A Global Analysis of Crime and Development

Kimberly Texier


            Crime is a universal phenomenon that impacts every culture around the world.  While each culture defines what a crime consists of and how to punish these actions differently, the fact remains that it is a prominent concern to all.  As Gene Stephens (2003) argues, “Crime is a lot like cancer: It is serious, potentially deadly, comes in many varieties, is difficult to diagnose, hard to treat, and almost impossible to eradicate”.  The motivations and contributing factors of crime have always been topics of interest, particularly among modern governmental agencies and the world at large. 

            While much research has been conducted in this arena it tends to be focused on the individual motivations of crime and studies are often specific to the United States.  Little has been done in evaluating this phenomenon on a global scale.  Even where international comparisons have been made, the sample size is often very limited and tends to consist of no more than 6 or 7 case studies.  The aim of this paper is to change the trend in global crime research and throughout will examine the violent crime rates of the nations of the world while examining possible correlations on an international level.  This analysis is concerned with determining the larger social structures and institutions within nations that influence violent crime, rather than individual motivations.  I want to shift the focus of these questions about crime from those presented above to why is there more crime and violence in some countries than in others?  And why is violent crime rising so rapidly around the world?  Are cultural and sociological factors dominant determining factors of violent crime?  More specifically, I will examine how a nation’s violent crime rate is affected by its level of development.  My proposition is that more developed nations will entertain the possibility of lower violent crime rates.    

            While a few studies have been conducted using parts of the variables that are discussed in this analysis, I have yet to encounter one that identifies the level of development as the key factor in determining violent crime rates of a nation.  Furthermore, none that I encountered have measured these variables cross-culturally using a significant proportion of the nations of the world.  Hence my theory is based upon a compilation of ideas and correlations made by other researchers concerned with the same subject matter.  This paper argues that a compilation of the variables of gross national product per capita, education, and system of punishment are effective measures of determining the level of development that a nation has achieved.  This combined measure serves as the independent variable in this study.  The controlling variables consist of dominant religion and regime type of that nation.  In using data for every nation in the world, this paper tremendously expands the limited scope that has thus far dominated the research on this topic of interest. 

            The theory behind this hypothesis is a logical progression based on other studies that have been conducted on factors related to violent crime.  In researching the variables presented above, several correlations were found between crime rates and these variables on a more individualized level.  For instance, a correlation was found between democracy and crime rates within the existent literature, but not regime type in general.  The literature review portion of this analysis will consist of an in depth analyzation of the various determining factors used in this paper, but will not include previous analysis on this exact research question. 

Literature Review

Crime Rates and Development

            While no study has been discovered that measured this exact research question or that measured a significant number of nations was identified, one study in particular did come relatively close.   In this study, conducted by Lynn McDonald (1976) , the general level of industrialization of a nation was found to be inversely related to the homicide offender rate, meaning that as the level of industrialization went up, the level of homicide went down.  While this conclusion is an important one, it is vital to note that this was not the primary focus of the study.  McDonald (1976) was more concerned with the effect of social problems such as unemployment and inequality as it pertains to criminal activity.  In examining the research method of McDonald’s (1976) study, I found important guidelines on how to measure the level of development within a nation.  McDonald (1976) used the measures of GNP, urbanism, school enrollment, and size of the police force to measure the level of industrialization of a nation.  While I do not use these measures exactly, I use similar determinants of the facets of economics, education and system of punishment to determine the level of development of a nation.

            This study was vital in my development of my research question and data analysis; however, McDonald’s study is outdated as it was conducted in 1976.  And while her measures provided guidelines to follow as to what variables are determinant of level of development, they were not as encompassing as needed for a study of the scale that this paper entails. 

Crime Rates and GNP per capita

            A possible driving force behind violent crime can be seen in economic status.  Economic status of the citizens of a nation is an important determining factor in crime.  Money, or the lack of it, can be a powerful motivation for individuals to commit crimes.   If the citizens of a nation are dissatisfied with the economic position that they find themselves in, are they more likely to resort to illegal means to change this?  Several researchers have examined the effects of economic status (measured by per capita GNP) as an indicator in the prevalence of crime.  In comparing factors such as unemployment rates and income disparities, it has been a common finding that per capita GNP, or income level of the citizens of a nation, is a significant determining factor in crime rates (Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza 2000).  Economic growth has also been found to be a viable solution for reducing crime rates (Fajnzylber 2000).  Fleisher and Elrich (1966), considered to be the pioneers in studying the effects of income levels and disparities on crime levels, went one step further to say that income inequality and not just income level in itself is a large determinant in crime rates.

            Because economic motivations can be powerful ones according to existent literature, I found it imperative that this variable be included in the scope of my research, however, it is not included as a determining factor in itself.  Based on the findings of McDonald (1976), Fleisher and Elrich (1966), and Fajnzylber, Lederman and Loayza (2000), per capita GNP is seen as an important force behind the level of development that a nation has achieved.  A more developed nation is expected to have a higher average income level than that of a less developed nation.  The variable of per capita GNP serves to represent the economic aspect of development in place of the less accurate variable of GNP total for the nation as used by McDonald (1976).  The GNP per capita will measure the wealth of individuals within the nation, not the wealth of the nation, resulting in a more accurate portrayal of the social conditions under which the citizens of the nation live.    

Crime Rates and Education

            Victor Hugo expressed the correlation between education and crime eloquently over a century ago when he said “When we open a school, we close a prison” (Gillis 2004).  While the school system teaches students to read, write and solve arithmetic equations, it also provides an important socialization tool (Gillis 2004).  Public school systems train students to obey authority and how to appropriately interact with others, instilling in them the socially acceptable actions and interactions (Gillis 2004).  The public school system also imposes moral curriculums and conformity onto students.  According to Victor Hugo and a study performed by A.R. Gillis (2004) on the decline in crime that occurred when the French education system developed in the early nineteenth century, an increase in the literacy rate of the population is also consistent with a decline in crime rates of a nation.  The education level of the population can determine the expected rewards from both legal and criminal activities. Gillis (2004) also claims that the manner in which public school systems instill the moral values of a culture and social norms into students is reason to believe that an increase in the exposure to this “hidden curriculum” over the course of many years will lead to a decrease in crime rates.  He writes “Public schools provide the state with an irresistible opportunity to extend authority in an inconspicuous but potentially effective way” (Gillis 2004).             

            The conclusions of this study found literacy rates to be the largest influence on violent crime rates in turn of the century France (Gillis 2004).  According to Gillis (2004), literacy implies much more than being able to read and write.  “It involves complying with the regulations of a linguistic system, as well as human and social capital.  The absence of these is linked with violent crime” (Gillis 2004).  

            The results of this study conducted by Gillis (2004) provided the measurements used to determine the level of education of a nation in this analysis.  The literacy rates of a nation combined with the average number of years the population over 15 attended school will provide the representative quantities for the level of education for the nations.  While the number of years of schooling did not prove significant in the Gillis (2004) study, it is used in this paper to provide a more complete view of education level and because this study was conducted using a limited case study of nineteenth century France.  It is expected that when it is applied to the modern day world population the results will differ. 

            The educational level of a nation is critical in determining the level of development that a nation has achieved because it will measure how effectively the state instills moral and cultural guidelines within the population and what means they give the population to allow them to achieve a minimum standard of living.  The expectation here is that the higher the literacy rates and average number of years of schooling is, the lower the violent crime rate will be.

Crime Rates and System of Punishment                

            The system of punishment is critical in a discussion of crime rates and how to reduce them.  What works and what does not work has long been an issue of heated debate.  Whether the punishment consists of being confined to a cell or beheading, every nation has some form of punishment for violators of the law.  These punishment systems are critical to this analysis for two main reasons.  First, it has been a common theme to suggest that the severity of the punishment will serve as a deterrent to the crime.  Second, a key indicator of the level of development of a nation can be seen in its system of punishment. 

            This analysis will follow the insights of Becker (1965) in his study of deterrence and crime.  Becker argues that criminal behavior responds to changes in the expected level of punishment, meaning that the worse the punishment expected to be, people will be less likely to commit the crime.  Policies such as capital punishment and elongated incarceration are based on this age old assumption.  One clear cut example of this analysis on action can be seen in capital punishment.  One of the critical conclusions that underlie this policy is deterrence.  According to Becker (1965) and Elrich (1973), the death penalty has a major impact on crime rates.  Criminal activities are reported to drop due to the fear of the imposition of capital punishment if caught.  Another indicator of deterrence can be seen in the size of the police force, measured here in terms of the number of police per capita a nation employs (Becker 1965).  By increasing the number of law enforcement personnel, the probability of a conviction is also increased, which has a greater deterring effect than raising the severity of the punishment does (Becker 1965).  Based on this analysis, it is logical to assume that the retention of the death penalty and the size of the police force within a nation may show up as key indicators for violent crime levels in themselves, however, the nature of the research on deterrence leads to the conclusion that this is not a likely outcome.  Several contradictions exist within the literature and much of it indicates that deterrence is not an effective force against crime.   

            Based on this reasoning, capital punishment will be used only in conjunction with the number of police per capita to determine the level of development within a nation.  The system of punishment that a nation employs is a key indication of its level of development.  The use of capital punishment and other means of deterrence in a nation are seen as indications of the overall severity of its legislation regarding the punishment of offenders (Fajnzylber 2000).  Not only is the level of deterrence an indication of a strict legal system that instills fear into the population a determinant of crime, it is also a determinant of development.  The United States of America is the only industrialized nation in the world that still employs the death penalty (LeGraw and Grodin 2002).  The unmistakable worldwide trend has been abolition since the push towards human rights has taken place (Bedau 2005).  The more affluent nations can better afford to incarcerate and the more developed nations are more likely to respond to crime with formal and humane measures (Jacobs and Kleban 2003).  The more developed a nation is, the less likely it is to retain a system of capital punishment.  Based on this analysis, it is logical to conclude that the level of capital punishment and other means of deterrence that a nation employs, will serve as an effective measure of that nation’s level of development.   

Crime Rates and Regime Type

            Another possible indicator of crime rates may be seen in the type of regime that governs a nation.  It has been a common trend to suggest that democratic nations have higher crime rates than non-democratic nations (Stephens 1994).  While the reasoning behind this analysis may vary within the literature, the most common assumption is that democratic nations fill their citizens with dreams of financial prosperity, but do not provide them with adequate means of reaching these goals (Jacobs and Kleban 2003).  Essentially, the policies and economics of democratic nations produce anomie within the population (Stephens 1994).  Citizens are left with the dream of achieving all of their goals and dreams, but the means for reaching these goals are vague and citizens often “innovate” these means, causing crime (Stephens 1994).  

            According to Stephens (1994), “Wide freedom of choice combined with little or no direction as to how to make one’s choices responsibly is a formula for high crime rates”.  In nations where democracy reigns, such as the United States, citizens are filled with the ideals of capitalism and a drive to obtain wealth and material possessions is instilled in them daily.  But the reality is that most legal means for obtaining these desires, such as gainful employment, is not available to everyone, nor is it an overnight process (Stephens 1994).  These circumstances lead to the “innovations”, which essentially boil down to committing crimes in order to fulfill desires (Stephens 1994).  These illegal means to an end may often be very appealing options for much of the suffering population.  “Some individuals become criminals because of the financial and other rewards that result from crime as compared to legal work” (Fajnzylber 2000).    Given the plausibility and extensive amount of research conducted in this arena of crime, this analysis will take the regime of the nation into account as a possible alternate influence on crime.

Crime Rates and Religion

            Religion is a driving force on the world.  It always has been and presumably always will be.  Why then is religion virtually ignored on the international level?  It is plausible to conclude that religion is an appropriate determinant of crime within a nation, yet the research, on a global scale is not there.  While much research exists on the various factions within the United States and crime, these measurements are not appropriate for the global analysis presented here.  Instead this analysis will focus on the obstacles to studying religion as a global force that exist within the social sciences.

            Social scientists have long ignored the implications of religion as an influencing variable both in the domestic and international realms.  Although a few are recognizing the need for such research, the field still has a long way to go to meet this need.  The proponents of religious research have suggested possible explanations as to why the discipline has essentially ignored religion, and perhaps the most thorough, comprehensive, and convincing theory comes from Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler (2004).  These doctors of political science and professors in the field discuss this theory in the book Bringing Religion into International Relations.  Fox and Sandler (2004) propose that the social science discipline ignores religion in large part, and that when it is mentioned, it is usually as a subcategory of a more important variable.  They go even further to say that “where it is addressed directly, religion tends to be characterized as fundamentalist, extreme, radical, or militant” (Fox and Sandler 2004). 

            After establishing that religion is ignored, they go on to explain why this is so within the social sciences.  The argument that Fox and Sandler (2004) provide is that “the social sciences have their origins in the rejection of religion as an explanation for the world by major Western social thinkers”.  Essentially, this means that Western thinkers, who are portrayed as the most influential in the theories and research in the study of international relations, negate the idea that religion has any role in explaining the modern world in any discipline (Fox and Sandler 2004).   

            Fox and Sandler (2004) present the idea that the social sciences are dominated by Westernized thinkers.  Accordingly, this results in the study of the social sciences being resistant to religion as an influencing factor within the discipline (Fox and Sandler 2004).  Religion is largely ignored as a driving force in the world, and this is no longer appropriate, hence the need for further research on the relationship between religion and the world today.  To negate this trend, research concerning religion and violent crime rates will be examined in this study.  While religion is used here as a possible alternate explanation to the level of development, this topic area is still largely untouched in the social sciences on a global scale.  Although it is not the main goal of this paper, providing an analysis of religion as an influencing variable at the global level is an important contribution to the study of sociology.  

Research Design

            In order to draw conclusions as accurately as possible and in order to provide a significant sample size, this analysis is based on secondary data from several existing data sets.  A new data set is formed, using this secondary research, and tests run accordingly.  The data gathered in order to accurately study the independent variable of level of development consists of GNP per capita, literacy rates, average education levels, death penalty retention levels, and number of police per capita for all of the nations of the world.  GNP per capita is used to measure the economic aspect of development, with the proposal that a higher level of GNP will be positively correlated with a higher level of development, and therefore, inversely related to the violent crime rate.  The variable of GNP per capita is measured in US dollars and is entered into the data set accordingly (UN data set 2000).

            Literacy rates and average education levels are used to measure the influence of the educational system of a nation on crime with the proposition that a higher level of education will be positively correlated with a higher level of development, and therefore, inversely related to the violent crime rate.  The variable of literacy rates is represented as the percentage of the total population of the nation over the age of 15 that can read and write and is entered into the data set as such (CIA World Fact Book 2006).  Average education levels are represented by the average number of years that the total population of the nation over the age

of 15 attended a public school system and is entered in to the data set as such (Barro-Lee 2000).

            Death penalty retention levels and number of police per capita are used to measure the system of punishment, with the proposition that the retention of capital punishment will be negatively correlated with a higher level of development, and therefore, positively correlated with the violent crime rate.  The number of police per capita, however, will be positively correlated with a higher level of development, and therefore, negatively correlated with the violent crime rate.  The number of police per capita is represented as a raw number of law enforcement officials employed by the nation for every 100,000 inhabitants and is entered in the data set as such (UN data set 2000). 


            To accurately measure the level of retention of capital punishment, this analysis categorizes the nations of the world using a scale from 1-5 (Amnesty International).  The nations that are abolitionist for all crimes fall into category # 1.  Those nations that are abolitionist for ordinary crimes only are represented in category # 2.  Those nations that are abolitionist in practice, which means that they retain the death penalty but have not used it in any case for at least 10 years, are represented in category # 3.  Those nations that are retentionist for all crimes but do not execute child offenders (persons under 18 years of age) are represented in category # 4.  Finally, those nations that are retentionist for all crimes and do execute child offenders (persons under 18 years of age) are represented in category # 5.                                           

            When combined, the variables of education level, economic status, and system of punishment constitute the independent variable of level of development of a nation. 

            In order to provide the most accurate results, the dependent variable of this analysis is limited to the scope of violent crimes.  For the purpose of this study, violent crimes will be measured using homicide rates of the nation per capita (UN data set 2000).  The data provided for the homicide rates comes from the United Nations data set, which defines homicide as “death purposely inflicted by another person, including infanticide”.  In using this definition, cultural relativism is minimized, and a universal measure is imposed.  While homicide rates may not be all encompassing, they suffer the least from under reporting, and are less sensitive to changing definitions across legal systems.

            Religion and regime type serve as the control variables for this analysis due to the high probability that they will have an influential effect on crime incidence.  Regime types are represented in a categorization ranging from 1-4 (CIA World Fact Book 2006).  Those nations represented in group # 1 retain a limited form of regime including democracies, and republics.  Those nations represented in group # 2 retain an authoritarian regime.  Those nations represented in group # 3 retain a theocratic regime, including Islamic fundamentalist regimes.  Those nations represented in group # 4 retain other forms of regimes including military coups.

            To measure the variable of religion, this analysis represented the major world religions with a nominal variable categorization ranging from 1-5 (CIA World Fact Book 2005).  In this categorization, 1 represents Christian (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox), 2 represents Muslim, 3 represents Hindu, 4 represents Buddhist, and 5 represents all other religious orientations.  To determine which category a nation falls into, a simple majority was used, meaning that the dominant religion of a nation was determined as being the faction with the largest percentage of the population following.  50% of the population was not required to follow the faction in order to have qualified it as the dominant religion.

Data Analysis

            In order to determine statistical correlations among the variables, the data was entered into the SPSS data set and a linear regression analysis of all 8 variables was conducted.  While the results disproved my overall hypothesis, it did support a strong correlation between the control variable of regime type and crime rate. 

Linear Regression


At the .05 significance level, only regime type proved significant at the level of .000.  This level of significance is astounding.  In using this linear regression, the further away from 0 that the Beta’s significance level lays, the less significant it is, therefore, a significance level of .000 is very strong.  The other control variable of religion showed the weakest correlation of all betas with a .640 level of significance. 

 The independent variable of level of development, seen here as the variables of dp, Number of police per capita, GNP per capita, average years of schooling, and literacy, is proven not to have a significant correlation with violent crime rate.  GNP per capita was shown to have a fairly weak correlation with the dependent variable with a significance level of .090.  Literacy rates , number of police per capita, and level of retention of capital punishment had the weakest correlations with a significance level of .574, .172,  and .300 respectively.  These results suggest that the system of punishment is not an accurate determining factor of violent crime rates as measured here.  While literacy rates proved to have a weak correlation with the dependent variable, the average number of years of schooling proved to have a much stronger correlation. While not significant at the .05 level, the average number of years of schooling was close and showed the strongest correlation of all variables used to compose the independent variable of level of development with a significance level of .059.  Based on these results, it is likely that level of education may very well be a significant determining factor in the level of development of a nation, but the variable of literacy rate may be an ineffective way to measure it. 

Limitations of Research

            While this analysis does provide much needed data in an important topic area, there are limitations to this study and possible areas for improvement for future studies.  The first limitation is that due to the lack of available data on the international level, several of the variables, including homicide rate per capita and number of police per capita, are missing data for a large number of nations in the sample.  Perhaps a future study would find it beneficial to combine data from several resources, where as here it is solely from the UN data set.  This could provide a more comprehensive and accurate portrayal of the prevalence of homicide in the nations of the world.   

Along these same lines, the crime data available is often problematic for several reasons.  First, homicide data may be skewed because nations vary in their definitions of criminal acts.  While this limitation was minimized in using the UN data set that defined homicide in a clear cut manner for all nations, there is still some room for interpretation among nations.  For example, honor killings that occur in many nations are considered to be homicides in some nations, but justified and honorable acts in others.  Second, there is room for bias in the reporting techniques of the nations.  Less developed nations have less adequate reporting procedures and fewer resources while more developed nations may skew the date in hopes of presenting a better image to the world.  Third, a lot of the crimes that occur are not reported to police or any form of law enforcement.  This limitation was minimized in using homicide data where a complaint is not necessary. Only a dead body and coroners report indicating foul play are required.  While this eliminates the need for someone to report a crime, there is still the problem of bodies that have yet to be recovered and of missing persons that are presumed dead.  A homicide was probably committed, but there is insufficient evidence for a nation to include it in official reports.   

Another limitation that exists in this study is that the sole determinant of crime rates is the rate of homicide per capita.  While homicide data may be the most accurate available and avoids many limitations that are present when using other sources of crime data, it limits conclusions that can be made from the results.  A more comprehensive study should include other measures of violent crime such as rape, armed robbery, serious assaults, and other offenses.  While all of these limitations are problematic, they are minimized to the fullest extent possible in this research.  Until more research is dedicated to international comparisons and to collecting accurate international data, it will be difficult to eliminate these limitations.  For now, it is simply the best we have.    


            Although the hypothesis of this analysis was disproved, it has provided valuable insights into the state of global crime rates.  While the level of development, as measured here, is not proven to be a significant determinant in the violent crime rate of a nation, the regime type of the nation is proven to be a powerful indicator of crime.  While not the expected result, it is an important finding and warrants further research.  More importantly, however, the lack of international research on crime data is severely lacking, and this paper may provide important fundamental research questions to further guide future studies.   




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