Women in Criminal Justice Article Review: Ogle, Maier-Katkin, and Bernard

Ogle, R.S., Maier-Katkin, D., & Bernard, T.J. (1995). A theory of homicidal behavior among women. Criminology, 33(2), 173-193.

  1. Main Thesis: This article uses an adaptation of strain theory, which is explained through Agnew (1992), Megargee (1966, 1973) and Bernard (1990, 1993) and supported by some feminist theory, to discuss the production of negative affect leading to criminal behavior in women. The authors suggest that women are placed under significant stress simply because they are women in a male-centric world/society. Unlike men, women then tend to internalize the emotions that arise from stress and this results in a pattern of controlled lifestyles with occasional violent outbursts. Although the authors focus on female homicide, they are careful to point out that this theory could apply to any violent crime perpetrated by a female.
  2. Body of Evidence: Ogle, Maier-Katkin, and Bernard use combinations of established literature to explore the limitations of prior theories of female criminality. They theorize a new rationale for female violence by combining the work of Agnew and Megargee as well as the third author, Bernard (p. 176, p. 182). They begin to prove their new theory by showing how women are made to be Other in relation to men (p. 177) and how social messages about sex and motherhood inevitably produce stress/strain for girls and women. They then discuss how girls and women are socially constrained from expressing that stress and therefore must internalize it, resulting in high rates of overcontrolled personality, which is a common trait of homicidal offenders. The authors suggest that “women as a group are more ‘controlled’ than men” ( p. 181). This leads to a pattern of a low female crime rate combined with instances of extreme violence. Next, the authors use Bernard’s past work to show that this theory disproportionately affects women of color, urban women, and women of low social class because of the additional stresses—especially including social isolation—on the lives of these women. Social isolation results in different cultural understandings about the expression of anger as well as limiting women’s access to potential victims, meaning victims of women’s criminal behavior often are people they are close to.
  3. Conclusions: This literature-based study proposes a new theory of female criminality with special focus on explaining homicidal behavior.  This theory suggests that cultural strains disproportionately affect women as a group and especially affect disadvantaged women.  The authors combine Agnew’s strain theory with Megargee’s theory of overcontrolled personality to create a new theory that can explain the overall pattern of low female crime with some highly violent anomalies.
  4. My Conclusions: I think there is certainly a place for literature-based studies of criminality, and I found Ogle, Maier-Katkin, and Bernard’s choices of supporting theories to be logical and smart. However, I also think that the authors of literature-based studies have a special obligation to make their work relevant to the field and to broader society; although the authors were socially responsible in noting that “at the individual level, however, prediction (of female crime) would be considerably more difficult,” (p. 187) they did not provide a call to action based on their work. To be fair, this call to action might be implicit. In addition to setting up empirical studies at the aggregate level, I think the authors are suggesting increased attention to the ways in which women are placed under cultural strain.  I believe this article could have been even better if this latter call were made explicit.

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