The concept of victim dates back to ancient cultures and civilizations, such as the ancient Hebrews. Its original meaning was rooted in the idea of sacrifice or scapegoat -- the execution or casting out of a person or animal to satisfy a deity or hierarchy. Over the centuries, the word victim came to have additional meanings. During the founding of victimology in the 1940s, victimologists such as Mendelson, Von Hentig, and Wolfgang tended to use textbook or dictionary definitions of victims as hapless dupes who instigated their own victimizations. This notion of "victim precipitation" was vigorously attacked by feminists in the 1980s, and was replaced by the notion of victims as anyone caught up in an asymmetric relationship or situation. "Asymmetry" means anything unbalanced, exploitative, parasitical, oppressive, destructive, alienating, or having inherent suffering. In this view, victimology is all about power differentials. Today, the concept of victim includes any person who experiences injury, loss, or hardship due to any cause. Also today, the word victim is used rather indiscriminately; e.g., cancer victims, holocaust victims, accident victims, victims of injustice, hurricane victims, crime victims, and others. The thing that all these usages have in common is an image of someone who has suffered injury and harm by forces beyond his or her control.
The term "crime victim" generally refers to any person, group, or entity who has suffered injury or loss due to illegal activity. The harm can be physical, psychological, or economic. The legal definition of "victim" typically includes the following:
Besides "primary crime victims", there are also "secondary crime victims" who experience the harm second hand, such as intimate partners or significant others of rape victims or children of a battered woman. It may also make sense to talk about "tertiary crime victims" who experience the harm vicariously, such as through media accounts or from watching television.
Many victims feel that defining themselves as a "victim" has negative connotations, and choose instead to define themselves as a "survivor." This is a very personal choice that can only be made by the person victimized. The term "survivor" has multiple meanings; e.g. survivor of a crime, "survivor benefits." It remains to be seen whether this terminology for victims of crime will endure.
"Victim defenses" have recently emerged in cases of parricide (killing one's parents) and homicide of batterers by abused spouses. Advocates for battered women were among the first to recognize the issue, and promote the "battered woman syndrome" to defend women who killed or seriously injured a spouse or partner after enduring years of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. Attorneys have also drawn upon theories of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder to defend their client's behavior. From time to time, media attention to these defenses becomes intense, and certain "high profile" cases tend to influence public opinion and spread confusion over who is the "victim" and who is the "victimizer." One of the goals of victimology as a science is to help end this state of societal confusion.
The Study of Victimology
Before we can understand victimology, we need to appreciate that it is a fairly new subfield or area of specialization within criminology. Criminology is a rather broad field of study that encompasses the study of law making, law breaking, and societal reactions to law breaking. Victimology, much like criminal justice, falls into the third of these areas. Victimology doesn't have any subfields within itself; in fact, there are few theories, and little or no schools of thought. Going back to criminology, there are four subfields: penology (and the sociology of law); delinquency (sometimes referred to as psychological criminology); comparative (and historical) criminology; and victimology.
Andrew Karmen, who wrote a text on victimology entitled Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology in 1990, broadly defined victimology:
"The scientific study of victimization, including the relationships between victims and offenders, the interactions between victims and the criminal justice system -- that is, the police and courts, and corrections officials -- and the connections between victims and other societal groups and institutions, such as the media, businesses, and social movements."
From this definition, we can see that victimology encompasses the study of:
Victimologists often use surveys of large numbers of people about the crimes that have been committed against them because official police statistics are known to be incomplete. Data derived from victimization surveys are carried out each year by the Census Bureau on behalf of the Department of Justice (the NCVS - National Crime Victimization Survey). Victimologists then estimate victimization rates and risks, and do a whole lot more.
If there is any such thing as a method to victimology, here it is:
History of Victimology
At first (going back to the origins of criminology in the 1880s), anything resembling victimology was simply the study of crime from the perspective of the victim. With the exception of some psychological profilers who do this, nobody really advocates this approach to victimology anymore. The scientific study of victimology can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s. Two criminologists, Mendelsohn and Von Hentig, began to explore the field of victimology by creating "typologies". They are considered the "fathers of the study of victimology."
These new "victimologists" began to study the behaviors and vulnerabilities of victims, such as the resistance of rape victims and characteristics of the types of people who were victims of crime, especially murder victims. Mendelsohn (1937) interviewed victims to obtain information, and his analysis led him to believe that most victims had an "unconscious aptitude for being victimized." He created a typology of six (6) types of victims, with only the first type, the innocent, portrayed as just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other five types all contributed somehow to their own injury, and represented victim precipitation.
Von Hentig (1948) studied victims of homicide, and said that the most likely type of victim is the "depressive type" who is an easy target, careless and unsuspecting. The "greedy type" is easily duped because his or her motivation for easy gain lowers his or her natural tendency to be suspicious. The "wanton type" is particularly vulnerable to stresses that occur at a given period of time in the life cycle, such as juvenile victims. The "tormentor," is the victim of attack from the target of his or her abuse, such as with battered women.
Von Hentig's work provided the foundation for analysis of victim-precipitation that is still somewhat evident in the literature today. Wolfgang's research (1958) followed this lead and later theorized that "many victim-precipitated homicides were, in fact, caused by the unconscious desire of the victims to commit suicide." Schafer's theoretical work (1968) also represented how victimology invested a substantial amount of its energy to the study of how victims contribute - knowingly or unknowingly -- to their own victimization, and potential ways they may share responsibility with offenders for specific crimes. In fact, Schafer's book, The Victim and His Criminal, from this approach, is supposed to be a corrective to Von Hentig's book, The Criminal and His Victim.
Theories in Victimology
Over the years, ideas about victim precipitation have come to be perceived as a negative thing; "victim blaming" it is called. Research into ways in which victims "contribute" to their own victimization is considered by victims and victim advocates as both unacceptable and destructive. Yet a few enduring models and near-theories exist. I'll mention two or three of them:
1. Luckenbill's (1977) Situated Transaction Model - This one is commonly found in sociology of deviance textbooks. The idea is that at the interpersonal level, crime and victimization is a contest of character. The stages go like this: (1) insult - "Your Momma"; (2) clarification - "Whaddya say about my Mother"; (3) retaliation - "I said your Momma and you too"; (4) counter retaliation - "Well, you're worse than my Momma"; (5) presence of weapon - or search for a weapon or clenching of fists; (6) onlookers - presence of audience helps escalate the situation.
2. Benjamin & Master's Threefold Model - This one is found in a variety of criminological studies, from prison riots to strain theories. The idea is that conditions that support crime can be classified into three general categories: (1) precipitating factors - time, space, being in the wrong place at the wrong time; (2) attracting factors - choices, options, lifestyles (the sociological expression "lifestyle" refers to daily routine activities as well as special events one engages in on a predictable basis); (3) predisposing factors - all the sociodemographic characteristics of victims, being male, being young, being poor, being a minority, living in squalor, being single, being unemployed.
3. Cohen & Felson's (1979) Routine Activities Theory - This one is quite popular among victimologists today who are anxious to test the theory. Briefly, it says that crime occurs whenever three conditions come together: (1) suitable targets - and we'll always have suitable targets as long as we have poverty; (2) motivated offenders - and we'll always have motivated offenders since victimology, unlike deterministic criminology, assumes anyone will try to get away with something if they can; and (3) absence of guardians - the problem is that there's few defensible spaces (natural surveillance areas) and in the absence of private security, the government can't do the job alone.
The phenomena that criminals and victims often have the same sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., are in relatively the same age group) is known as the propinquity hypothesis; and that criminals and victims often live in physical proximity to one another is called the proximity hypothesis.
America's "law-and-order" movement has continued to overlap with the movement to enhance the legal standing and improve treatment of crime victims. Criminal justice reformers seeking greater accountability for offenders through tougher sentencing have found allies in outspoken violent crime victims and politicians who recognized the public's concern about crime and its impact. The combination has brought greater political support for crime victims' rights legislation and increased funding for crime victim services. Since about 1981 (the start of Victims Rights Week), there has been numerous legislation, conferences, and task forces. Some so-called victim's rights (such as denial of bail, anti-suppression of evidence, and victim-initiated appeals) clearly are anti-defendant and pro-prosecutor to the extent that they undermine cherished principles that an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden of proof falls on the state.
Theoretical Perspectives of Victimology
Hentig, von, Hans (1948) The Criminal and His Victim. New Haven: Yale U. Press.
Karmen, A. (1992) Crime Victims. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole.
Mendelsohn, B. (1963) "The Origin of the Doctrine of Victimology" Excerpta Criminologica 3:30
Newman, O. (1972) Defensible Space. NY: Macmillan.
Schwartz, M. & V. Pitts (1995) "Exploring a Feminist Routine Activities Approach to Explaining Sexual Assault" Justice Quarterly 12: 1.
Last updated: 06/19/03
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