Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Random Violence: How we Talk about New Crimes and New Victims

Joel Best
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
0520215729 (pb); 0520215710 (hb)
US$17.95/13.95 (pb); US$45.00/35.00 (hb)
xv + 242 pp.

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Best seeks to examine the processes by which new crimes and new victims may be institutionally acknowledged in social policy through analyses of the way in which we discuss social problems. Best argues that the words and metaphors we (not really ever defined in the book) select to talk about social problems and make claims about their ramifications have social consequences themselves. Our language shapes the definitions we bring to bear and, therefore, the range of options we perceive to be viable responses. Comparable arguments are made in the second section concerning the process by which the acknowledgement of victims can be institutionalised, in the form of protective legislation. Best first discusses the growth of victims' claims - locating them within the victims' rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and secondly the development of a contemporary ideology of victimisation. It is on this foundation that a powerful victim industry has emerged: institutional interventions; NGO campaigns and services and, of course, the big business of self-help literature and confessional television shows. This victim industry is structurally supported by the media, academics and other 'experts' and the legal profession. Best argues the success of the victims' rights and recovery movements is rooted in the clear moral choice offered by the language of victims and victimisation in a time of moral ambiguity.

Finally, Best points to a 'striking mood of pessimism [in the US]' (p. 186) - that despite enormous progress and beneficial change in arenas such as health, education, employment and other indices of life quality, there is a concentration upon social problems. In particular, the world is characterised as drenched in random violence and one in which new crimes flourish. This desolation both frightens and paralyses us: for why attempt to make things better when all around us social problems are getting worse and social policies may be reinforcing and adding to the decline. The flip side of this, of course, is that our language can liberate us. We can reject the metaphor of social policy as war: - these rallying cries of unity - against drugs, poverty, breast cancer and so on - which provide an in built language of failure. Instead we can embrace a more complex understanding of social problems locating their emergence within historical and ideological contexts. Best argues that the deconstruction of the linguistic patterns and the analysis of connections between claims of social problems that his books offers may be the first step towards such a liberation.

I do have some reservations. I would like to have seen the analysis taken outside of the almost exclusively US context. The past fifteen years have seen a burgeoning victims' movement throughout Western Europe, Canada and Australia, for example, as well as a concern with violent crime reflected in public discourse and policy. Best's US focus begs the question of how the processes he examines might vary and produce different outcomes in different socio-political contexts. Secondly, his argument could have been strengthened by more explicit links between the sections and a fuller discussion of the opportunity for change. Finally, one carping point: the book's title suggests an analysis specific to violent crimes and their victims, but as the book progresses the subject matter become more generically 'social problems'. This does not damage the arguments made between the covers, but does suggest that a more inclusive title might have been more appropriate.

This is a book rich in detail and the analyses Best makes are cogent, forensic and revealing. It would be of interest to anyone concerned with social movements, crime and victimisation and social policy discourse.

Hazel May
University of Leeds

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999