Homicide: The Social Reality

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Homicide: The Social Reality is a piece written by A Wallace. It is a part of required reading for the topic Introduction to Homicide in the Criminal Laws subject. It discusses the nature of homicide, and describes the real patterns of homicides as opposed to what the media portrays.


[1] Homicide is a unique crime, mainly because of its seriousness and the way it is perceived (eg, usually the only crime which attracts death penalty in Western Countries). Murder (which is regarded as a 'crime against humanity') occupies an constant place in the media, which usually portrays a cold, calculating killer driven by lust, greed or revenge. This hardly reflects the real position of most homicide. Rather, there are several patterns to homicide:

  1. Homicide is socially, historically and culturally determined rather than the random action of deranged or pathological individuals. For example:
    • Homicide varies greatly among different cultures in its nature.
      • Constructive/felony murders (when homicide occurs during the attempt to commit a serious crime) are common in the US, but relatively uncommon in England and Australia.
      • Murder-suicides form a large percentage of murders in England/Wales, but only a small proportion of those in Scotland.
      • Fraternal homicides are much more common in agricultural societies like India, but far less common in industrialized Western societies.
    • Even within the same jurisdiction, changes can occur.
      • Homicide has more than doubled in the US in recent years, but has remained fairly stable in Australia.
      • Homicides based on feuds between rival lineages were fairly common in medieval England, they are obviously seldom occurring today in England.
    • It is not always possible to understand the patterns, but their diversity can be immediately appreciated.
  2. Homicide comprises a variety of offenders and victims in different social settings.
    • Qualitatively different homicides can be identified by the relationship between victim and offender, and the factual circumstances of the offences.
    • A murder involving a son who has been abused for years killing his father is very different to a jealous lover killing their love interest’s spouse.
    • Such variations are not random – they are the product of specific social determinants.
  3. Homicide in NSW is largely interpersonal in nature, rather than constructive or ideological.
    • In NSW, four out of five homicide cases arise out of interpersonal disputes.
    • Only a minority were constructive or ideological (just two).
    • Community fear tends to be located in the latter two types – but it is our most intimate companions that we should be most afraid of.
  4. The majority of interpersonal killings involved intimates.
    • Contrary to popular belief, murder is generally not the deranged actions of a random stranger.
    • Most victims have intimate or domestic connections with murderers.
    • Spouse homicides were particularly prominent – 31% in NSW. 3:1 were male to female. Even non-spousal killings tend to result from spousal conflict (eg, a jealous husband killing the wife’s lover).
  5. Homicide patterns reflect cultural norms.
    • There are two schools of thought on the social aspect of homicide:
      1. One contends that many forms of homicide are biological manifestations of primordial human instincts – such as neighbour-to-neighbour conflict.
      2. The other contends that patterns of homicide are largely socially determined; reflecting cultural attitudes toward woman spouses and children.
    • The text adopts the latter point of view, but it is a contentious issue.
    • See generally: nature vs. nurture debate.
  6. Homicide is a spontaneous rather than a premeditated crime.
    • The lethality of weapons is a big factor in homicides. Clearly, the more lethal the weapon, the more likely the assault will result in a death.
    • NSW data indicates a strong relationship between gun ownership and homicide.
  7. Homicide offenders exhibit a wide range of moral culpability.
    • Often, moral culpability becomes difficult to determine when held against the socioeconomic characteristics of offenders. The offender’s background clearly plays a large role. However, it often tends to pass unnoticed in favour of stereotyped views of ‘murderers’.


This is the end of this topic. Click here to go back to the main subject page for Criminal Laws.


Textbook refers to Brown et al, Criminal Laws: Materials and Commentary on Criminal Law and Process in New South Wales, (5th edition, Federation Press, 2011).

  1. A Wallace, Homicide: The Social Reality (1986) 1 in Textbook, pp. 425-7.
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