Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Violence: New news, old news

By Claude Fischer


I look forward to reading Steven Pinker’s heralded new book on violence.

Its message, that violence has sharply declined in human history, has been received with gasps of amazement – at least by The New York Times Book Review and by NPR. Pinker appears to have done a thorough job of summarizing the findings – old, familiar findings. My comment focuses on how this media attention illustrates how  the same historical findings come around and around again as startling “news.”

The “news” on violence

Library of Congress image

Over a generation of social historians have reported that since the Middle Ages criminal violence declined greatly in western societies and that it has continued to decline in the last century or two – albeit more slowly and less regularly in the United States than elsewhere. In the late 1960s, for example, the National Advisory Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, formed by Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the great civil disorders in our cities, commissioned papers by, among others, historians.

The resulting volumes and their updates (see, e.g., here and here) document the these findings in detail. Later work by historians such as Eric Monkkonen and Roger Lane further established that violence had declined over American history (but also that the rate here remains higher than in other western nations).

The news continued to surprise: “Historical Study of Homicide and Cities Surprises the Experts,” reads a New York Times story of 1994 — although the experts were not really surprised.

Pinker’s “news,” however well-presented, is largely old news, but still new news to the media. I predict that another version by another author will probably be news again in a few years.

historical photo of "murder of a negro" scene
"Murder of a Negro at the Carters' home" (Library of Congress image)

(An earlier post on this blog summarized some of the data on violence and Chapter 2 of Made in America discusses the American case in more detail.)

The “news” on moving

I have been involved in a similar re-re-discovery of historical news on a less dramatic topic: residential mobility in American history. In the 1970s, I co-wrote a short paper that, in part, pointed out that Americans in the late 20th century were not moving more often than were Americans of earlier eras – no news to the historians I was citing. But it seemed such “news” to the press that it led to an above-the-fold story in the 1976 Los Angeles Times. In 2002, I published a fuller, statistical analysis of the topic, with clearer evidence that residential mobility had declined over several generations. The “news” again got media attention as a surprise. (An earlier post on this blog summarizes the decline of mobility and the persistence of  the myth of increasing mobility.)


Why do such well-known findings in American social history seem to be repeatedly rediscovered to great astonishment? Pinker suggested in his NPR interview that daily news stories about crime and war give people the impression that violence is everywhere, even though the number of such events is never put into the context of either all the peaceful events of the day nor of the widespread violence of the past. That is probably part of the explanation.

Another is that most contemporary Americans have a standard model of history, an implicit story line, which is largely about decline: that today’s world is fragmented, rootless, and disordered compared to what it “used to be” – whenever that used-to-be used to be (the 1970s? 1950s? 1910s? 1880s? ….). When we learn some news that fits into the story line – about a murder, a riot, a war – it is absorbed and remembered. When we learn something that does not fit in – say, Pinker’s history lesson about declining violence – it is heard, reacted to (“What a surprise!”), and then soon forgotten. We forget because that “news” does not fit the grand narrative we carry around. So, we’ll keep being surprised.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.