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Learning from the Stories of Homicide Perpetrators

Devoto Federal Penitentiary (bigger picture), in Buenos Aires. Credit: Martín Hernán Di Marco.

June 22, 2022

Homicides have been addressed by a wide range of fields, from social sciences and psychology to law, literature, and cinema. The fascination with violence, as Oriana Binik says, is illustrated by the array of academic and lay theories that raise questions about how we think about this topic. However, demonizing, mythologizing, medicalizing or starting from the premise that the perpetrators’ actions are irrational has undermined the possibility to fully comprehend the social processes behind it.

A central paradox in this topic is that homicide offenders’ stories and biographies are rarely studied, taking into account their own terms and logics. Extensive academic research has broadened the knowledge about the characteristics of violent deaths at the micro, meso, and macro levels. While this emphasis has justifiably broadened the knowledge of statistical trends and key variables (such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status), it has been detrimental to the comprehensive analysis of narrative processes.

The worldview of homicide offenders: a plea for an empirically-based understanding

David Riches, a pioneer in the field of anthropology of violence, stated that a key feature of this field is that “violence” is a term employed by witnesses and victims, yet the subjective explanation of its performers is usually missing. Since greater attention has been given to quantitative data, the specific ways in which offenders rationalize and experience violence are less known.

What can we learn from the offenders’ perspectives? How do their stories and lives contribute to understanding male-male homicide? Drawing on narrative criminology, the aim of my PhD research has been to understand the narratives employed by offenders and analyze the importance that these events have in their stories. This approach, by its design, avoids an essentialist analysis and tries to highlight that the meanings attached to violent practices are historically and culturally shaped in each social group.

San Martín Penitentiary, in Buenos Aires. Credit: Martín Hernán Di Marco.

 A narrative and biographical approach

The data in this study was derived from a sample of 72 narrative interviews with male perpetrators in Metropolitan Buenos Aires, Argentina. To fit the sampling criteria, participants were those charged with intentional male-male homicide in the context of quarrels and interpersonal disputes. Interviews followed the discourse and time periods that the men chose to explore. The bracketing process – setting aside personal experiences and beliefs – was critical in the analysis. Fieldwork was conducted in federal and provincial prisons, as well as in the homes of men who had completed their sentences.

Each participant received the transcripts from the interviews conducted with him, and a short reconstructed life story was written collaboratively with the participant. An open and axial coding process was followed. This article focuses on two domains: biographical turning points (moments identified as a crossroads) and rationalities (participant explanations giving meaning to events).

Violent deaths: meaning and stories

Exploring the ways in which offenders gave meaning to the homicide turned out to be an interesting and fruitful endeavor. Three main points stand out regarding how the men presented and signified violence and violent death.

First, physical violence was talked about and presented in diverse and shifting ways. Violence was described as spontaneous, natural, a logical result of an emotional state, or a situational dynamic; it was seen as a necessary device, a form of punishment, and a restorative practice of honor, manhood, and status; it was also an unintended action, or an unfortunate event forced by social circumstances. Violence, as a practice and a resource, is a polyvalent action. In order to neutralize and rationalize it, men resorted to minimizing agency, deflecting feelings of remorse and aligning themselves with certain dominant scripts (“I didn’t have a choice,” “He had it coming,” “I was out of control,” “It was my upbringing, not me”). Violence, therefore, never lacked meaning, and it was ultimately a legitimate resource employed by actors.

Second, contrary to my initial hypothesis and hegemonic theories in the mental health field, which medicalize violence performance by stating its “traumatic” nature, homicide was predominantly not presented as a turning point. Their parents’ abandonment, job loss in the context of economic crisis, romantic break-ups, gaining or losing friends, and, most notably, being imprisoned represented significant transitions in their life stories. These events changed their “self” and the way in which they saw themselves and others. However, the homicide itself was rarely presented as the crossroad moment.

The fact that imprisonment, more than killing, was described as the major event was related to what this institution meant to them. It was presented as the “rock bottom” moment of their lives, an opportunity to change and reshape their life course, the redemption from a previous self, or even an event determined by society.

Third, prison, homicide, and prior harsh vital events were predominantly presented as “learning experiences.” The prevailing discourses employed by interviewees tended to appraise harmful experiences positively. Imprisonment, fights, losing contact with relatives and friends were decoded as moments of maturity, personal growth, subjective transformation, or strengthening. A violent death can inaugurate a new “self.” This rationality is deeply connected to hegemonic masculinity, but also to the circulating discourses in prison (i.e., psychology, coaching, religion, rehabilitation, and social work devices) that shape the stories.

Concluding remarks

As social interactionists have stressed over the decades, safeguarding the perspective of social actors is necessary to understand social reality and to avoid replacing it within pre-established scientific categories. While there is a plethora of scholarly theories about homicide – referencing the almost universal “traumatic” impact of death in the life of the offender – only empirical explorations about sense-making can contribute to the comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon. In academia and common sense, killing is associated with an existential moment and an irrational, deranged, or immoral act. This research shows otherwise.

Revisiting existing data, theories, frameworks, and institutional devices that ascribe certain meanings to violence without having empirical grounds for them constitutes a worthy path of inquiry, still vastly unexplored.

Martín Hernán Di Marco, Oslo University, Norway and member of ISA Research Committee on Biography and Society (RC38) <mh.dimarco@gmail.com>

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