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This research paper addresses the research literature exploring the nature and extent of rural crime in the United States, and theoretical explanations of rural crime. First, it is important to develop an understanding of what is meant by the term rural. The definition of a rural community has been debated by social scientists for quite some time, and differences in the definition of rural have implications for our understanding of rural crime.
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Much of the criminological literature has ignored rural-urban differences in crime rates, and theories have commonly been tested using large cities as the unit of analysis. If crime were exclusively a large-city phenomenon, such a focus would be justified. However, the existence of rural crime, and differences in the rates and types of such crime, have important implications for criminological theories.
Much confusion exists in the criminological literature over rural-urban distinctions. In most cases, theoretical distinctions by rural and urban sociologists have been ignored, and criminologists have employed simple, arbitrary cutoff points to distinguish rural from urban areas. In some instances, in fact, commentators have designated entire states as rural or urban. For example, a report prepared for the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s, which claimed that crime rates in rural America were increasing, noted:
America’s rural towns, villages, and small communities are suffering a plague of violent crime, drug trafficking, and drug abuse. The latest crime figures show that the violent crime toll is growing faster in rural America than large urban states; faster in rural states than in even America’s largest cities. These reports document rural America’s skyrocketing criminal violence—murders, rapes, robberies, and violent attacks are growing at an astonishing pace. (U.S. Senate Majority Staff Report)
This report reached these stunning conclusions by classifying some states as rural and then comparing percentage changes in Uniform Crime Report data for these ‘‘rural states’’ with two of the most populous states, California and New York. As Ronet Bachman points out, classifying a unit of analysis as large as a state as rural is flawed, because at least one urban area exists within virtually every state.
Of course, these problems are not unique to recent examinations of rural-urban differences in crime rates. In the 1880s, one commentator classified states as rural or urban on the basis of their primary economic activity, and argued that ‘‘rural (agricultural) communities have ever been distinguished for good order and stability’’ (Pickard, p. 460). Noting that the ratio of offenders committed to prison to the total population in ‘‘agricultural states’’ was much lower than in ‘‘manufacturing states,’’ Pickard asserted that ‘‘the theory was founded in fact’’ (p. 461). In commenting on such gross distinctions that were prevalent in much of the literature, Sorokin and Zimmerman noted that the data brought to bear on empirical questions concerning rural and urban differences ‘‘often concern not the pure rural and urban groups, but groups which represent only a relative and remote approximation to them’’ (p. 37).
In the more contemporary context, Ralph Weisheit, David Falcone, and L. Edward Wells point out that the definition of rural utilized by researchers is an important consideration. In their review of over ninety studies on rural crime, the authors note that 62 percent gave no measurable definition of the term rural; they also note that some crime studies have even described cities with populations of up to 175,000 as rural or small town. As these authors suggest, despite the apparent simplicity of the concept of rural, there is nothing mechanical or straightforward about developing a working definition of it.
Weisheit et al. suggest, however, that there are four important dimensions of rural that need to be taken into account: (1) demographic; (2) economic; (3) social; and (4) cultural. The demographic dimension encompasses how many people are concentrated in an area, along with where they are located. Generally, one would expect rural areas to be geographically isolated, and physically removed from major urban centers. The economic dimension relates to the primary economic activity of an area; one usually thinks of rural areas as being predominantly agricultural. The social dimension of rurality relates to a variety of characteristics; rural areas are seen as having the defining characteristics of intimacy, informality, and homogeneity. The final aspect of rurality is related to cultural issues. Individuals who reside in rural areas are perceived as being more traditional and conservative in their political attitudes.
In short, given the considerable confusion in the literature surrounding how rural and urban areas are defined, we must treat the findings from studies of differences between rural and urban crime with caution.
Urban-Rural Crime Differences
The murder which develops from a quarrel over the line fence, the seductions in the rural districts, and the marital infidelities on the farm do not make as dramatic stories for the sensational press as the activities of the gunmen of New York or the alleged immoralities of the so-called high society, but they are recorded in the census office. (‘‘Rural Perfection a Myth’’)
A perusal of the literature on rural-urban crime differences in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals considerable empirical and theoretical confusion regarding the seemingly straightforward question of whether crime in general, and violent crime in particular, is higher or lower in rural versus urban areas. For example, an early study of homicides for Massachusetts for the period 1871–1892 showed a greater prevalence of homicides in rural as compared to urban sections of that state (Cook). Although it did not represent a particularly valid distinction between urbanrural areas, in 1910, the director of the U.S. census commented that ‘‘In general, the more serious the offense, the greater is the proportion of farmers and farm laborers among the total number of males committed (to prison) for it’’ (quoted in Sutherland).
The census director pointed out that while only 2.6 percent of those committed to prison for drunkenness were farmers, 18.6 percent of those committed for ‘‘grave’’ homicide and 19.8 percent of those committed for lesser homicide were farmers. At that time, farmers represented 18.6 percent of the male population ten years of age and older in the United States. Edwin Sutherland interpreted this comparative overrepresentation of farmers in homicide statistics as being due to the fact that ‘‘among the farmers are included the large number of Negroes in the South, with their high rate of homicide’’ (p. 95). Similarly, an article that appeared in the popular magazine Literary Digest (‘‘Rural Perfection a Myth’’) noted that ‘‘the small cities of Kansas have a record of homicide four times as great as the large cities of New York; the small cities of Virginia seven times the rate of homicide than is credited to the large cities of Massachussets’’ (p. 34).
In contrast to the findings of higher homicide rates in rural areas, Dublin and Bunzel asserted that since the beginning of the twentieth century, federal statistics had demonstrated a consistently higher rate of homicide in urban as compared to rural areas. Although Dublin and Bunzel failed to describe their operational definition of rural, they claimed that the ratio of the urban to the rural homicide rate was two to one in 1900 and ten to seven in 1930. In attempting to explain these differences, Dublin and Bunzel noted that a large proportion of the murders and manslaughters in rural areas were ‘‘crimes of passion,’’ while in urban areas economic incentives were probably more important factors in homicides.
On the other hand, Frankel noted that homicide rates in New Jersey’s rural counties for the 1930–1934 period were not higher than in urban areas. George Vold argued that ‘‘in the case of murder, manslaughter, and serious sex offenses, there is little difference between rural and urban areas’’ (p. 40). Finally, in their classic text The Principles of Urban-Rural Sociology, Sorokin and Zimmerman argued that there was a tendency for rural areas to exhibit higher crime rates in offenses against the person, such as homicides, infanticides, and grave assaults, but a lower proportion of crimes against property.
There is also considerable confusion in the more contemporary literature regarding whether or not crime rates are higher or lower in rural areas, as measured by population size. Marshall Clinard found a relationship between city size and homicide rates, with smaller cities having lower homicide rates than larger cities. Wolfgang (1968) reported slightly higher homicide rates for rural areas in the United States in 1965 than for small cities. Similarly, Archer et al., examining the 1971–1975 period in the United States, found larger cities had higher homicide rates. Similarly, Kowalski and Duffield, using county level homicide data for 1979–1982, found that rural areas had lower rates of homicide than urban areas, and argued this was the result of reduced individualism and stronger group identification in rural areas. Mosher et al., using 1990 Uniform Crime Report data, also found that homicide rates were lowest in cities with populations under 2,500. In contrast to these findings, however, Kposowa and Breault used Uniform Crime Report and census data from over three thousand counties in their analysis of homicide for the years 1979 to 1981, and found that of the top thirty counties with the highest rates of homicide, twenty-three of them had populations below twenty thousand.
Focusing generally on violent crime and using national victimization data, Robert Sampson reported consistent and substantial differences in crime rates across units of different population size. He noted that rural crime rates are not only lower, but may in fact be the result of different causal factors. For example, Sampson found that while poverty was related to victimization in larger counties, in smaller areas the number of dwellings that contained multiple families was a more important predictor of crime victimization rates.
In order to examine the current relationship between population size and crime rates, Table 1 provides data on arrest rates per 100,000 population in 1996 for cities grouped according to their size, for a number of offenses. Murder rates are highest in cities with populations greater than 250,000 and decline for each decreasing city-size category, to a low of 3.0 per 100,000 for cities under 10,000. A similar pattern is seen for robbery, where arrest rates are over six times higher in the largest, as opposed to the smallest, cities. However, there are no clear differences in arrest rates across city size categories for the crime of larceny-theft. Although rural-urban distinctions based exclusively on size of place are not ideal, this pattern of a strong relationship between city size and violent crime rates and weaker relationships for property crimes generally holds for several different societies and in several different historical periods (Sacco et al.).
Similar relationships have been revealed in studies using victimization data. For example, Bachman analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey for the years 1973 to 1990, and found generally that individuals living in central cities had the highest rates of criminal victimization for all types of crime, while those living in nonmetropolitan (rural) areas had the lowest rates. More specifically, on average, individuals residing in central areas experienced nearly twice as many crimes of violence as those living in nonmetropolitan areas, although Bachman noted that the gap in violent crime victimization had been decreasing over the 1973–1990 period.
The notable exception to the pattern of higher crime rates in urban as opposed to rural jurisdictions revealed in Table 1 is for the offense of driving under the influence of alcohol. For this offense, rates were lowest in cities with populations greater than 250,000, increasing to a rate of 833.4 per 100,000 in cities of less than 10,000. These differences are at least partially explained by the fact that alcohol use, particularly among young people, is more frequent in rural areas. This may pose a particular problem for rural dwellers who have to spend far more time on the road, traveling longer distances.
Theoretical Explanations of Rural-Urban Crime Differences
A consideration of urban-rural crime rate differences has important implications for criminological theory and crime policies. As Weisheit and Wells note, the tendency has been for theories to be developed for urban crime problems and then to assume these have universal application—a perspective that has been called ‘‘urban ethnocentrism.’’ Perhaps ironically, the earliest theories in criminology were characterized by a nonurban perspective, reflecting the predominantly rural backgrounds of the early theorists in sociology and criminology. But as Weisheit and Wells suggest, ‘‘contemporary criminology has come full circle from these origins and dramatically reversed this bias’’ (p. 383).
For example, several criminological studies assert that poverty is a cause of crime; however, it is important to note that poverty is a common problem in the rural United States where unemployment is generally higher, and for those who are employed, wages are generally lower. Therefore, theories of crime that invoke poverty as a potential cause have difficulty explaining the fact that crime rates are generally lower in rural jurisdictions.
Criminologists have also argued that the high rates of gun ownership in the United States are related to violent crime. However, Wright, Rossi, and Daly (1983) observed that gun ownership is much more prevalent in rural as opposed to urban areas—in rural areas over 75 percent of citizens are gun owners, while in large cities only 25 percent of citizens own guns. And while many rural gun owners are hunters who primarily use rifles, the percentage of citizens owning handguns is also higher in rural areas than in central cities. Interestingly, however, while rural residents are more likely to own guns, they are less likely to use them in the commission of crime (Weisheit et al.).
In 1941, George Vold argued that the higher crime rates of urban areas could be explained using two basic hypotheses. The first of these held that there had been a selective migration from rural areas to cities of the individuals who were most likely to commit crimes, thereby increasing crime rates in cities and decreasing those in rural areas. The second hypothesis was that the city itself has an influence on the life of its inhabitants that tends to promote and facilitate criminality. More recently, theorists have developed what are known as the ‘‘determinist’’ and ‘‘compositional’’ models in attempts to explain rural urban crime differences. The determinist argument asserts that urban residence itself contributes to crime in these areas; the compositional argument, on the other hand, suggests that urban residence itself has no significant effect on the risk of crime victimization. Instead, the differences in crime rates between rural and urban areas are better explained through reference to the social and demographic characteristics of the populations who reside in each type of place (Sacco et al.; Tittle).
Related to the compositional argument, it is commonly believed that rural areas are more governed by informal social control, which is facilitated by the fact that many residents of rural communities, including the police, know each other socially—as George Vold commented in a 1941 article, ‘‘in the open country… every person is a policeman’’ (p. 38). Rural populations are generally more stable, and the social networks in rural communities are largely overlapping rather than segmented, and characterized by a higher density of acquaintanceship (Freudenberg). In contrast, as Wirth contended, urbanism as a way of life promotes social estrangement and alienation, which allows urban dwellers to escape the regulatory influences of the informal social controls that tend to operate in less urbanized places. These differences in urban and rural lifestyles need to be considered when examining differences in crime rates.
Unique Rural Crime Problems
It is also important to note that rural areas may have special or unique crime problems, including the organized theft of livestock, equipment, and other agricultural products. Weisheit et al. point out the potential for an increase in such crimes resulting from the trend toward larger farms in the United States. For example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported on widespread thefts of bull semen from farms in the San Joaquin in California, which is apparently a multimillion-dollar enterprise. In addition, as Weisheit et al. point out, there are a number of ways in which rural and urban crime are interrelated. They note that rural areas are often used to produce drugs—in particular, marijuana and methamphetamine—for consumption in rural as well as urban areas. Further, rural areas are frequently used as transshipment points for illegal goods such as drugs and stolen automobile parts.
It is also important to note that some efforts to influence economic growth in rural areas can increase crime there. The recent development of labor-intensive industries such as meat and poultry processing in rural areas has attracted large numbers of (often illegal) immigrants. As Weisheit et al. point out, the presence of these immigrants in what were previously homogeneous small communities creates the potential for racial tensions and hate crimes. There is also the issue of the emergence of militia movements in several rural areas, and problems associated with ecological or environmental crime. As the problem of disposing of hazardous waste increases and the costs of disposing of such waste legally climb, it can be expected that the illegal dumping of waste in rural areas will increase, as will the risks to the health and welfare of residents of rural areas.
It is thus clear that while crime in rural areas is generally lower than in urban areas and different in type, criminologists need to be aware of these differences in order to further develop criminological theories and policies to deal with crime.
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