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Infidelity, Liability, and Violence

Published onAug 18, 2022
Infidelity, Liability, and Violence
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ABSTRACT

Much criminal violence arises from conflict and is moralistic. The perpetrator is punishing someone for a perceived wrong. Liability refers to accountability for a wrong: Who exactly has to suffer punishment? Here I argue that violence arising from infidelity and sexual jealousy is a strategic research site for studying liability. When these matters trigger lethal violence, there is variation in who the perpetrator targets. Using detailed descriptions of US homicides, as well as the cross-cultural ethnographic literature, I describe and classify three patterns of liability: mate, rival, and dual. I conclude by suggesting sociological factors relevant to explaining these patterns and thus explaining patterns of violence.


Conflict sociology is concerned with the origins and handling of grievances (Black 1998: 74; Black 2011: 3; Campbell and Manning 2018). Defined broadly, this subfield attempts to describe and explain all interpersonal and intercollective conflicts. Grievances exist whenever anyone determines something as wrong, that is, as offensive or objectionable. The grievances range from minor irritations and violations of etiquette to horrific violence and large-scale injustice. The ways of handling these grievances vary from subtle and fleeting – a frown, a glare, a conversation cut short – to the dramatic and consequential – lynching, revolution, genocide. Much criminal violence in modern society is rooted in social conflict and is moralistic -- a punishment for perceived wrongs (Black 1983; Black 2004). This criminal violence includes behaviors described as “righteous slaughter” (Katz 1988), “street justice” (Jacobs and Wright 2006), or upholding the “code of the streets” (Anderson 1999). Thus, in addition to criminology, such violence also falls within the purview of the sociology of conflict.

There is a rich literature on the study of conflict, much of it following the theoretical program of sociologist Donald Black (1976, 1998, 2011, see, e.g., Baumgartner 1988, Campbell 2015; Campbell and Manning 2018; Cooney 1998, Senechal de la Roche 1996; Tucker 1999). Black has been influential in defining the subfield and has developed several general theories that explain various aspects of conflict with the social conditions in which they are most likely. For instance, Black’s (2011) work has addressed why conflicts erupt in the first place, positing that changing levels of intimacy, inequality, and cultural diversity are the root cause of all conflict. He has also formulated theories that specify which social conditions lead people to handle grievances in one way rather than another, including theories of vengeance, avoidance, and compensation (Black 1976, 1998). And he has addressed the topic of liability (or accountability) for a wrong or misfortune (Black 1998:49-61). Given that someone defined something as wrong, who will be held responsible?

This paper focuses on liability in the context of violent reactions to infidelity in marriages and other intimate partnerships. Broken relationships, sexual jealousy, and actual or suspected affairs are a potent cause of conflict in all human societies and sometimes lead to severe violence, including intimate-partner violence (Black 2011:43-46; Daly and Wilson 1988; Dobash et al. 2007). In the following article, I draw from studies of homicide and homicide-suicide in the US, as well as cross-cultural ethnographic literature, to demonstrate that perpetrators vary in who they hold accountable for the offense of infidelity. That is, those who are willing to kill over infidelity vary in who they kill or attempt to kill. This context makes their behavior important for the study of liability and, in turn, makes the study of liability important for predicting patterns of violence. I conclude by suggesting sociological variables that could help explain this variation. But first, I address the topic of liability in more detail.

Variation in Liability

Given that some wrong has occurred, who is to be held responsible? At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: The liable party is the one who committed the wrong. Yet if we study a wide array of conflicts – including conflicts across different cultures and historical periods – we see that the answer is not apparent at all, and there is much variation.

One source of variation is that standards for assessing responsibility vary immensely from culture to culture and from conflict to conflict. At one extreme, the criteria are relatively narrow: To be held accountable, the alleged offender has to have done something either intentionally malevolent or knowingly reckless, this action must have been the sole proximate cause of the injury, and there must be a lack of extenuating circumstances, such as any wrongdoing or recklessness by the injured party. Narrow standards like this characterized the law of personal injury in the US during the late nineteenth century, where a variety of legal doctrines combined to set a high bar for holding anyone liable to pay compensation for injury and made big businesses like railroads practically immune (Black 1998:59; Friedman 1985: 53-59).

At the other extreme, liability standards might be very broad, such that very few conditions must exist for someone to be held accountable. Someone might thus be held responsible for injuries they caused only partially or indirectly, even if their actions were considered appropriate and the actor could not reasonably foresee the injury. For instance, someone who invites a guest to his home might have to pay compensation for injury if that guest has an unexpected mishap during the journey. Such broad standards are found in many tribal and traditional settings and also increasingly characterize the law of product-related injuries in the modern US (Black 1998:50-51, 58-60; Friedman 1985:59-76).

In other cases, liability does not depend upon conduct at all, and a person might be punished for wrongs they did not even indirectly cause. We see this in practices like blood feuds: If a member of family A kills a member of family B, family B might retaliate by killing a member of family A, with no regard to whether the person they kill was the one who committed the initial murder (Black 1998:28; Cooney 1998:75-76). Such collective liability – punishing the kin or friends of the offender rather than the offender himself – is the norm in many times and places, and characterizes much communal violence throughout history, including ethnic riots, gang warfare, and genocides (Black 2004; Campbell 2009, 2015; Jacobs and Wright 2006: 108-110; Senechal de la Roche 1996).

Not only might people be held accountable merely for sharing social characteristics with the offender, but they can also be accountable even if they are entirely unrelated to the conflict. Aggrieved people sometimes turn their wrath on outsiders with no discernable connection to their grievance (Jacobs and Wright 2006: 104-105). Some rampage killings have this logic: someone upset over a personal loss or humiliation might react by massacring strangers in a public place (Black 2011:10). And some cultures develop this kind of liability into standard practice. For example, among the Suku of the Congo, an offense against a member of village A by a member of village B would be handled by retaliation against village C. Their name for this pattern is kembi, and someone who declares that they are engaging in kembi is safe from retaliation, as their target will find yet another village to hold accountable (Kopytoff 1961, see also Black 1998: 58-59; 2011:10).1

Thus, there is much variation in who is subject to sanctions for a perceived wrong, and explaining this variation is crucial for explaining exactly how people will react when they believe they are injured or offended. But of all the variable features of conflict, liability has received the least attention from sociological research and theory. Within the Blackian program, the main theoretical contribution is Black’s theory of the breadth of liability (Black 1998: 55-59, see also Senechal de la Roche 1996). This theory posits that broad standards of liability – in which fewer conditions need to be met before someone is held accountable – are more likely toward groups than toward individuals (Black 1998:57). Thus, one tends to see broader standards at work in environments dominated by organizations, be they tribal clans or modern business corporations, than in more individualistic settings. Black also posits that the breadth of liability increases with social distance, such that there are fewer qualifications when holding strangers, foreigners, and cultural aliens accountable for some wrong or misfortune (Black 1998: 56-57).

While valuable, these ideas are only the beginning of a theory of liability, and there is much they do not explain. For instance, suppose a man loses his job. As Black’s (2011:71-79) theory of conflict proposes, such vertical mobility is likely to cause a grievance. But a grievance against whom? Does he blame himself, his boss, his colleagues, his spouse, foreign competitors, or the political party in power? If, as sometimes happens, the loss provokes a violent reaction, who will be the target of the violence? We might ask a similar question about a man who believes his intimate partner has been unfaithful with another.

Liability for Infidelity in Homicide Cases

Here I propose a strategic research site for the study of liability: Conflicts over infidelity in marriage or other intimate partnerships. Romantic rivalry and sexual jealousy cause conflict everywhere. These conflicts can result in lethal violence, legal sanctions, or other dramatic behaviors that tend to get remembered and recorded and so lend themselves to study by social scientists (Black 2011:43-50; Wilson and Daly 1985). The offense of infidelity is theoretically interesting in that it involves at least two actors – an unfaithful partner and a romantic rival – and there is variation in which of these actors bears the brunt of responsibility.2

Here, I illustrate this variation with case descriptions from my previous studies of suicide and homicide-suicide (Manning 2015, 2020). The material comes from the files collected by the coroner of Jefferson County, Kentucky, and by West Virginia’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, including the reports of homicide detectives and deputy coroners.3 These studies focused on cases where the offender committed or attempted suicide, a question I have addressed in detail elsewhere. Here I ignore that question and focus on variation in what other party the killer attacked, specifically on the question of whether he attacked his romantic rival alone (rival liability), his partner alone (partner liability), or both together (dual liability).

Rival Liability

Some killers, or attempted killers, limit themselves to attacking their romantic rival. In a case from my study of domestic homicides in West Virginia, a man had known of his wife’s affair for about six months. During that time, he and his wife continued to live together and make sporadic attempts at repairing their relationship. The day before the fatal incident, the husband vandalized his rival’s car. He threatened the man with a hatchet, which resulted in him being arrested and reprimanded by a judge (who noted the incident would be easier to overlook if, instead of brandishing a weapon, he had merely punched his rival in the face). A magistrate ordered him to vacate the trailer home he shared with his wife, but he soon returned with a gun. There he found his wife and her paramour in bed. His wife tried to calm him down while her lover fled, but her husband ignored her and chased down his rival, who he shot in the head before turning the gun on himself. A suicide note in his pocket revealed that this outcome had been his intention all along: “I’m on a mission to kill [my wife’s lover], then myself because he poisoned a beautiful perfect relationship.”

There was a similar case in my study of suicide in Jefferson County, Kentucky. In this case, a truck driver likewise left a suicide note indicating his plan to shoot his estranged partner’s new boyfriend and himself. He attempted to put this plan into action, going to his rival’s workplace – notably, they worked for the same trucking company – and opening fire on him. But his rival managed to escape, and the jealous man was left to commit only suicide.

We might say these cases have rival liability, in that the jealous partner directs violent sanctions at their romantic rival rather than at their partner.

Partner Liability

In other cases, though, the violent reaction of a jealous person is directed only at the supposedly unfaithful partner. For example, in another West Virginia case, a male homicide offender was upset at his cohabiting girlfriend’s involvement with other men. After the police responded to a domestic violence call at their home, his partner went to stay with another man, who the offender had known for years. It is unclear if his partner had a sexual relationship with this man. Still, the offender was reportedly jealous of him, and he had previously complained to an acquaintance -- while buying the pistol that he would later use for the crime -- that his girlfriend was “whoring around.” When the girlfriend returned to their home days later, he argued with her and shot her with the pistol – because, as he later told a cellmate, he was “mad with her running around.” After the fatal shooting, he hid her body and the pistol he used to kill her. He later lied to the police about her whereabouts and seemed to have planned on getting away with the killing. He did not attempt violence against the man his partner had been staying with and did not appear to have such plans.

A similar case from my study of suicide in Kentucky involved a man who killed both his wife and himself. The man left a lengthy suicide note complaining of his wife bringing men he was jealous of into their home and accusing her of turning their home into a “brothel.” He also says she admitted to having a boyfriend. It is unclear whether the accusations were accurate and whether, if so, he ever had personal contact with this rival. But his notes indicate that he never attempted to identify or confront him and evinced little concern or condemnation. Instead, his ire focused entirely on his wife, her supposed callousness toward him, and her living a life of “degradation” while carrying his name. And it was her alone that he confronted and killed before turning the gun on himself.

We might call this pattern partner liability, as violent punishment is directed only at the intimate partner rather than at any romantic rival.

Dual Liability

In other cases, jealous individuals attack both their partner and their rival. For example, in a West Virginia case, a young man and woman had been in an unstable relationship for about six years. Though she had ended the relationship months prior, he refused to accept it was finally over and continued to describe her as his girlfriend and to tell others he suspected her of “cheating” on him with another man (actually her fiancé). Because of these suspicions, he armed himself with two guns and waited outside of her apartment one night while she was gone. She and her fiancé arrived together in a car and parked outside the apartment. The jealous man approached them as they sat in the car and fired several shots through the windshield, killing them both.

In a very similar case from my study of suicide in Kentucky, a 22-year-old Eastern European immigrant ambushed his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend in a parking lot late at night and shot them both before turning the gun on himself. Likewise, in a case described in Neil Websdale’s (1999) study of domestic homicides in Florida, one man ambushed his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend on the street, fatally shooting them both. Notably, he did not attack a bystander who, hoping to deter him from violence, threatened to call the police on him before the shooting (Websdale 1999:44).

We might call this pattern dual liability, where both the allegedly unfaithful partner and the romantic rival are targeted, as opposed to cases where the jealous person only attacks one or the other.

Cross-Cultural Patterns

These examples show that all three types of liability exist in modern criminal homicides arising from sexual jealousy and allegations of infidelity. We can also see these patterns in the cross-cultural ethnographic literature, often suggesting that one or the other of these types is the normal pattern in that society. Searches of the electronic Human Relations Area Files Database using the topic code “sexual and marital offenses” and the search term “adultery” uncovered several examples.

For instance, an ethnography of the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest reports that partner liability was the norm: “In cases of adultery the husband could beat his wife, but he was not allowed to maim her or her lover” (Whitman and Whitman1947: 20). Among the Bedouin of Libya, local belief holds it legitimate to kill an unfaithful wife, but it appears that in practice rival liability is more common. According to ethnographer Safia Mohsen, “Of the fourteen cases of adultery that I examined during my field work, none resulted in the killing of the adulteress” but “three resulted in the murder of her partner” (Mohsen 1974: 131). Among the Pashtun of Pakistan and Afghanistan, both parties to adultery bring dishonor to the families involved, so the culture prescribes dual liability. In one case, a married couple arrived as refugees in a village, only for their host’s son to begin an affair with the wife. When the husband learned of the affair, he told his host, who arranged a feast, invited the guests to pray, and then used a revolver to kill his son. After the mourning period for his son had passed, he gave the firearm to the aggrieved husband and called on him to further uphold the code of honor by shooting the unfaithful wife, which he did, later taking a new wife from his host’s family (Ahmed 1980: 204).

We can also see these types of liability in cases that are not handled with unilateral violence. In many times and places, infidelity is a matter for settlement by the authorities, with aggrieved spouses bringing their allegations before a local chieftain, a council of elders, or a state court. Such settlement agents weigh the accusation and decide on the appropriate sanctions, such as punishment or payment of compensation. And there is variation in which party to adultery is subject to such sanctions.

We see partner liability among the Zapotec of Mexico, where adultery was a frequent topic of gossip and men were “easily provoked to jealousy” (Nader 1990: 203). Here accusations of infidelity were taken to court, and men filing cases against allegedly unfaithful wives was a common source of litigation. Rivals were not named in these suits, but a wife (or less often, husband) found guilty of adultery would be ordered to pay a fine for the misconduct (Nader 1990: 186).4 Among the Ainu of Japan, too, only the unfaithful spouse was made to pay fines (Takakura 1960: 20). In older times, they were subject to harsher sanctions. Unfaithful wives might be executed by being thrown from cliffs into the sea, while both wives and husbands who were unfaithful might have their hair publicly torn out as a ritual humiliation (Takakura 1960: 20-21).5

In other societies, legal codes prescribe rival liability. Such codes are mainly concerned with the infidelity of women, which they treat as an offense by one man against another. Legal codes in early medieval England ordered a man convicted of sex with another man’s wife to pay compensation to the aggrieved husband. Thus the sixth century Code of Dooms prescribed that “if a freeman lies with [another] freeman’s wife, he shall pay [the husband] his weregild” (Weinstein 1986: 206). Among the Pacific island people of Palau, “the cuckolded husband visits his wife's lover and names his price. High-ranking men can demand high sums. Any reluctance on the part of the lover results in an objective decision made by the klobak (village council)” (McCutcheon 1989: 65). The Nuba people of Africa use rival liability in a combination of dual-like violence and legal settlement. A cuckold would challenge his rival to a fight with sticks and, after both had proved their manliness through combat, might then take his rival before the chief, who would make the rival swear an oath to leave the man’s wife alone (Nadel 1947: 460).

Still elsewhere, legal codes use dual liability and proscribe punishment for both parties to adultery. In the ancient Near East, the legal codes of Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and the Hebrews proscribe death for an unfaithful wife and her paramour. For example, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi specifies that “If the wife of a man is seized while lying with a man, they shall be bound and thrown into the water” (Westbrook 1990: 554). The only exception is when the paramour can make a case that he reasonably thought the woman was unmarried, such as if she approached him in a tavern or other place frequented by prostitutes. There was no circumstance in which just the rival was punished. The Code of Hammurabi explicitly forbade it: “if the wife’s master [her husband] lets her live, the king shall indeed let his servant [the rival] live” (Westbrook 1990: 554). The Hittite legal code says much the same: “If the (the husband) brings them to the gate of the palace and says ‘My wife shall not die’ and he lets his wife live, he shall let the paramour live and he shall clothe his head’” (Westbrook 1990: 555).

What Explains Liability?

The material cited above illustrates three ideal-typical kinds of liability for infidelity: partner liability, rival liability, and dual liability. Unfortunately, there is presently no systematic study of these types, and there is also no theory that adequately explains them. However, we can identify several important factors for constructing such a theory, which should be accounted for in research.

Opportunity

One class of relevant variables might be called opportunity factors. Variation in human behavior sometimes depends on what social conditions make it possible or feasible. For instance, Cohen and Felson’s (1979) “routine activities” theory of crime explains variation in crime rates with seemingly mundane factors that present opportunities for criminals to engage in crime. An increase in armed robbery may not reflect any change in the factors – such as socialization or economic strain – that lead someone to become an armed robber. It may simply be that more potential victims are walking through a place where armed robbers hunt, thus allowing them to commit more robberies.

We can apply similar logic to explaining moralistic violence. Thus Jacques (2020:12), asking what conditions explain violent retaliation among drug dealers, proposes that “violent retaliation…is only possible when a wrongdoer has contact with a retaliator” (see also Jacobs and Wright 2006). The same logic applies to violent retaliation against a sexual or romantic rival. In some cases, it is simply a matter of lacking access to the rival. This situation appears to have been so in the West Virginia case cited above as an example of partner liability. The wife had apparently been courting another man at a distance, through letters and possibly other forms of communication, and had only recently planned to meet him for the first time. Her jealous husband may not have even known the man’s full name, let alone what he looked like or where he lived and worked. Conversely, West Virginia and Kentucky cases cited above as examples of rival liability both involved men who knew the identity of their rivals. The Kentucky truck driver worked for the same company as the rival he attacked. The West Virginia man had recently had a confrontation with his rival and shot him after finding him in bed with his wife.

The latter situation is probably a common scenario leading to rivals being attacked and killed, either alone or alongside the unfaithful partner. If opportunity – the coincidence in time and space of potential offender and target – drives at least some of the variation in liability, we should expect rival liability or dual liability to be more common in cases where the jealous partner catches the offending couple in the act than in cases where he or she does not.

We should also expect variation across different social settings based on social factors that make it more likely that a rival would either be discovered in the act or otherwise be known and accessible to a jealous spouse. Towns, neighborhoods, and whole societies vary in the extent to which they have dense and stable social ties, as well as frequent interaction and lack of privacy. In traditional tribal and village societies, the identity of a spouse’s paramour is probably much more challenging to hide than in modern urban and suburban settings. Thus we would expect rival or dual liability to be less common in the latter. In modern societies, however, we should expect it to be more common in small towns, ethnic enclaves, or other places with unusually dense social ties and unusually little privacy.

Note that the discussion so far assumes there is a rival. But in at least some cases where jealousy leads to violence, the infidelity is fantastical. What people believe to be real is sometimes real in its effects, but within limits: phenomenology interacts with opportunity. While delusional accusations might lead a jealous partner to commit homicide, their delusional nature makes it hard to find out the identity of the nonexistent rival. The breed of obsessive possessiveness and morbid jealousy described in the literature on domestic homicide (e.g., Websdale 1999: 80-100) may especially lend itself to such delusions and contribute to the frequency of partner liability.

Domestic Distance and Inequality

Not all variation in liability for infidelity is driven by the difficulty of identifying and locating the rival. Following Black’s (1976, 1998, 2011) theories of conflict, we might also look to such factors as the social distance between the spouses and the level of social inequality between them.

Consider the relative social status of husbands and wives, measured by their wealth, prestige, and the extent to which one party has authority over another. The nature and degree of inequality between spouses vary across societies and from relationship to relationship within the same culture (Black 2018). One would expect this to impact the ways that spouses handle conflict. For instance, Black (2018) argues that violent punishment of wives is greater – most likely and most severe – in relationships with higher levels of inequality and social distance between them. In the type of relationship he calls a “cold patriarchy,” men and women operate in segregated spheres, and men have a great deal of authority over their wives, who might be treated more like chattel than like a partner

Thus one might expect violent punishment of unfaithful wives to be most significant in a harshly patriarchal marriage and pure rival liability to be less likely than either partner liability or dual liability. And in societies where cold patriarchy is the norm, partner or dual liability should be the norm as well, at least in cases where the alleged offender is a woman (in such settings, the infidelity of men is often excused). Notably, Black classifies the Pashtun culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an example of cold patriarchy. As mentioned above, dual liability appears to be the standard practice in this culture. On the other hand, the cultures cited above as examples of rival liability – the Libyan Bedouin, early medieval England – while perhaps less patriarchal than the Pashtun, are far from gender-egalitarian. And even in relatively patriarchal cultures or relationships, there are other countervailing factors that might be at work, including cultural norms of honor.

Honor Norms

Social scientists who study violence point to the role of “honor culture” in encouraging violent conflict (Black 2011:71-73; Cooney 1998: 108-109; Leung and Cohen 2011; Nisbett and Cohen 1996). Honor cultures place a substantial value on the public reputation for physical bravery and an unwillingness to be dominated by others. Those enmeshed in such cultures tend to have a high sensitivity to slight, as they are always wary of the threat of being dishonored by someone else’s disrespectful actions. They also have a strong tendency to respond in aggressive and physically violent ways to perceived dishonor, something that causes honor cultures to have high rates of self-help violence. This includes such distinctive forms as the fatal duels once fought by European aristocrats or the plantation-owning elites of the Old South. It also includes much criminal violence in modern America and elsewhere, rooted as it is in conflicts between young men who campaign for respect according to “the code of the street” (Anderson 1999).

Honor, in this sense, is often equated with manliness. Honor cultures encourage men, in particular, to be aggressive, assertive, and prone to violence (Black 2011:71). And while honor cultures vary in their details, in many cases, codes of honor tend to focus on relations between male peers, seeking to maintain a kind of fragile equality amidst competitive assertiveness. Thus, in cases where a man believes his wife or girlfriend to have been unfaithful, he is prone to see it as an affront by another man, who dared risk his wrath through such disrespect. It may even be seen as something akin to theft of property, as when an informant from Africa’s Ganda people compared accusing a wife of adultery to accusing shoes of being stolen (Black 1976: 19). This is not to say that the code of masculine honor will fully deflect liability away from an allegedly unfaithful female partner – men might also prove their toughness through their ability to control female partners are relatives with violence. Some codes of family honor prescribe exactly that (Cooney 2014, 2019). But one might expect that honor culture to make it more likely that a romantic rival would be conceptualized as a major offender and demand that accounts be settled with him. In this way, honor culture might make pure partner liability less likely than a dual or rival liability, as no man of honor can allow his rival to go unpunished.

If so, honor culture conditions would also encourage rival or dual liability. Honor cultures emerge where state legal systems are absent, weak, or ineffective (Cooney 1998: 122). This includes many stateless societies found in human history, as well as parts of the world today – such as remote regions in poorer countries – that are effectively outside the influence of modern states. But it also includes many poor and minority neighborhoods in modern wealthy nations. Here people often find they cannot rely on the protection of the law (Black 1976:17; Cooney 1998:124-127). Their complaints – such as the theft of a small amount of money – might be beneath the notice of legal officials or might be about matters – such as drug market transactions – that are themselves illegal (Jacobs and Wright 2006; Jacques 2020; Jacques and Wright 2011). They may find the law unable to help even with severe offenses, such as identifying and punishing murderers, while at the same time being subject to harsh or even brutal treatment by police (Leovy 2015). Where the law is distrusted and ineffective, honor tends to thrive. And so we might expect that in poor and minority neighborhoods, rival and dual liability tend to thrive as well, such that a more significant proportion of killings sparked by jealousy will involve the killer attacking and killing a rival either instead of or in addition to, killing his partner. In middle-class neighborhoods or among educated and affluent offenders, we should expect more pure mate liability.

Implications

Romantic infidelity and sexual jealousy are major sources of conflict in human affairs and are also recurring themes in homicide literature. When these matters spark killings or other severe violence, there is variation in what form the violence takes. Some aggrieved individuals attack their partner for the alleged betrayal but attempt to harm no one else. Some spare their partner and attack the rival they hold responsible for alienating their partner’s affections. And some attack both, often impulsively after catching them together, but sometimes in premeditated acts. Thus such cases illustrate a broader pattern of variation in liability for the offense of infidelity. This makes studying such cases a promising avenue for creating and testing explanations of liability. Researchers with access to detailed, case-level information about homicide and assault, including such sources as police and coroner’s reports, should thus be on the lookout for these types of events and be sensitized to describing and analyzing them. Of particular importance is attention to aspects of the case that might explain why it led to one kind of liability rather than another, including but not limited to the factors suggested in the analysis above.

The progress of science often involves seeking more precise and esoteric sorts of comparison in order to further much broader theoretical ideas. The study of liability for infidelity in the context of violent punishment will help generate and eventually test more general statements about liability and violence. This, in turn, would improve our ability to explain variation in both violent and non-violent ways of handling conflict.

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Jason Manning, PhD, is an Associate Professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology. His research interests include the study of conflict, violence, and morality. He is the author Suicide: The Social Causes of Self-Destruction.

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