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Is Killing Wrong?: A Study in Pure Sociology (review)

From: Social Forces
Volume 89, Number 2, December 2010
pp. 720-721 | 10.1353/sof.2010.0071

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Mark Cooney's Is Killing Wrong? presents the most thorough test ever of Donald Black's theory of law and social control. Black's theory - introduced in The Behavior of Law (Black 1976) - makes a bold claim: that the handling of moral conflict exhibits a diversity that cannot be explained by legal or ethical principles, but only with the social characteristics of the people involved. Black's theory was a break from legal thinking, but also from sociology. The first specimen of a theoretical strategy later called pure sociology, the theory eschewed all psychology. Absent, then, was one of the chief concerns of conventional sociologists: the relationship of individuals to society. Instead Black dealt with cases of conflict - their social characteristics and their outcomes. The theory thus introduced not only a new subject matter (the variability of law and social control) and new explanatory variables (including multiple forms of social status and social distance) but also a new unit of analysis (the case).

The novelty of the theory became a source of confusion, though, as researchers soon devised misguided "tests" of the theory. One of the most prominent of these was conducted by Michael R. Gottfredson and Michael J. Hindelang (1979), who argued that the seriousness of an offense, not the variables derived from Black's theory, best predicts whether crime victims call the police. Here the misunderstanding was fundamental. Black's theory is a theory of the response to deviant conduct, and the extent to which deviant conduct is defined as serious is part of this response. What Gottfredson and Hindelang did, then, was to observe whether dimensions of Black's dependent variable correlated. Many other studies were also flawed, and even the more appropriate ones were normally limited to a particular setting or aspect of the legal system.

Now, anyone interested in the evidence concerning Black's theories can begin with Is Killing Wrong? In it Cooney conducts what he calls a meta-test—a review of all relevant evidence. Because the focus is on homicide, the meta-test is a comprehensive review of the literature on responses to killing. This substantial body of knowledge includes two studies conducted by the author as well as numerous studies by historians, anthropologists, human rights organizations and others. The evidence provides overwhelming support for Black's theory, and it would be difficult to question the theory's overall validity in light of this study.

This test surpasses others in its cross-cultural breadth. Looking across societies allows consideration of the full range of the concepts, and Cooney documents an astounding degree of variability in responses to homicide. Killers may be executed by lynch mobs or by the state, or they may be imprisoned, banished, asked to pay compensation, placed on probation, shunned or even rewarded. Cooney's analysis also captures the full range of variation in the independent variables. For example, Black predicts that homicides by low-status against high-status persons are more serious than homicides by high-status against low-status persons. This explains many facts in the modern United States, but it applies most clearly in settings such as slave societies - where there is extreme variation in multiple forms of status. And in these settings, upward homicides - when a slave kills a slave owner - beget some of the harshest punishments seen anywhere, and downward homicides - when a slave owner kills a slave - some of the most lenient.

This study is also important in that it tests the theory as a whole. Even in The Behavior of Law it was clear that the theory of law was one part of a broader theory of morality, and Black's subsequent work addressed many other ways of handling conflict. Cooney thus examines the popular response to homicide along with the legal response. As he shows, these follow the same principles, and so the response to homicide can be explained with a single theory of morality. But as the author notes, sometimes discrepancies exist between the popular and legal responses. Is Killing Wrong? focuses on the occurrence and severity of moral responses generally, and so it does not explain these cases in which there are sharp divergences in popular justice and law...



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