Theoretical Perspectives of Victimology
and Critical Research
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.
Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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;
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
"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."
"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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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).
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 &
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.
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,
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:
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.
Crime-related psychological trauma impairs the ability and/or
willingness of many crime victims to cooperate with the criminal
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aside from conditioning, there are several other reasons that
interacting with the criminal justice system can be stressful
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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