Chapter 3

Theoretical Perspectives of Victimology

and Critical Research

Abstract: This chapter will provide the information about the evolution of the concept of "victim" and the study of victimology. Victimology is a term first coined for a specialty within the field of criminology. In recent times, victimology has come to embrace a wide array of professional disciplines working with victims. In its original form, victimology examined characteristics of victims and how they "contributed" to their victimization. The emergence of the crime victims' rights movement has influenced the field of victimology and the nature of the research. Current research has been helpful in identifying risk factors related to victimization, without blaming victims.

Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:

1. The definition of "victim".

2. Research that created the field of victimology.

3. Evolution of the field of victimology.

4. High-risk factors related to likelihood of victimization.

Overview of Victimology

The Concept of Victim

The concept of victim dates back to ancient cultures and civilizations. Its original meaning was rooted in the exercise of sacrifice -- the taking of the life of a person or animal to satisfy a deity. (Karmen, 1990)

Over the centuries, the word victim came to have additional meanings, so as to include any person who experiences injury, loss, or hardship due to any cause.

Today, the word victim is used in many different contexts and is broadly interpreted. It is not unusual to hear the word "victim" paired with a wide range of human experiences: cancer victims, holocaust victims, accident victims, victims of injustice, hurricane victims, crime victims, and others. Each of these conjures up visual images of suffering, devastation and often individual heroism or endurance in the face of powerful destructive forces. (Karmen, 1990)

One commonality has come to apply to virtually all usages of the term victim: That an individual has suffered injury and harm by forces beyond his or her control, and not of his or her personal responsibility.

The frequent and diverse use of the term "victim" -- both in conversation and in print -- has changed the way people think of victims today. The current connotations of the word extend well beyond the historical meaning.

A review of the definitions of "victim," listed in the American Heritage Dictionary, illustrates the breadth of the accepted meaning of the term "victim":

1) Someone who is put to death or subjected to torture or suffering by another.

2) A living creature slain and offered as sacrifice to a deity or as part of a religious sacrifice.

3) Anyone who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, circumstance agency or condition: victims of war.

4) A person who suffers injury, loss, or death as a result of a voluntary undertaking: a victim of his own scheming.

5) A person who is tricked, swindled, or taken advantage of; a dupe.

Thus, a victim may be an innocent, led to slaughter, a dupe, or someone whose suffering is caused by his or her own scheming or ineptitude. It is no wonder that society has become confused about how positively or negatively to regard some victims.

The term "crime victim" has been used to include a person, groups or people, or entities who have suffered injury or loss due to illegal activity. The harm can be physical, psychological, or economic. By definition, this includes victims of fraud or financial schemes, businesses, or even the government. In tax or Medicaid fraud cases, the victim is the government, and the loss of revenue is ultimately felt by honest citizens who dutifully fulfill their responsibilities.

For the purposes of crime victims' rights and services, the legal definition of "victim" typically includes the following:

A. In the case of a victim who is under 18 years of age, incompetent, incapacitated, or deceased, one of the following (in order of preference): a spouse; a legal guardian; a parent; a child; a sibling; another family member; or another person designated by the court; and

B. In the case of a victim that is an institutional entity, or an authorized representative of the entity.

The crime victims' movement has focused most attention on the needs of victims of violent crime. In these cases, terminology has expanded beyond "primary crime victims" to include "secondary crime victims" who also experience the harm first hand, such as intimate partners or significant others of rape victims or children of a battered woman.

Some people who have been harmed by crime 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, and not by any other individual. The term "survivor" also has multiple meanings in society, e.g. survivor of a crime, "survivor benefits." It remains to be seen whether this terminology for victims of crime will endure.

Who is a Victim?

Media attention on several high profile cases in recent years has clouded the issue of "who is a victim?" For example, cases in which a victim clashes with antagonists have resulted in the "victim" being tried in the courts, and have complicated the delineation of victim and offender, i.e. the so-called "subway vigilante," a man who shot four teenagers with an unlicensed revolver on a subway train when he feared he would be robbed. Reportedly, he perceived himself to be a victim of a mugging, and used a weapon on perceived perpetrators, in order to "defend himself." The "would-be victim" was tried for attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment. To some, he is/was a victim standing up for himself; to others, he is a trigger-happy gunman who reportedly overreacted to an inaccurately perceived threat. (Johnson, 1986; Sullivan, 1989; Karmen, 1990)

One of the first books entirely devoted to victims of crime was The Crime Victims Book (Bard, and Sangrey, 1979), which addressed the issue of "who is the victim?" Bard and Sangrey attempted to paint a picture of crime victims, stating that:

"Every victim of personal crime is confronted with a brutal reality: the deliberate violation of one human being by another. The crime may be a murder or a rape, a robbery or a burglary, the theft of an automobile, a pocket picking, or a purse snatching -- but the essential internal injury is the same. Victims have been assaulted -- emotionally and sometimes physically -- by a predator who has shaken the world to its foundations."

Recent Developments

"Victim defenses" have recently emerged in cases of parricide and homicide of batterers by abused spouses, and have also served to blur the previously articulated distinctions between victims and offenders. Advocates for battered women were among the first to recognize the issue, and promote the "battered woman syndrome" defense to defend women who killed or seriously injured a spouse or partner after enduring years of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. Attorneys defending children or young adults who are accused of killing a parent have also drawn upon theories of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder to explain the cause of the fatal incident. Such cases have been widely and vigorously debated by victim advocates and criminal justice professionals. Intense media attention to several of these "high profile" cases has influenced public opinion and spread confusion over who is the actual "victim" and who is the "victimizer." The emergence of apparently overlapping labels (victim and victimizer) underscores the need for a scientific approach to the study of victimology.

The Study of Victimology

Andrew Karmen, who wrote a comprehensive 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."

Since victimology originated from the study of crime, some would say that victimology is the study of crime (not victimization) from the perspective of the victim. (Roberson, 1994)

History of Victimology

The scientific study of victimology can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s. Until then, the primary focus of research and academic analysis in the field of criminology was on criminal perpetrators and criminal acts, rather than on victims. Two criminologists, Mendelsohn and Von Hentig, began to study the other half of the offender/victim dyad: the victim. They are now considered the "fathers of the study of victimology." (Roberson, 1994)`

In their efforts to understand crime, 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.

In the course of his legal practice, Mendelsohn interviewed his clients to obtain information about the crime and the victim. He viewed the victim as one factor among many in the criminal case. His analysis of information about victims led him to theorize that victims had an "unconscious aptitude for being victimized." (Roberson, 1994)

Von Hentig studied crime and victims in the 1940s, and Steven Shaffer later published The Criminal and His Victim. Their analysis of murder focused on types of people who were most likely to be victims of homicide. The most likely type of victim Von Hentig identified is the "depressive type" who was seen as an easy target, careless and unsuspecting. The "greedy type" was seen as 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. Von Hentig's last type was the "tormentor," the victim of attack from the target of his abuse, such as the battered woman. (Roberson, 1994)

Von Hentig's work provided the foundation for analysis of victim-proneness that is still evident in the literature today. Wolfgang's research 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." (Roberson,1994)

Viewed from the perspective of criminology, victimology initially devoted much of its energy to the study of the how victims contribute -- knowingly or unknowingly -- to their own victimization, and potential ways they may share responsibility with offenders for specific crimes.

Chapter Two of the National Victim Assistance Academy curriculum, History of the Victims' Movement, discusses the emergence and growth of the crime victims' rights movement in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The crime victims' movement brought increased social and political attention to the poor treatment of crime victims by the criminal justice system and challenged the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system.

The negative effects of "victim blaming" have been a key tenant of the fight to improve the treatment of crime victims. Research into ways in which victims "contribute" to their own victimization was (and continues to be) viewed by victims and victim advocates as both unacceptable and destructive.

As crime victim services and rights have expanded throughout the last two decades, practitioners and public policy-makers have looked to research to provide a more scientific foundation for service design and delivery.

More recent avenues of studies in victimology have included:

Extensive qualitative and quantitative research about the nature and scope of crime victim services has been conducted and published. Studies about the effectiveness of interventions with crime victims have also been done. In addition, the debate about the scope and focus of victimology is evolving and is illustrated in the sharply contrasting topics of research that are found in a variety of victimology journals.

Societal Influences

During the same period, public opinion was influenced by the explosion of media attention on issues of crime and victimization. Newspaper headlines and television news broadcasts inundated citizens with endless reports of violent crime and its victims. (Karmen, 1990)

While "victim blaming" has been a persistent defense used by many to combat the growing fear of crime, sensitive portrayals in the media of the stories of individual crime victims have made the experience more real. In addition, the crime rate has reached such high levels that few have been untouched by crime. The seemingly random nature of more and more serious crime, and an increased sense of vulnerability have the majority of Americans fearful of crime.

In addition, 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 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. (Karmen, 1990)

An example of the careful blending of these two movements can be seen in the many laws passed at the state and national level that have authorized the use of criminal fines, penalties, and bond forfeitures to finance the creation or expansion of direct services for crime victims.

Who are America's Violent Crime Victims?

Recent data on lifetime likelihood of crime victimization reinforce the notion that nobody living in America is completely free from the risk of becoming a crime victim. While crime victim-related research of 40 and 50 years ago examined the characteristics of victims, much of it approached the issue from the perspective of "shared responsibility," that is how crime victims were, in part, "responsible" for their victimization. In recent decades, the paradigm has shifted. The study of the characteristics of crime victims has tended to focus on identifying risk factors in order to better understand the phenomena, without attributing blame to the victims. Information about the risk for victimization has been used to develop crime prevention and enforcement strategies.

Research indicates that there is a host of individual, situational, and community-level factors that increase risk of criminal victimization (see Sampson & Lauritsen, 1994, for a comprehensive review).

Note: The following material is extracted from a book chapter by Hanson, Kilpatrick, Falsetto & Resnick (in press).

Demographic Characteristics

The risk of becoming a crime victim varies as a function of demographic variables such as:

(Bachman, 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992; FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 1992; Hanson, Freedy, Kilpatrick, and Saunders, 1993; Kilpatrick, Seymour & Boyle, 1991; Breslau, Davis, Andreski, and Peterson, 1991; Kilpatrick , Resnick, Saunders, and Best, in press; Norris, 1992; Adler et al., 1994; Reiss & Roth, 1993; Rosenberg & Mercy, 1991).


With the exception of sexual assault and domestic violence, men have higher risk of assault than women (Gelles & Straus, 1988; Hanson et al., 1993; Norris, 1992).

Lifetime risk of homicide is three to four times higher for men than women (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992).


Adolescents have substantially higher rates of assault than young adults or older Americans (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992; Hanson et al., 1993; Kilpatrick, Edmunds & Seymour, 1992; Kilpatrick et al., in press; Reiss & Roth, 1993; Whitaker & Bastian, 1991).

Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that 12-to-19 year olds are two to three times as likely as those over 20 to become victims of personal crime each year (Whitaker & Bastian, 1991).

Data from The National Women's Study indicate that 62% of all forcible rape cases occurred when the victim was under 18 years of age (Kilpatrick et al., 1992).


Racial and ethnic minorities have higher rates of assault than other Americans (FBI Uniform Crime Report, 1992; Hanson et al., 1993; Kilpatrick et al., 1991; Reiss & Roth, 1993).

In 1990, African-Americans were six times more likely than white Americans to be homicide victims (FBI Uniform Crime Report, 1992). Rates of violent assault are approximately twice as high for African- and Hispanic-Americans compared to White Americans (Reiss & Roth, 1993).

Kilpatrick et al. (1991) found that African-Americans (28%) and Hispanic-Americans (30%) were significantly more likely than White Americans (19%) to have ever been violent victims of crime.

Socioeconomic Class

Violence disproportionately affects those from lower socioeconomic classes (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1991). Family income is related to rates of violence and victimization, with lower income families at a higher risk than those from higher income brackets (Reiss & Roth, 1993).

Using longitudinal data from The National Women's Study, Kilpatrick et al., (in press) found that women with household incomes less than $10,000 had odds 1.8 times greater than those with incomes of $10,000 or more of becoming a rape or aggravated assault victim in the two year follow-up period. Poverty increased the risk of assault even after controlling for the effects of prior victimization and sensation seeking.

However, some other studies report that family income is a less important predictor of victimization than gender, age, or ethnicity (Reiss & Roth, 1993).

Interpreting Demographic Characteristic Data

Some of the conflicting findings about demographic characteristics as risk factors for violent crime are attributable to methodological variations across studies. Another reason for conflicting findings is that many demographic variables are confounded. That is, they are so interrelated as to cause some difficulty in separating out their relative contributions.

Demographic variables of age, gender, and racial status all tend to be confounded with income: young people tend to be poorer than older people; women tend to have less income than men; and African-Americans tend to have less income than white Americans.

Repeat Victimization and the Cycle of Violence

Until recently, there was little appreciation of the extent to which many people are victims of crime not just once, but several times during their lifetime. There was sufficient understanding of how repeated victimization increases the risk for and complexity of crime-related psychological trauma. Nor did we understand the extent to which victimization increases the risk of further victimization and/or of violent behavior by the victim.

Several studies show that a substantial proportion of crime victims has been victimized more than once and that a history of victimization increases the risk of subsequent violent assault (e.g. Kilpatrick et al., in press; Koss & Dinero, 1989; Resnick, Kilpatrick, Dansky, Saunders & Best, 1993; Kilpatrick et al., 1992; Reiss & Roth, 1993; Wyatt, Guthrie & Notgrass, 1992; Zawitz, 1983).

Other research suggests that the risk of developing PTSD and substance use/abuse problems is higher among repeat victims of violent assault than among those who have experienced only one violent assault (e.g., Kilpatrick et al., in press; Breslau et al., in press; Kilpatrick, Resnick, Saunders, Best & Epstein, 1994).

Still other evidence suggests that youth victimization history increases risk of involvement with delinquent peers and of subsequent delinquent behavior (Ageton, 1983; Dembo et al., 1992; Straus, 1984; Widom, 1989, 1992).

Some research shows that involvement with delinquent or deviant peers increases the risk of victimization (e.g., Ageton, 1983), and that substance use also increases risk of victimization (e.g., Kilpatrick et al., 1994; Cottler, Compton, Mager, Spitznagel, and Janca, 1992).

Another line of research has found that a history of child abuse and neglect increases risk of delinquent behavior during childhood and adolescence and of being arrested for violent assault as an adult (e.g., Widom, 1989, 1994).

This new knowledge about repeat victimization and the cycle of violence has several implications for appropriate mental health counseling for crime victims:

Residential Location

Where an individual lives influences one's risk of becoming a violent crime victim. Reiss and Roth (1993) report that violent crime rates increased as a function of community size. For example, the violent crime rate was 359 per 100,000 residents in cities of less than 10,000; but 2,243 per 100,000 in cities with populations over a million translates to rates seven times greater. (Reiss & Roth, 1993; p. 79). Data including non-reported crimes from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) also indicate that violent crime rates are highest in central cities, somewhat lower in suburban areas, and lowest in rural areas (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992). The UCR and the NCVS are better at measuring street crime than at measuring violent crimes perpetrated by acquaintances or partners. Thus, the assumption that the increased risk of violent assault associated with residential location most likely results from stranger attacks, not necessarily from attacks by family members or other intimates, is a function of the limits of the measurement device.

Exposure to Potential Assailants

No violent assault can occur unless an assailant has access to a potential victim. Someone could have every previously discussed risk factor for violent assault and be completely safe from assault unless approached by an assailant.

A prominent theory attempting to predict risk of criminal victimization is the routine activities theory. As described by Laub (1990), the risk of victimization is related to a person's lifestyle, behavior, and routine activities. In turn, lifestyles and routine activities are generally related to demographic characteristics (e.g., age and marital status) and other personal characteristics.

If a person's lifestyle or routine activities places him or her in frequent contact with potential assailants, then they are more likely to be assaulted than if their routine activities and lifestyle do not bring them into as frequent contact with predatory individuals.

For example, young men have higher rates of assaultive behavior than any other age-gender group (Reiss & Roth, 1993; Rosenberg & Mercy, 1991). Thus, those whose routine activities or lifestyles involve considerable contact with young men should have higher rates of victimization. Likewise, people who are married, who never leave their houses after dark, and who never take public transportation should have limited contact with young men, and therefore have reduced risk of assault.

Although some have argued that routine activities theory has substantial support in the empirical literature (Laub, 1990; Gottfredson, 1981), most of the crime victimization data that are used to evaluate assault risk measure stranger assaults much better than partner or acquaintance assaults. Thus, the theory is probably much more relevant to stranger assaults than to other assaults.

Why Should the Criminal Justice System Concern Itself With Crime Victims' Crime-related

Psychological Trauma?

Crime-related psychological trauma impairs the ability and/or willingness of many crime victims to cooperate with the criminal justice system.

The President's Task Force argued that victims must be treated better by the criminal justice system because it cannot accomplish its mission without the cooperation of victims. At every key stage of the criminal justice system process--from contemplating making a report to police, to attending a parole hearing--interactions can be stressful for victims and often exacerbates crime-related psychological trauma.

Victims whose crime-related fear makes them reluctant to report crimes to police or who are too terrified to testify, effectively make it impossible for the criminal justice system to accomplish its mission. Thus, it is important to understand:

Effective partnerships among the criminal justice system, victim assistance personnel, and trained mental health professionals can help victims with crime-related psychological trauma and with criminal justice system-related stress. By helping victims through such partnerships, the criminal justice system also helps itself become more effective in curbing and reducing crime.

As Kilpatrick and Otto (1987) noted, there are several psychological theories that are useful in understanding why victims might develop psychological trauma, and why interactions with the criminal justice system are usually stressful for victim.

Why is the Criminal Justice System

Stressful for Victims?

This section describes one theory that has particular relevance for understanding why the criminal justice system is so stressful for many victims.

Classical Conditioning Theory

The Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, first described a basic type of learning called classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1906). Briefly described, classical conditioning occurs when a neutral stimulus is paired with a stimulus that produces a particular response. For example, if food is placed in a dog's mouth, a salivation response naturally occurs. If the neutral stimulus of a bell ringing is presented to the dog at approximately the same time that the food stimulus is presented, the bell stimulus (conditioned stimulus) will acquire the capacity to produce a conditioned response of salivation similar to the unconditioned response of salivation produced by the unconditioned stimulus of food. What does this have to do with crime-related mental health problems or the criminal justice system?

Classical conditioning theory predicts that any stimuli present at the time of a violent crime are potential conditioned stimuli that will produce conditioned fear, anxiety and other negative emotions when the victim encounters them.

Classical conditioning theory also suggests that negative emotional responses conditioned to a particular stimulus can generalize to similar stimuli.

Avoidance Behavior

The most common response to crime-related conditioned stimuli is avoidance behavior. Thus, there is a natural tendency for crime victims to avoid contact with crime-related conditioned stimuli and to escape from situations which bring them in contact with such stimuli.

Second-order Conditioning

A final classical conditioning mechanism with important implications for understanding the behavior of crime victims is second-order conditioning. If a neutral stimulus is paired with a conditioned stimulus (without presenting the unconditioned stimulus), this neutral stimulus becomes a second order conditioned stimulus that can also produce a conditioned response.

Classical Conditioning and Victims' Reactions to the Criminal Justice System

Application of these classical conditioning principles to victims' interactions with the criminal justice system helps us understand why the criminal justice system is so stressful for many victims.

First, involvement with the criminal justice system requires crime victims to encounter many cognitive and environmental stimuli that remind them of the crime. These range from:

Second, encountering all these crime-related conditioned stimuli often results in avoidance behavior on the part of the victims.

Other Sources of Stress

Aside from conditioning, there are several other reasons that interacting with the criminal justice system can be stressful for victims.

Most victims view the criminal justice system as representative of society as a whole, and whether they are believed and taken seriously by the system indicates to them whether they are believed and taken seriously by society.

Self Examination Chapter 3

Theoretical Perspectives of Victimology

and Critical Research

1) When did the study of victims of crime originate and what was its focus?

2) Describe the origins of the term "victim" and the evolution of its definition and connotations?

3) How has the crime victims' rights movement influenced the field of victimology?

4) Briefly explain "classical conditioning" and how it might affect victims' reactions to the criminal justice system and victim service providers.

5) Identify three high risk factors associated with likelihood of crime victimization?


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