, the role of institutional strength and compliance can be paramount when understanding social violence.

Researchers also found that although risk factors such as the type of political regime and the levels of poverty, ethnic diversity and inequality have an impact on both political and social violence, it is not simple to decipher the way these factors interact and can affect levels of violence. Moreover, in the case of inequality, they noticed that there can be different kinds of inequality that have different impacts. For example, horizontal inequality relates more to political and ideological differences and less to economic inequalities. This may shed some light on the Venezuelan case, where political polarization and institutional fragilities are substantial.

As the role of socio-economic and political factors become clearer, future research could focus on the effects that political and economic transitions have on violence levels. Especially as social violence seems to rise in a manner that sharply contrasts with the global decline in organized armed conflict.


Fox, S., and Hoelscher, K. (2012). Political order, development and social violence. Journal of Peace Research, 49(3), 431–444.


Kyong Mazzaro

Kyong Mazzaro supports the coordination and management of research agendas as Project Coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining AC4, Kyong Mazzaro was… MORE >

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