14. Victimology

14.2 Theories of Victimisation

Dr. Jordana K. Norgaard and Dr. Benjamin Roebuck

One of the central concerns of victimology was identified by Quinney (1972), when he famously asked, “Who is the victim?” Quinney argued that “the victim” is a socially constructed phenomenon meaning that for someone to be recognised as a victim, there needs to be some agreement within society. This means that power dynamics within society will influence collective understandings of victimisation, allowing some people to be more easily recognised as “victims” when they are harmed (Holstein & Miller, 1990; McGarry & Walklate, 2015). Christie (1986) developed a typology of the “ideal victim,” suggesting categories of people who are most likely to receive “the complete and legitimate status of being a victim” when they are harmed (p.18). Christie (1986) suggests this is most likely to happen when the victim is perceived as weak, engaged in a respectable activity, not seen as responsible for contributing to their victimisation, and the offender is big and bad and unknown to the victim. The opposite is also true; when people’s experiences of victimisation do not align with these characteristics, they may not be recognized as legitimate victims. For example, Scott (2021) argues that single offences that occur in public spaces with strangers tend to receive harsher penalties from the criminal justice system than offences that occur in private, even when these are repeat offences by a person in a position of trust.  This can lead to an erosion of trust in the criminal justice system and subsequently, reluctance to report future victimisation.

Early Theories of Victimology

There are early references to victims of crime in ancient texts like the Code of Hammurabi (Hammurabi & Harper, 1904), or religious scriptures, where one of the earliest recorded events includes an account of Cain murdering his brother Abel (English Standard Bible, 2001: Gen 4:1-16). And yet, despite historical texts and diverse legal systems and approaches to justice across cultures, the contemporary discipline of victimology is commonly described as beginning around the time of World War II (Godfrey, 2018; Wemmers 2017). One of the first known scientific studies of victims of crime was a doctoral dissertation by Nagel (1949), a Dutch scholar whose work was interrupted by WWII and published afterwards (Kirchhoff, 2010). In 1948, Hans von Hentig published his book The Criminal and His Victim: Studies in the Sociobiology of Crime where he explored the characteristics of victims that might make them more prone to victimisation. Von Hentig (1948) introduced the duet frame of crime, arguing that both the victim and offender shared a degree of responsibility for crime. However, the most notable scholarship at the time was from Benjamin Mendelson who first introduced the term “victimology” at a lecture for the Rumanian Psychiatric Society in 1947, followed by an influential article in 1956 calling for the creation of a discipline of victimology that would be independent of criminology, and would bring needed attention to victims of crime. For this contribution, Mendelsohn is often called the “father of victimology” (Scott, 2016; Wemmers, 2017). Mendelsohn’s (1956) early work also explored relationships between victims and perpetrators, focusing on how responsible victims were for what happened to them.

In the following section, we will examine some common theories and perspectives used to explain why victimisation occurs such as victim precipitation theory and routine activity theory.  We also discuss critical victimology.

Victim Precipitation Theory

Victim precipitation, also known as victim facilitation, refers to situations where the victim was the initial aggressor in the action that led to their harm or loss. The theory was first coined by Marvin Wolfgang, in his 1957 study of homicide. Wolfgang (1957) examined 588 homicides that occurred in Philadelphia between 1948 and 1952 and found that in a quarter of his sample (26%), the victim was the first to engage in physical violence, or in other words, the victim was the initial aggressor. A major criticism of this theory is the assumption that the victim and the offender enter into an interaction as equals, dismissing any power imbalances and/or dynamics at hand (Scott, 2016).   Research like Wolfgang’s (1958) has given rise to the phenomenon of victim blaming.  Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime is held responsible, in whole or in part, for their own victimisation (Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime [CRCVC], 2009a). Blame stems from a belief that there are specific actions people can take to avoid being harmed. When such actions are not followed, others are not likely to sympathise with the victim as they see the crime as avoidable had the victim chosen to take the appropriate measures to avoid potential harm. Victim blaming can take the form of negative social responses from legal, medical, and mental health professionals as well as from the media, immediate family members and other acquaintances (CRCVC, 2009a).

You may ask yourself, why do people blame victims? Some research has suggested that blaming crime victims helps reassure the person assigning blame that they are safe; as long as they do not act as the victim did at the time of their victimisation, they will be unharmed (Fisher et al., 2016; Karmen, 2020). Another reason victims are blamed is attribution error. Attribution error occurs when individuals over-emphasize personal characteristics and devalue environmental characteristics when judging others, resulting in victim blaming (CRCVC, 2009a). People who make this error view the individual victim as partially responsible for what happened to them and ignore situational causes.  For example, if a victim was sexually assaulted by someone while attending a party, some individuals may blame the victim for being assaulted based on what they were wearing and/or for consuming alcohol at that time rather than taking into consideration the motivation of the offender. A recent Canadian court decision in a sexual assault case highlights victim blaming from within the criminal justice system.  The judge presiding over the case stated in his ruling that “people need to exercise extreme care when out drinking in public,” inferring that despite the victim being sexually assaulted by the offender, it was still the victim’s responsibility to take precautions while drinking in public to ensure they do not face potential harm (CBC, 2021, para 9). This type of statement can be extremely dangerous and unfair to victims of crime.  Both the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime and Ottawa Victim Services criticized the judge’s wording, stating that it is “unacceptable and perpetuates violence” (CBC, 2021, para 18). Victim blaming can have serious and negative effects on survivors, who have been deemed at fault even though they bear no responsibility for the crime(s) committed against them. Victim advocates argue that victim blaming undermines victim status while simultaneously excusing the offender for the crime (Petherick, 2017). Survivors who receive negative responses and blame tend to experience greater distress and are less likely to report future victimisation (CRCVC, 2009a).

Routine Activity Theory

Routine activity theory (see 16.4 Theoretical Approaches Within Environmental Criminology) was first proposed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979. Cohen and Felson (1979) posited that the risk of criminal victimisation increases when there is the convergence of 1) the presence of a motivated offender, 2) an availability of suitable targets, and 3) a lack of capable guardianship (i.e. someone who could intervene to prevent the crime from being committed). Without any one of these three elements, the likelihood of a crime occurring decreases. This theory has met some criticism in the context of victimology as it assumes that a victim can lessen the offender’s motivation by being less of a suitable target (Scott, 2016). Furthermore, it assumes equality exists between all three parties: the victim, the offender, and the guardian, ignoring the different power imbalances at play (Scott, 2016).

Critical Victimology

Critical victimology combines the concept of the ideal victim with intersectionality in an effort to deconstruct victim blaming by calling attention to the ways race, gender, class, and other identities shape social constructions of victimisation (Spencer & Walklate, 2016). For example, critical victimologists would recognise that the violence against women movement has increased the resources available to female survivors of partner violence and sexual violence, but that women who are Indigenous, trans, or homeless may not have equal access to those resources and may be treated differently within victim services or the criminal justice system. Similarly, male survivors of partner violence or sexual violence have reported difficulties accessing services or being believed when they ask for help (Cohen, 2014; Roebuck et al., 2020a; Roebuck et al., 2020b).



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jordana K. Norgaard and Dr. Benjamin Roebuck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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