The killer male

When Men Kill:
May 12, 1995

This is a careful book. It is about homicides: interpersonal, fatal killings that take place outside a war context. It is not about why men kill, but rather when men kill. And it is not even about the whole range of homicides, since some are too infrequent, and others too bizarre, to classify. In this way Kenneth Polk cautiously restricts the scope of his inquiry into killing, basing himself on a qualitative, thematic reading of the 380 homicides that came to official notice in Victoria, Australia, in 1985-89. These restrictions remind the reader this is a narrowly criminological text about violence, albeit one attempting to come to grips with broader questions about masculinity and violence.

The result is the identification of four major scenarios of masculine violence: sexual intimacy where jealousy and control formed the dominant motivation; confrontations "arising out of defence of honour"; situations where the "homicides arose out of other criminality"; and homicides resulting from violent attempts to resolve conflicts. These are then illustrated with case-study material and followed by "a brief discussion of the other forms of homicide" that do not fit within Polk's masculine scenarios.

The final chapter attempts a theoretical integration, bringing together the "two factors of particular significance . . . masculinity, and . . . lower class position". Here Polk attempts to weld together the distinctly unfashionable notion of a "subculture of violence" with more recent writings on masculinity to explain the differential willingness of males to use violence, that is, the lower-class nature of homicide.

I sympathise with Polk's reluctance to stray into the minefield of "violence in general", less with his decision to restrict himself theoretically to revamping the existing criminological classifications of homicide, which are, as he admits, a diverse, theoretically inadequate mish-mash of ideas. I also agree with making masculinity a central focus, though less with the heavy reliance on the evolution-based work of Daly and Wilson, a possible source for Polk's tendency to use the terms "male" and "masculinity" synonymously. The first step in "taking masculinity seriously" is, paradoxically, to problematise the relationship between these two terms.

But it must be said that Polk is patient, scholarly and doggedly empirical. His anti-reductionism is admirable. Yet by confining himself almost exclusively to criminological theory, he is guilty of reductionism. And thus his search for a general theory of homicide is overly sociological and, like much current work on "masculinity", is so hung up on gender difference that is unable adequately to account for "sameness", for the fact that women too, albeit in much smaller numbers, are to be found in these "masculine scenarios". To address these problems seriously involves swimming beyond the shallow waters of criminological theorising into the deeper waters of contemporary social theory.

Tony Jefferson is professor of criminology, University of Sheffield.

When Men Kill:: Scenarios of Masculine Violence

Author - Kenneth Polk
ISBN - 0 521 46267 3 and 46808 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 222pp

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