Crime in Developing Countries Research Paper

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At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the prevalent conception of societal change is still encapsulated by the term development (Escobar). Definitions vary, but many emphasize a relatively optimistic view of history (often called modernization) in which development refers to the increased use of technology, increased generation of wealth, and increased attention to democratic procedures and human rights in government. Even critical visions of history recognize the semantic dominance of the term, while disputing its content: Marxist scholars typically refer to underdevelopment to describe the negative consequences generated by the exploitative links between richer and poorer countries. Since the 1990s, much attention has focused on rapid increases in global interconnection, but the attendant conceptual framework—globalization—has yet to dethrone development as the dominant perspective on societal change.

When understood as modernization, development includes the growth of science, and therefore criminology. Indeed, historical and contemporary descriptions show that the evolution of criminology closely parallels the process of economic growth. Thus, the discipline came into existence as the industrial revolution was being born in western Europe, and subsequently spread as other parts of the world achieved economic progress. Social control, of course, is found in every society. But criminology—the application of scientific methods to the crime problem—has developed unevenly around the world. The bulk of research on crime is to be found in the wealthiest nations, although wealth is not a perfect correlate of criminological activity.

The concept of development not only serves to illuminate the history of criminology, but also provides a lens through which many criminologists see the world. Given the widely embraced goal of producing general explanations of crime, which hold across time and place, the comparative dearth of information on the poorer countries is a problem. In the rudimentary regional terminology common to developmental perspectives, explanations originating in the developed countries might not be valid in the developing countries; hence the need to test theories there. However, different levels of development also provoke an alternative approach to theorizing because they focus attention on the association between societal change and crime. Crossnational studies of development and crime offer the tempting possibility of theoretically significant findings based on samples of developed and developing countries, thereby avoiding the parochialism that apparently plagues much of the discipline.

Nevertheless, the cumulative result of criminological inquiry over the last twenty years reveals the problems of adopting a developmental perspective on crime. The simple division of the world into developed and developing countries is now beginning to look simplistic; the theoretical utility of development as an explanatory concept for crime seems limited. While the process of development is of central importance for understanding the rise of criminology, the concept of development is not of central importance for understanding crime. The continuing global diffusion of the discipline may be relatively unobjectionable, but the conceptual framework of development is likely to be discarded in the future.

Information on Crime and Criminal Justice

The comparative state of information on crime and criminal justice around the world should not blind us entirely to absolute standards of evaluation. Thus, although data systems in the richest countries are well established, they are still inadequate in many ways (Lynch). Similarly, it is all too easy to assume that little or nothing exists in the developing world, a state of affairs belied by the growing volume of databases and edited collections that routinely include developing countries (e.g., Barak; Heiland et al.). Governments in developing countries have included at least basic information-gathering on crime and criminal justice as part of their bureaucratic routine for quite some time. Moreover, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and other research groups have recently begun collecting more information on crime, partly in response to the perceived crisis in personal safety in many developing countries.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that databases in the developing countries offer shorter time series, with larger gaps and fewer variables for the criminologist. The United Nations’ Global Report on Crime and Justice, compiled with mainly official statistics in the late 1990s, was able to include ninety-one of the world’s two hundred or so countries, but the developing countries were greatly underrepresented (Newman). The situation is similar if we examine the most important alternative to official statistics on crime and criminal justice: the International Crime Victim Survey (ICVS). The ICVS is a standardized survey asking questions about household and personal victimizations, reporting to the police, and subjects’ fear of crime. Its first three sweeps (1989, 1992, 1996) included fifty-five countries, but the proportional representation of developing countries was much lower (van Dijk). Moreover, the sample frame in the developed countries was national, but in developing countries it was confined to a major urban area. While a global count of other victim surveys would be difficult to accomplish, there seems little reason to doubt that they have also been more abundant in the developed nations. Finally, self-report surveys of involvement in crime and delinquency appear to repeat the same pattern. The first International Self-Report Delinquency Study, asking males and females aged fourteen to twentyone about involvement in common delinquent acts, was confined to thirteen developed countries, and other cross-national projects using this type of survey methodology are uncommon. Examples of single self-report studies from developing countries can be found, but far less frequently than in the developed countries.

The reasons for the comparative lack of data on crime in developing countries have not been systematically studied, but are probably not hard to find. Undoubtedly the scarcity of resources is a major contributing factor. With a sevenfold difference in gross national product between richer and poorer countries, it is not surprising that governments in the developing world dedicate relatively little attention to information gathering. An additional reason may be that governmental social control is less salient in developing countries and therefore many crimes, and responses to crime, are unrecorded. Numerous studies describe patterns of crime and responses to crime in preliterate societies, rural communities, and low income urban neighborhoods where official intervention is rare (Abel). Finally, governmental crime control in many developing countries appears to make less use of planning, with its typical emphasis on the production of quality data for diagnosis, policy development, and evaluation. If decision-making is not based on systematic information, there is less interest in fostering data collection.

If these are the causes of the comparative lack of data in developing countries, it is evident that substantial improvements will not be rapid. It is by no means certain that poorer nations will get wealthier, that governments will penetrate and consolidate their hold over national territories, or that politicians will overcome their resistance to statistics. The most promising area for criminology is in international initiatives to encourage or support increased data gathering, such as the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operation of Justice Systems, which have been conducted every five years since 1977, or the growing number of cross-national studies supported by national or international funding agencies. The databases that result from these projects will help to provide better answers to the questions asked by both practitioners and theoreticians in criminology (Howard et al.).

Studies of crime in developing countries are not only hampered by missing cases and variables, but also by the often formidable difficulties involved in constructing comparisons for any international data set (Neapolitan). One problem involves varied legal definitions of crime. Burglary, for example, is recognized as a separate type of theft in common law countries, but not in civil code countries. A second problem involves varied perceptions of what constitutes a crime. Hitting a child, taking property without permission, and making gifts to public officials, for example, have no constant moral or legal status around the world. Third, levels of crime-reporting and police-recording diligence are also variable. Neuman and Berger’s speculation that officially recorded crime rates are related to levels of development has received recent support from data on reporting rates for common crimes: they are highest in the New World (North America, Australia, New Zealand) and Western Europe, lowest in Latin America and Asia (van Dijk).

Confronted by these problems, comparisons based on official statistics are best confined to homicide because its definition tends to be less varied than those of other types of crime, while the seriousness of murder leads to recording rates that are closer to 100 percent (LaFree). Official rates of other types of crime are better treated at face value (a measure of police knowledge of crimes), or at most as a surrogate measure of public demand for police intervention. Thus, if comparisons based on official statistics must be restricted to one of the least frequent offenses, alternative measures of crime are extremely important. While victimization surveys have considerable limitations, they are able to measure a range of common crimes and eliminate most of the legal, if not the cultural, variation in the definition of crime. For that reason, the relatively standardized information collected through the ICVS represents a notable recent addition to our knowledge about crime in developing countries, although it must be remembered that the samples are drawn exclusively from large urban areas.

Crime Rates and Trends in Developing Countries

Comparisons based on official homicide rates and ICVS data reveal quite similar regional patterns. Latin America and Africa lead the world in crime rates. Western Europe and the New World have relatively low crime rates, but not always the lowest, for those are also to be found—depending on the specific comparison— in the Arab or Asian countries. For common crimes (property crimes that affect households, and thefts, assaults, and sexual incidents involving individuals), the ICVS finds that the rate of victimization over the previous five years in urban areas is lowest in Asia (excluding Japan; 45.0%), highest in Latin America (76.6%) and Africa (74.0%), while both the New World and Western Europe are close to the mean (van Dijk). When broken down by type of victimization, this pattern is largely repeated, except for car related crimes (car theft, theft from cars, car vandalism), which are considerably more frequent in the New World and Western Europe, most probably reflecting the much larger number of cars in those countries.

Officially recorded homicide rates show a similar pattern. Rates are highest in Latin America and Africa, lower in North America, eastern Europe, and South Asia, and lowest in the Arab states and western Europe. However, the magnitude of these differences is greater than in the victimization data: the median homicide rate in Latin American countries is nearly nine times that of the Arab countries. White collar crime, as measured by a question in the 1996 ICVS about the solicitation of bribes by government officials during the previous year, was most prevalent in Latin America (21.3%), Africa (18.8%), and Asia (14.6%), moderately high in central and eastern Europe (10.7%), and lowest in western Europe and the New World (1% or less).

There is almost no comparative analysis of trends in crime rates in the developed and developing countries. However, van Dijk reports that victimization rates have declined in the most industrialized countries, while there is no evidence of a similar decline in other parts of the world. The relative recency of the ICVS means that this finding should be treated as provisional.

What these results suggest is that a simple division of the world into developed and developing countries, at least based on cross-sectional crime rates, is problematic. The fact that regions of the developing world tend to lie at both extremes on measures of prevalence indicates that differences between developing countries are greater than the differences between the developing and developed worlds. The long-standing but frequently ignored caution from criminologists to avoid oversimplified generalizations about regional crime patterns has not lost its relevance. Moreover, this finding also implies that attempts to link development and crime rates are likely to face uncooperative data.

Explaining Crime in Developing Countries

Criminologists working in both developed and developing countries occasionally insinuate that crime in developing countries requires a separate explanation. However, such an enterprise contradicts the generally accepted goal of parsimony in theorizing. While every culture in the world has the potential for generating rich insights into the nature and causes of crime, any explanation of crime in developing countries should also be an explanation of crime in the developed countries.

The development of criminology has confined almost all theorizing to the developed world, thereby raising nagging doubts about the generality of its propositions (Beirne and Nelken). But the regional imagery inherent in developmental terminology obscures the complex relationship between theories and places. As with the state of data, the comparative progress of theory testing should not blind us to absolute progress. The tendency is to assume that theories originating in the developed world have received substantial empirical support there, making tests in developing countries the crucial arbiter of generality. In fact, tests in the developed world are neither numerous nor consistently supportive, such that the empirical validity of these theories is still an open—and global—question. For example, Travis Hirschi’s control theory, one of the discipline’s most influential perspectives, had been tested seventy-one times by 1991, all of them in developed countries. Yet many methodological difficulties had been encountered in those tests, and the validity of the theory has not been definitely confirmed or negated (Kempf). Thus, tests of criminological theories in the varied social and cultural environments of developing countries, while almost nonexistent, are of potentially great value.

An alternative route to theoretical progress, and one that starts by including at least some developing countries, has been the search for associations between diverse measures of development and the rate or type of crime in cross-national samples. Typical variables are urbanization, income inequality, unemployment, and age structure, and findings have varied quite substantially, due to the use of different developmental indicators, different measures of crime, different samples, and different statistical models (Bennett). The heterogeneous crime rates within the developing world, discussed in the previous section, also underline the difficulty of finding robust associations between development and crime.

Using data for forty-nine countries from the ICVS, van Dijk found that higher rates for the most serious household and personal victimizations were substantially accounted for by a greater proportion of the population living in larger cities, a higher proportion of young males who are dissatisfied with their household income, and a lower level of affluence. Victimization rates for all personal crimes were positively correlated with the proportion of young males dissatisfied with household income, the rate of gun ownership, and affluence; and negatively correlated with the average level of education. Studies of homicide tend to find that homicide rates are positively correlated with economic inequality and population growth, negatively related to economic development, industrialization, and urbanization, and unrelated to unemployment, social or cultural heterogeneity, and the proportion of young people in the population (LaFree). Overall, these findings reveal that the correlates of specific crime types are not the same, making it difficult to summarize the impact of development on crime.

Notwithstanding the variability in results, criminologists have attempted to link development and crime through recourse to several theories (Neuman and Berger). A common strategy starts from Durkheim’s study of societal change, highlighting the relatively abrupt transition from traditional to modern social systems and the consequent disruption of normative standards. This leads to an argument that increased crime in developing countries results from weakened social controls. Other studies start from Durkheim’s concept of anomie and postulate economic stress, or strain, as the primary explanation. Although they work from a different theoretical foundation, Marxist criminologists arrive at a similar hypothesis about the positive correlation between economic inequality and crime rates. Finally, some criminologists have adopted a situational perspective, arguing that development increases the opportunity for most forms of property crime, but decreases the ecological prerequisites for violent encounters.

Unfortunately, researchers are often vague about the theoretical link between development and crime. Probably a major reason for this is that measures of development are operationally distant from the two concepts that dominate criminology’s efforts to explain crime: motivation and opportunity. For example, inequality is a measure of the concentration of income in a national population, which indicates nothing directly about the motivation to commit crime. Nevertheless, it has been used as a measure of both normative disruption and strain. Similarly, urbanization has been used as an indicator of both motivation and opportunity. When the same variable can be interpreted in different ways, its theoretical utility is greatly reduced. Given that developmental indicators are limited to those gathered by governments, covering basic demographic, economic, and social characteristics but nothing so sophisticated or abstract as criminal motivation and opportunity, the most that can be expected from the development and crime literature are informed speculations about the causes of crime in developing countries, but not the rigorous evaluation of theory.

Responses to Crime in Developing Countries

The last two centuries have witnessed the diffusion of criminal justice models from developed to developing countries, initially through colonization, subsequently through technical missions and consultants (Gómez Buendía). In developing countries, criminal codes and procedures, models of police organization, and prison systems all bear signs of the influence of the developed countries—a situation that has prompted much research, often critical, into the assimilation process. Rather than simple organizational transfer, the evolution of criminal justice systems in developing countries has involved selective appropriation and frequent creolization (adaptation) of Western models of crime control (Salvatore and Aguirre).

Against this background of relatively slow institutional change, concerns over crime in the late twentieth century produced some important short-term responses in developing countries. Statistics indicate that citizens are making more demands for police services, as measured by the increasing numbers of crimes reported to the police, and that urban inhabitants are reporting high levels of concern about personal safety and the protection of property (Zvekic and Alvazzi del Frate). Support for legal punishment, especially imprisonment, and for dubiously legal actions such as police shootings of civilians, is comparatively high. However, criminal justice agencies are perceived as inefficient and sometimes threatening, leading to the selective expansion of informal social control, especially greater protective measures, together with the exercize of, or support for, direct action against offenders, such as lynchings. Crime, and the fear of crime, have come to dominate and shape the urban ambiance in many developing countries (Caldeira).


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