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A possible explanation for SA’s violent crime epidemic?

There’s a fascinating article on the spread of happiness in the New Scientist, reprinted this weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald. It seems that the notion that one should choose one’s friends carefully holds more truth than we might have imagined. For it seems that phenomena as apparently ephemeral as happiness — or as weighty as obesity — are, quite literally, contagious.

“We’re beholden, even, to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends — people three degrees of separation away who we never meet but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus,” writes Michael Bond.

Bond goes on to report that research is suggesting that behaviour and attitudes such as happiness, depression, the tendency to smoke and/or drink, the inclination to vote in elections, even suicidal thoughts or the diagnosis of autism, can spread through social networks. Interestingly, these phenomena spread most effectively via friends of the same sex; surprisingly, a live-in partner has far less impact on mood than a friend living nearby. (Emotional contagion, it appears, requires physical proximity.)

Research into obesity suggests that the tendency to be enormously overweight is influenced by other factors — the adoption of social norms rather than behavioural mimicry in the case of happiness. If your friends gain weight, you are much more likely to gain weight (which explains why men with vast boeps appear to congregate in herds, especially at braais). The reverse is also true in the case of eating disorders; if this theory is correct then it would underscore the importance of attempts to ban access by girls to pro-anorexia websites.

If happiness and obesity are contagious in the scientific sense, what about other types of behaviour and attitude? If behaviours that we often assume to be a matter of individual responsibility turn out to be ruled so strongly by social forces, what would be the implications for South Africa’s most threatening social epidemic, that of violent crime?

Quite why South Africa should be so violent compared to countries that are poorer and in many ways, worse off, is something that nobody has been able to explain. After an elderly Naboomspruit/Mookgophong couple were brutally attacked with pruning shears late in 2007, forensic criminologist Irma Labuschagne stated, “We are an incredibly evil nation. I believe that people in our country have never been angrier with one another.”

The problem with this theory was that the alleged attackers were young Zimbabweans, not South Africans. Apartheid and a history of racial discrimination did not wash as explanations for their sadism. And why does South Africa bear the brunt of the violence? Why is Zimbabwe relatively free from violent crime? Similarly, why is South Africa so much more violent than Mozambique? Max du Preez, reflecting on a visit to the Balkans last year, wrote in Noseweek that in many ways South Africa was better off — but he’d still love to know why we have such a terrible violent crime problem, and a region with a poisonous history of ethnic hatred does not.

Could theories of social contagion help explain South Africa’s violent crime problem? Is there some kind of critical mass of criminals driving social norms which decree that sadism and brutality are acceptable? It strikes me that criminal behaviour could well be spread along lines similar to that for obesity, which is like crime in that it is officially unacceptable (often to the point of moral repugnance) and the subject of government campaigns to contain its spread, but nonetheless continues to increase.

Remember the baby rape epidemic? It seemed to appear from nowhere, then it was everywhere, and now reports are far less common. Is this because it is less newsworthy, so the media report it less; because sangomas really were suddenly advising men that baby rape was a cure for Aids; or because the social contagion, like many epidemics, has run its course?

A study on the role of social networks in the spread of violent criminal behaviour won’t solve South Africa’s crime problem. But it might just provide an answer, where so many have failed, to that singular question: why?