Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 October 2018


Abstract and Keywords

Violence is a serious social issue that affects millions of individuals, families, and communities every year. It transcends across racial, age, gender, and socioeconomic groups, and is considered a significant public health burden in the United States. The purpose of this entry is to provide an overview of violence as a broad yet complicated concept. Definitional issues are discussed. Additional prevalence rates of select types of violence are presented in addition to risk and protective factors associated with violent behavior. The entry concludes with a summary of approaches to address violence in the context of prevention and intervention strategies.

Keywords: crime, violence, risk factors, violence prevention

Violence is a global issue that directly causes injury to victims, and if widespread and severe can result in negative consequences for society at large. For example, a cross section of war, politics, and hate crimes has resulted in the violent mass murders (genocide) of hundreds of thousands of people in the region of Darfur in Sudan, resulting in an international debate and a call for humanitarian intervention efforts. In the United States, the murder rate has steadily declined since the mid-1990s from 9 per 100,000 persons in 1994 to 5.6 per 100,000 in 2005. However, an upward trend, or a 3.4% increase in the murder rate, was observed between 2004 and 2005, raising concerns, and the estimates for the first half of 2006 reflect an additional 1.4% increase (Department of Justice, 2006a, 2006b). Via its proximal and distal effects on millions of individuals, numerous families and communities, violence transcends across all racial, age, gender, socioeconomic, and geographical groups. No longer considered the epidemic it once was during the 1990s, violence continues to be a significant social issue and public health burden (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control [NCIPC], 2002).

Definitions and Prevalence

There are many forms of violence, including everything from murder, homicide, genocide, rape, robbery, physical assault, hate crimes, to war and terrorism. In addition, the environmental contexts in which violence occurs broaden its scope—for example, violence may occur in homes, schools, the workplace, and in communities (urban, suburban, or rural). The relationship between a victim and a perpetrator can further expand the scope of violence. Still others call for the inclusion of acts such as stalking (Finch, 2002). Such a multitude of dimensions greatly broadens the concept of violence and complicates any effort to define it. Organizations committed to the prevention of violence, such as the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence define violence differently, yet their definitions entail a common characteristic, that of harm or injury. Such harm or injury may be fatal or nonfatal, perpetrated or self-inflicted, and it may also be physical or psychological. Select forms of violence of interest to social work practitioners and researchers are discussed here.

Violent Crime

Annually, the U.S Department of Justice conducts the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which allows for the monitoring of criminal victimization. According to the NCVS, “violent crimes include rape or sexual assault, robbery aggravated assault, and simple assault” (Catalano, 2006, p. 2). In 2005, among U.S. residents aged 12 and older, around 5.2 million violent crimes were reported. This 2005 violent crime rate of 21.4 per 1,000 persons represents a dramatic 10-year decline of 58%, from 50 per 1,000 persons in 1995. Specifically, between 1993 and 2005, declines were observed in the following categories: rape or sexual assault (down 69%), robbery (down 57%), and aggravated and simple assault (down 64% and 54%, respectively) (Catalano, 2006).

Although these significant reductions in violent crime rates since the mid-1990s are encouraging, specific groups continue to be particularly vulnerable to violence. Younger persons, males, and African Americans are victimized at higher rates than are persons older than 24 years, females, and whites. For example in 2005, rates of violent crime victimization for young people aged 12–15, 16–19, and 20–24 ranged from 44 to 46.9 per 1,000 persons. In contrast, these rates were significantly lower for older age groups, ranging from 2.4 per 1, 000 among persons 65 years or older to 23.6 per 1,000 among the 25–34 age group. Males are more likely to experience victimization than are females (25.5 versus 17.1 per 1,000); they are also more likely victimized by strangers (54% of all male victimizations) than are females, who are more likely to be victimized by nonstrangers (64% of all female victimizations). In 2003, the NCVS implemented new definitions for race and ethnicity which prevent long-term comparisons on the basis of race. This is significant in examining trends among African Americans because of the record high rates of violent crime involving this group in the early 1990s (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994). In 2005, violent victimization rates were higher for African Americans (27 per 1,000) than for whites (20.1 per 1,000) and persons of other races (13.9 per 1,000), a category that includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. However, the violence victimization rates for two other racial or ethic groups, in light of the new definitions, are noteworthy: Hispanic (25 per 1,000) and two or more races (83.6 per 1,000) (Catalano, 2006, p. 6).

Family Violence and Child Abuse

Family violence is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as a violent crime committed by an offender who is related (biologically or legally) to the victim (Durose et al., 2005), and it accounts for about 1 in every 10 violent victimizations in the United States. Between 1998 and 2002, around 3.5 million violent crimes were committed against family members: the most common types of family violence were simple and aggravated assault (69.6% and 18.1%, respectively), while the least common was murder (0.3%). Sex offenses (3.6%) and robbery (8.4%) represent the remaining categories. Similar to the trends previously reported, the rate of family violence has also fallen: between 1993 and 2002, the rate declined from 5.4 to 2.1 victims per 1,000 persons 12 years and older. Because the family is a system, it is helpful to examine this type of violence by the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Between 1998 and 2002, approximately 49% were crimes committed against spouses, 47% against other family members, and 11% were committed by parents against their children. Family violence is most likely to take place in the home of the victim, a contextual factor associated with the underreporting of this type of violence. Most victims and perpetrators of family violence are white (74 and 79%, respectively), with 65% of victims ranging in age from 25 to 64. Females are disproportionately victimized by family violence in that 73% of victims are female, while almost 75% of family violence offenders are male. Violence perpetrated by one intimate partner (that is, spouse, partner, girl or boy friend) against the other is known as intimate partner violence. It often occurs in the context of family violence with women most likely victimized.

Children are also vulnerable to family violence. Specific types of child abuse may also be considered acts of family violence. For example, physical abuse, one type of child abuse, is characterized by beating, slapping, punching, biting, shaking, and burning—such acts depict violence. National victimization rates for child maltreatment are declining, from 15.3 to 12.3 per 1,000 children between 1993 and 2002. In 2002, child protective agencies substantiated around 906,000 cases (or 12.3 per 1,000 children) of child maltreatment, 18.6% of which were physical abuse cases. Of the 1,400 children who died as a result of child maltreatment that year, 28% of the deaths were caused by physical abuse (NCIPC, 2006b). Young children under age 4 are at the greatest risk for serious and fatal injury—this age group accounted for 76% of child maltreatment fatalities in 2002 (Child Welfare League of America, 2006).

School Violence

The scope of school violence is also quite broad, including acts of aggravated assault (fighting), bullying, rape, sexual assault, suicide, and homicide. Nonfatal incidents are the most prevalent types of school violence; however, since the late 1990s, an isolated group of highly publicized fatal school shootings has made the prevention of school violence a high priority for communities, law enforcement agencies, school districts, and parents alike. School shootings such as those that occurred in 1997 at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi; in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; in 2005 at Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minnesota; in 2006 at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; and in 2007 at Virginia Tech university have generated heightened levels of public concern regarding school violence, when in fact school shootings are a rare occurrence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, less than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen at school (NCIPC, 2006a). The U.S. Department of Education's (2006) report on school crime and safety provides the most recent national level data available regarding school violence. Of the 54.9 million students enrolled in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grades during the 2004–2005 school year, 21 were victims of homicide and 7 committed suicide on school property: these incidents translate to a ratio of 1 homicide or suicide per 2 million students.

The numbers for nonfatal student victimization are far more excessive—in 2004, approximately 107,000 students aged between 12 and 18 were victims of serious violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) while at school; and 14% of high school students reported being involved in a fight on school property during the previous 12 months. In 2005, reports of being threatened or injured by a weapon while at school were most likely made by male (10%) versus female (6%) students, and males were twice as likely as females to report weapon possession at school during the previous 30 days. Contextual factors are also informative. For example, during the 2003–2004 school year, prevalence rates of violent crimes were higher in public schools than in private schools, and in public middle schools (53 per 1,000 students) versus public primary or high schools (both 28 per 1,000 students) (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

Bullying also occurs in the school environment, and has emerged as a social problem. (In fact, bullying has been associated with some of the school shooters who reportedly experienced teasing, isolation, and rejection by peers.) In 2005, among students aged 12–18 years, 28% reported being bullied within the past 6 months, and among those students bullied, 58% reported victimization once or twice during the 6-month survey period, while 24% reported physical injury as a result of being bullied (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Such acts of school violence evoke fear in many students—6% of students aged 12–18 reported avoiding school activities because they feared being harmed; and Black and Hispanic students were more likely than their white counterparts to report fear for their safety while at school (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

Effects of Violence

As evidenced by these statistics, most violence is nonfatal; however, it does result in physical and psychological injury, mental health problems, public fear, and immense financial costs. In the year 2000 alone, nearly 1.9 million people were treated in emergency departments for violence-related injuries (Centers for Disease Control, 2001). Once exposed to violence, it is not uncommon for victims to experience traumatic stress reactions, particularly if the violent event was perceived as life-threatening or frightening (Fleisher & Kassam-Adams, 2006). The combination of physical and mental health treatments as a result of violence is very costly. For example, almost half of all intimate partner violence victimizations result in injury, with associated medical and mental health care costs totaling $4.1 billion annually (NCIPC, 2003). Societal costs are great as well, and can be partially evidenced by the expenses associated with incarcerating violent offenders. As an illustration, in the year 2003, around 667,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes were under the jurisdiction of state jails and federal prisons (Harrison & Beck, 2007). At an average annual operating cost of $22,600 per inmate (Stephan, 2004), taxpayers paid an estimated $15 billion in 2003 to incarcerate violent offenders.

Risk and Protective Factors

According to the Centers for Disease Control (2007), a risk factor is a “characteristic that increases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence,” while a protective factor is a “characteristic that decreases the likelihood of a person becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence” (para. 7). Similarly, risk factors increase the chances a violent event will occur, or that violent behavior will develop, continue, or escalate. Alternatively, protective factors reduce or buffer the effects of risk factors. Both risk and protective factors may be personal characteristics or environmental conditions, and their predictive value varies by social context, timing, and circumstances (U.S. Surgeon General, 2001). For example, risk factors that predict the development of violent behavior for children may be irrelevant in predicting later onset among adults.

Through a growing body of research on risk and protection, a wide array of personal characteristics and environmental conditions have been identified, which may be grouped in four domains: individual, family, peer, and environmental, community, or societal (for comprehensive lists of risk and protective factors, see Fraser, 2004; Lipsey & Derzon, 1998). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) State-of-the-Science Conference Panel (2006) summarizes the following important risk factors: childhood fighting or aggression, victimization, substance abuse, criminal offenses, and school disengagement; familial conflict, inconsistent or harsh parenting practices; poor relationships with peers, and gang involvement; and neighborhood violence (pp. 459–460). The accumulation or clustering of multiple risk factors further increases risk when compared with the presence of a single risk factor. Understanding how identified risk and protective factors function has informed the development of violence prevention and intervention strategies. The development of some risk factors cannot be prevented; therefore, effective interventions are paramount. For example, physical aggression in childhood is often cited as a risk factor for violence; however, Tremblay (2006) argues that physical aggression is developmentally appropriate and questions why its development should be prevented. Instead, in this context, Tremblay proposes the notion of corrective interventions that teach self-regulation, prosocial negotiation with peers, and other alternatives to physical aggression.

Approaches to Addressing Violence: Prevention and Intervention

The goal of preventive efforts is to preclude the occurrence of violence. Violence prevention efforts largely target children, adolescents, and families; however additional approaches include macro efforts at the community and policy levels, for example, neighborhood watch programs, drug- and gun-free zones, and community policing. Alternatively, interventions are delivered in situations when violence has already occurred, with the goal of preventing future violence. The public health approach to address violence involves reducing identified risk factors while increasing and strengthening protective factors through public awareness and program design and delivery. Prevention and intervention strategies should be guided by target risk factors, groups, and settings (Fraser, 1995).

Empirical evidence supports effectiveness of specific interventions that meet strict criteria and scientific rigor, including an ecological context that is multimodal and multidimensional, a focus on strong risk factors that are amicable to cognitive and behavioral strategies, developmental appropriateness, and a long-term clinical approach to treatment and treatment fidelity (NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Panel, 2006).

Social workers are and can be involved at all levels in the planning, intervention, and evaluation of programs to prevent, reduce, and treat violence. Specific characteristics of successful interventions at the individual and familial levels provide education and promote skills development (for example, problem solving, social competence, decision making, anger management, and self-control). They focus on effective parenting techniques, interpersonal communication and conflict-resolutions skills, and family management practices (Fraser & Williams, 2004; U.S. Surgeon General, 2001). Also, social workers work not only with victims of violence but also with the perpetrators in the criminal justice system.

Community-level approaches to violence prevention are not as abundant, nor have they been empirically validated as frequently as individual-focused strategies (NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Panel, 2006); however, promising approaches at this level collaboratively incorporate the resources, services, and expertise of various community entities such as law enforcement and juvenile justice, recreational facilities, child welfare agencies, social services departments, mental health agencies, schools, and churches (Gielen, Sleet, & Green, 2006).

A number of violence preventive and interventive programs have demonstrated effectiveness among select populations and communities, and the challenge now is to transition such effects “from demonstration projects to widespread implementation” so that the benefits are extended to the larger population (NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Panel, 2006, p. 464).

Since Fraser's 1995 overview of violence, overall rates of violence have decreased and significant scientific advances have improved the state of knowledge about the causes of violence, the associated risks and protective factors, and informed promising approaches to counter violence. Such improvements are encouraging, suggesting the desirable bridge between research and practice: advances in research on violence may be associated with the reductions in rates of violence. While these improvements are encouraging, there are some indications that violence rates are on the rise again. In addition, specific groups continue to be at a greater risk for exposure to violence. Because violence varies by context, individual characteristics, and social and environmental conditions, it is a complex issue to address and resolve. Therefore, continued research with an emphasis on context and diversity is needed to improve the appropriateness and effectiveness of preventive and interventive strategies for diverse victims and perpetrators across various communities. Given the adverse consequences of violence for individuals, groups, and society at large, its prevention is imperative. The challenge is to prevent interpersonal and intergroup violence in a global climate currently characterized by suspicion, distrust, and vulnerability.


Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1994). Violent crime (NCJ 147186). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.Find this resource:

    Catalano, S. M. (2006, September). National crime victimization survey: Criminal victimization, 2005 (NCJ214664). Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Find this resource:

      Centers for Disease Control. (2001). National estimates of non-fatal injuries treated in hospital emergency departments—United States, 2000. MMWR Weekly, 50(17), 340–346.Find this resource:

        Centers for Disease Control. (2007). The public health approach to violence prevention. Retrieved September 28, 2007, from

        Child Welfare League of America. (2006). Child protection: Facts and figures. Retrieved on January 15, 2007, at

        Department of Justice. (2006a). Crime in the United States 2005: Murder. Washington, DC: Author, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved January 2, 2007, from this resource:

          Department of Justice. (2006b). 2006 preliminary semiannual uniform crime report: January through June. Washington, DC: Author, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved January 2, 2007, from this resource:

            Durose, M. R., Harlow, C. W., Langan, P. A., Motivans, M., Rantala, R. R., & Smith, E. L. (2005, June). Family violence statistics: Including statistics on strangers and acquaintances (NCJ 207846). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Find this resource:

              Finch, E. (2002). Stalking: A violent crime or a crime of violence? The Howard Journal, 41(5), 422–433.Find this resource:

                Fleisher, C. L., & Kassam-Adams, N. (2006). Reducing posttraumatic stress after individual and mass trauma. In A. C. Gielen, D. A. Sleet, & R. J. DiClemente (Eds.), Injury and violence prevention: Behavioral science theories, methods, and applications (pp. 419–441). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                  Fraser, M. W. (1995). Violence overview. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., pp. 2453–2460). Washington, DC: NASW Press.Find this resource:

                    Fraser, M. W. (Ed.). (2004). Risk and resilience in childhood: An ecological perspective. Washington, DC: NASW Press.Find this resource:

                      Fraser, M. W., & Williams, S. A. (2004). Aggressive behavior. In L. A. Rapp-Paglicci, C. N. Dulmus, & J. S. Wodarski (Eds.), Handbook of prevention interventions for children and adolescents (pp. 100–129). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.Find this resource:

                        Gielen, A. C., Sleet, D. A., & Green, L. W. (2006). Community models and approaches for interventions. In A. C. Gielen, D. A. Sleet, & R. J. DiClemente (Eds.), Injury and violence prevention: Behavioral science theories, methods and applications (pp. 65–82). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                          Harrison, P. M., & Beck, A. J. (2007, revised). Prisoners in 2005 (NCJ 215092). Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, November 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved October 7, 2007, from this resource:

                            Lipsey, M. W., & Derzon, J. H. (1998). Predictors of violent and serious delinquency in adolescence and early adulthood: A synthesis of longitudinal research. In R. Loeber & D. P. Farrington (Eds.), Serious and violent juvenile offenders: Risk factors and successful interventions (pp. 86–105). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

                              National Center for Injury Prevention and Control [NCIPC]. (2002). CDC injury research agenda. Atlanta, GA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from this resource:

                                National Center for Injury Prevention and Control [NCIPC]. (2003). Costs of intimate partner violence against women in the United States. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Find this resource:

                                  National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. [NCIPC]. (2004). National violent death reporting system: Monitoring and tracking the causes of violence-related deaths. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 28, 2007, from this resource:

                                    National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. [NCIPC]. (2006a). CDC injury fact book. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Find this resource:

                                      National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. [NCIPC]. (2006b). Child maltreatment: Overview. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved January 27, 2007, from this resource:

                                        National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference Panel. (2006). National Institutes of Health state-of-the-science conference statement: Preventing violence and related health-risking, social behaviors in adolescents, October 13 –16, 2004. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 457–470.Find this resource:

                                          Stephan, J. J. (2004). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: State prison expenditures, 2001 (NCJ 202949). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved October 7, 2007, from this resource:

                                            Tremblay, R. E. (2006). Prevention of youth violence: Why not start at the beginning? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 481–487.Find this resource:

                                              U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2006. Washington, DC: Author, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved January 22, 2007, from this resource:

                                                U.S. Surgeon General. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the U.S. Surgeon General. Retrieved January 25, 2007, at

                                                Further Reading

                                                Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. Blueprints for Violence Prevention.

                                                Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports. Crimes in the United States.

                                                National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Centers for Disease Control).

                                                U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Crime Characteristics.