Sociology / behavioral studies

Review of Thomas Joiner, 'The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide'

Two people who died at a San Francisco nursing home on Monday night appear to have been victims of a murder-suicide; they were mother and daughter, though few other details have yet been released. A police officer and "self-confessed gun nut" in Dallas extolled the qualities of his new shotgun in a video posted online a few days before using it to kill his wife and then himself last week. It's reported that his jealousy was stoked by her Facebook socializing. The lack of evident motive makes even more horrific the scene in a Chicago suburb, also last week. After killing his parents and his 5 year old nephew, a man set the house on fire, then shot himself.

These events all occurred during the short time it took me to read The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide by Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, just published by Oxford University Press. The author estimates that around 2 percent of suicides in the United States are accompanied by the murder of at least one other person. It averages out to slightly more than two murder-suicides per day.

Nearly 90 percent of "ordinary" murders are committed by men, who also make up most (at least 75 percent) of the body count. With murder-suicide, the figures are significantly different: the perpetrators are male more than 90 percent of time, while 75 percent of the victims are female. "Both murder per se and suicide per se involve firearms between 55 percent and 70 percent of the time," the author indicates. "The rate in murder-suicide is considerably higher, with some studies returning rates approaching 100 percent."

But there is the very rare exception, such as the man who killed his wife with an injection cyanide before swallowing some himself. In this case, it was a matter of convenience: "He was a jeweler, and jewelers frequently use cyanide for their wares." Firearms and poison alike can be used in both stages of murder-suicide, while the man who killed his wife and son with a baseball bat three years ago couldn't exactly turn the weapon back on himself. Yet he "did nevertheless arrange that he be bludgeoned to death," Joyner writes; "he placed himself in front of an oncoming passenger train."

An article about the apparent murder-suicide of a man and woman in Cleveland last month reported: "Police have not said which of the two victims they believe was murdered. They also have not revealed why they believe the deaths are the result of a murder-suicide." I have not been able to find more recent news about the case, but Joiner's book makes a confident guess possible on both points.

The author is a prominent specialist in the study of suicidal behavior, and his goal in The Perversion of Virtue is to create "a comprehensive yet parsimonious typology" for what he calls "true murder-suicide." He excludes cases in which a murderer commits suicide to avoid punishment after the attempt to escape has failed, or still rarer instances of the suicide causing someone else's death by accident (say, a pedestrian killed by a building-jumper). In murder-suicide proper, the perpetrator's decision to kill himself is the primary factor. All else follows from it, through a morbid logic in which the thought of the victim(s) continuing to live is "the final barrier to suicide ... in the perpetrator's mind." The resolution to kill himself "necessitates, through an appeal to virtue, the death of at least one other person."

Virtue seems a peculiar word to find in this context, but it is the key to the book's four-compartment typology, defined by the venerable higher goods of mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The perpetrator of murder-suicide considers the death of the other(s) as required by at least one, and possibly two, of the four virtues. The act entails "a perverted and horribly distorted version of [virtue] to be sure," say Joiner, who also indicates that that the decision is always a product of mental illness. From the perspective of anyone but the killer, a murder-suicide compelled by the demands of justice is simply a matter of revenge: the abusive parent or the ex-spouse's infidelity damaged the suicidal person so badly that life is unbearable, but even more unbearable is the idea of them getting away with it.

Conversely, the murder may be committed as an act of violent mercy: a way to spare the victim (or victims) suffering in the wake of the suicide, as when parents in a suicide pact also kill their children. Not altogether distinct from such mercy killings are cases in which the perpetrator feels responsible for a severely ill or otherwise incapacitated person, so that killing them is a duty to be performed before committing suicide.

Finally, and the hardest of the four to regard with sympathy, is murder-suicide as a quest for glory. The primary example Joiner considers is the Columbine killers, who hoped to exceed Timothy McVeigh's death toll, and might have, had their bombs worked. The carnage of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate might also be relevant examples of murder-suicide pursued in the interest of their leaders' heroic self-concept, which to anyone else just looks like grandiosity. Orchestrating mass death was as close to glory as they ever got.

Parsimony, too, is a virtue, though more of the intellectual than moral variety. Having narrowed the scope of the term "murder-suicide," with stress on the suicidal impulse as its driving force, Joiner takes an inductive leap by suggesting a four-part typology of the rationales perpetrators create for their violent actions. Near the end of the book, he points out that the virtues of mercy, justice, duty, and glory can be further reduced to two categories: "one, combining mercy and duty, in which feelings of care and empathy for others are high (if distorting) and another, combining justice and glory, in which callousness and carelessness predominate." But he stops short of pushing any further toward schematism. And a good thing too. Like any virtue, parsimony gone wrong becomes a vice.

Just what value does the taxonomy itself have? Joiner suggests that it could be useful in talking to patients considered potentially violent. People with plans for suicide can be extremely reticent to reveal much about themselves, but a carefully delivered question about some aspect of the four virtues might be useful in assessing their state of mind.

For the lay reader, there's a certain relief at learning some kind of order or intelligibility can be found amidst all the mayhem. If, in addition, the book prevents even one more horror of the kind it describes, it will have served its purpose.


 

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Review of Goran Therborn, 'The Killing Fields of Inequality'

In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.

Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly

In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.

And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.

Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)

A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.

While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."

The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")

Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."

Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."

It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.

"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."

That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."

To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"

I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.

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Sociology professor whose course was questioned will return to Boulder

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Patti Adler will stay on at U. of Colorado, but blasts the way the university questioned a class lesson on prostitutes.

Study tracks changes in sociology departments and faculty workloads

Section: 
Smart Title: 

A new survey of sociology departments from the American Sociological Society shows few changes to department size spanning last decade, which isn't great, but isn't bad, either.

Short-term courses for maximizing learning -- and revenue (essay)

The administration at U of All People is nothing if not financially expeditious (some faculty have put it another way, not printable in this periodical). Jacking up students’ expenses is unpopular, for instance, but extracting extra tuition money can be accomplished in subtle ways. Starting a few decades ago, U of All People set the minimum credit hours for graduation two courses over a full course load every semester. That way, students had to take extra classes, often during the summer. This concept was shamelessly copied by other schools.

In fact, the short-term courses were a hit, since the workload was lighter, and the school could get the same amount of money in less time. Then one day, the Dean of Others’ Affairs had a bright idea: if students were willing to sign up for an eight-week or even a four-week course, why not offer a three-week course? Thus was born Wintersession and Maymester, a concept that other schools shamelessly copied.

Now that earnings are flat in this economic climate, the innovative folks in Long Hall have come up with a new plan, Pack-It-In Pedagogy, a term invented yesterday by our newly appointed Time Management Expert. To expedite the plan, each department has been tasked to come up with at least one course offering. Eventually, we expect other schools to shamelessly copy the concept. Meanwhile, below are just a few classes to maximize student learning while also boosting revenues.

WinterInterSplinterSession: Three Days That Can Change Your Life

English 1.25: Shakespeare: The Play. Students read Hamlet one day, see the film the next day, and take the final exam on the third day. “The key is to be representative,” says Professor Bowdler. “To expose these students to a great work — isn’t that enough?”

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What Are You Doing This Weekend?: Special Two-Day Courses

Chem Lab 9.5, in which students carry out one experiment. “It’ll be a reaction that gets to the heart of what chemistry is all about,” says Professor Boom. “Bunsen burners, Erlenmeyer flasks, yellow and red powder — the works!”

History 10.5: Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Students eat bread one day and attend a circus the next. Instructor: TBA.

*

Give Us a Day, and We’ll Give You a Grade: One-Day Workshops

Geology 1.1, where students split open and examine one basalt rock. “The universe in a grain of sand,” is how Professor Geode puts it. “It’s fascinating, what one can glean from a single work of nature.”

Psychology 2.3 (online): the students each read a different chapter of the textbook on Blackboard and give their opinions of it in a discussion group. Together, by the end, they’ve gone through the entire book. No instructor; peer review.

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60 Minutes: Hour-Long Intensives

Math 24.1. Students tackle one difficult equation. As Professor Quad, this year’s winner of the Pretty Good Teacher Award, notes: “Why clog the syllabus with problem sets that just repeat? Less is more.”

Spanish 0.2: Students learn three verbs and two nouns, then use them in conversation. Access to language lab included. Independent study. Monitor: TBA.

Astronomy 0.6, in which students creep outside to look at the stars. In case of clouds, students will draw zodiac pictures for a portfolio. “The sky’s the limit!” — Professor Centauri

Phys. Ed. 1.23: Really tough Zumba class; warm-up not included. Staff.

Art History 8.3 (hybrid): Students receive a PowerPoint lecture on various paintings and then compare them to other paintings online. “Put some art in your life!” says Professor Sfumato.

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MOOCs in a Minute

Videotaped lectures are run at eight times the normal speed. In advanced classes, the speed jumps to 16x.

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The U of All People administration is delighted with our proposals and is moving ahead with all possible dispatch. All we need now is a slogan for advertising these new courses.

“Got time for a quickie?” is the current favorite, but without the suggestive accompanying graphic.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date With Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

 

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Sociologists Debate Terminology for Members

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American Sociological Association tries to figure out the gender choices members should get to categorize themselves -- and the process is far from simple.

Sociology job market continues to recover steadily

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The market for new Ph.D.s is on the upswing, although specialties don't always match what search committees are looking for.

Study documents use of technology in sociology courses

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Departments are offering online courses and making use of new tools for teaching, survey finds.

Researchers explore who is taking MOOCs and why so many drop out

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Are only 10 percent of students finishing courses? It depends on how you count.

College bicycle studies classes gain ground, expand focus

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The study of bicycles -- which once existed only in the context of transportation planning and engineering -- is emerging in classes in many disciplines devoted to the two-wheeled vehicles.

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