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Historical Development of Victimology and Its Importance for Criminology

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As criminology continued to ignore the victim in the study of crime, victimology emerged to give equal attention to victims. Victimology is the study of the relationship between the victim and the criminal. The development of victimology satisfied a gap in criminological research and had a significant impact on the study of crime. After all, “you cannot seek to understand the psychology of the criminal if you do not first understand the sociology of the victim” (Wertham, 1949).

The term ‘victim’ has roots in early religious notions of sacrifice, suffering and death (Dussich, 2006). Defined as recently as 2015 “as a person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence” (Justice, 2015).

In the mid-19th century, the burden of justice fell on the victim. Under the principle of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, victims achieved justice through retaliation or retribution (Daigle, 2017). The victim remained central in criminal proceedings, until the industrial revolution, when a shift in criminal law saw the state assume the position of the entity harmed by crime, placing exacting the price of breaking legal codes on the offender over the resolve of victims. As the victim lost their position in the criminal justice process, they gained the attention of a range European scholars and lawyers, who sought to understand the process and victimization, focusing on the relationship between criminal and victim.

Early work in victimology attempted to determine what differentiates a victim from a non-victim. Assuming the victim played a role in their victimization, researchers developed typologies to examine the degree of responsibility held by the victim. The first systematic appearance of victims of crime appeared in Von Hentig's 'The Criminal and His Victim'. Criticizing the static and unidimensional nature of criminology, Hentig stressed the need for a new approach that paid equal attention to victims. Von Hentig's typology argued that by virtue of structural characteristics, some people were more likely to be victimized than others. Identifying 13 categories in total, women, children, the elderly and the mentally ill were all identified as being more likely to be victimized as a result of their innate traits (Hentig, 1949).

Widely considered the father of victimology, attorney Benjamin Mendelsohn coined the term victimology in the 1940s. He noted, during interviews with witnesses that victims and offenders often knew each other. Mendelschon adopted a more ‘legalistic framework’ in developing his typology, focused on the degree in which the victim was responsible for their victimization. Mendelssohn's ideas of victim culpability developed into victim precipitation. Victim precipitation seeks to demonstrate that crime does not exist in a vacuum and that victimization involves at least two people, the victim and the offender (Daigle, 2017). This explanation of victimization was empirically investigated by Marvin Wolfgang, in his classic study of homicides in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1952. He examined 558 homicides and found in 26% of all homicides in Philadelphia; the victim was the direct positive precipitator. Wolfgang found commonalities between such murders including, al prior relationship between victim and offender, the shared gender of both parties, male, the consumption of alcohol and the conclusion that many of these murders often began as minor altercations (Wolfgang, 1967). Amir (1967) argues that in some cases of rape, victims are not all always the passive party. By dressing provocatively or pursuing a relationship with a perpetrator. Amir alleges that the victim often contributes to their victimization. The concepts of lifestyle and victim precipitation have formed the core of much of the traditional victimological thought. Reasonable way of understanding any incident given the nature of the law (Walklate, 2007).

Unlike the concept of victim precipitation, victim facilitation occurs when a victim unintentionally makes it easier for an offender to commit a crime — differing from victim provocation, where without the actions of the victim, a crime would not have taken place. In ‘The Victim and His Criminal’ (1968), Steven Shafer wrote that victims had a 'functional responsibility' to not provoke others into victimizing them and an active attempt to prevent victimization is essential. Based on Von Hentig’s theory of personal characteristics and Mendelssohn's ideas of precipitation developed a typology of his own. Schafer placed victims in groups based on how responsible they are for their victimization. Seven categories, ranging from the unrelated, political, socially and biologically weak victims, to the self-victimizing, proactive and precipitative victims, were identified.

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Apart from the attention victims received in the role they played in their victimization, victims movements sought to increase the position both publicly and politically. Penal reformers, such as Margery Fry, were instrumental in the improvement of services for victims through significant policy changes (Dignan, 2005). Similarly, the charity Victim Support, sort to help victims of crime in their community, recognizing the criminal justice system largely ignored their needs. The increased visibility of crime victims in the media signaled a shift in focus from offender to an emphasis on the impact suffered by victims and their families (Dignan, 2005). The 'ideal' victim is the one that generates much sympathy from society and readily given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim (Chrisie, 1886). In British culture, Madeline McCann could be considered the ideal victim. A young, white girl from a middle-class family, stolen from her bed in the middle of the night, while holidaying in a foreign country. In contrast, Rui Pedro, an 11-year-old Portuguese child went missing from Northern Portugal in 1998, while riding his bicycle, is virtually unknown. The differences in media responses to these cases shows that victims must have power and visibility if they are to gain legitimacy as victims (Chrisie, 1886).

Victimology often combines contrasting voices. As a result, several theoretical perspectives developed, which sought to explain different perspectives of victimology. Radical victimology emerged as a direct critique of traditional victimology. It argued that current images of victimology involve the state rather than the victim and seek to serve a conservative crime control agenda (McShane & Williams III, 1992). Like Mendelssohn, who stressed a 'victimology concerned with all victims’. The radical strand is concerned with the role of the state alongside the law in producing victimization (Walklate, 2007, p. 177). As those in power decide who and what is criminal, they can escape persecution by deflecting attention away from their crimes (Benard, 1881). Indeed, corporate fraud, which causes enormous damage to the US economy, remains a top criminal priority for the FBI (FBI, n.d.). The radical perspective has garnered criticisms over a tendency to be more ideological and empirical and focus on human rights over scientific evidence (Benard, 1881). Indeed, this strand's failure to break free from the positivist perspective, it sought to criticize, is demonstrated through its concurrent use of crime surveys. While the radical perspective may fail scientifically, its success in fighting for all victims, including those of the state, secures it a necessary position in modern victimology.

The study of crime victims has become essential and indispensable in developing a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomena of crime (Fattah E. A., 2000). As criminal behavior is dynamic, a dynamic approach, where the offender, event and victim are inseparable elements of a situation is required. The importance of situational factors, like the close link between victims and offender behavior, offers great promise for transforming criminology. Furthermore, where there has been a specific victim, an examination of that victim is entirely necessary for understanding why a crime has occurred. Additionally, according to Anttila (1974) the study victims provide further valuable information. Frequency, patterns and likelihood of victimization are indispensable for the creation of victim policies and programs. Indeed, the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime, introduced in 2006 and informed directly by the study of victims, detailed the level of service, which victims can expect from criminal justice agencies.

Victimological research also better informs societies in their duties to victims of crime. Indeed, the emergence of crime surveys, saw researcher rely on victims to recall their experiences and importantly, whether they had involved authorities. Crime surveys unearthed the extensive nature of victimization and exposed the reluctance of victims to report crime. Crime surveys in England and Wales are now essential sources of information (Davies, Francis, & Greer, 2017).

Modern criminology is paying more attention to the concept of opportunity. As crime does not exist it a vacuum, opportunities provided by victims to commit crimes can be managed and used for prevention. As this directly influenced by the behavior of victims, their collective behavior may have substantial impacts on crime rates. Victim-based prevention strategies can be implanted using this concept and have numerous advantages over offender-based ones, particularly the primary role of the victim (Fattah E.A., 2000). The victim and offender are also not as different as previously thought. “They are homogeneous and overlap to a large extent. Indeed, yesterday's victims are often today's offenders and today's offenders are frequently the victims of tomorrow” (Fattah E. A., 2000). The only answer to break the cycle victimization is study.

While victimology is a relatively new discipline, its impact on the study of crime is significant. Its research fills an enormous gap in our knowledge about the phenomenon of crime. It satisfies a need felt by researchers for practical and systematic information about crime victims. Indeed, no valid theory of criminal behavior can afford to ignore the victim. “To try to do so would be an attempt to explain a dynamic and interactionist form of human behavior in a unilateral, unit dimensional and static manner. Therefore, the study of the victim is, and will always remain, an integral part of criminology” (Fattah E. A., 2000).

Works Cited

  1. Amir, M. (1967). Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 58 (4), pp.493-502.
  2. Anttila, I. (1974). Victimology: A New Territory in Criminology. Scandinavian Studies in Criminology, 5, 7-10.
  3. Benard, T. J. (1881). Distinction Between Conflict and Radical Criminology, Volume 72, Issue 1. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, pp.362-379.
  4. Chrisie, N. (1886). Ideal Victim. In N. Christie ‘From Crime Policy to Victim Policy’, Ezzat A Fattah (ed) (pp.17-30). New York: St Martin's Press.
  5. Daigle, L. E. (2017). Introduction to Victimology. In L. E. Daigle ‘Victimology: The Essentials’, Second Edition (pp.1-13). Sage Publications.
  6. Davies, P., Francis, P., & Greer, C. (2017). Victims, Crime and Society: An Introduction. In P. Davies, P. Francis, & C. Greer ‘Victims, Crime and Society’, Second Edition (Eds) (pp.10-27). London: SAGE.
  7. Dignan, J. (2005). Understanding Victims and Restorative Justice. Maidenhead: Open University Press, McGraw- Hill Education.
  8. Dussich, J. P. (2006). Victimology- Past, Present and Future. Resource Material Series No. 70, pp.116-129, Simon Cornell, ed.
  9. Fattah, E. A. (1976). The Use of the Victim as an Agent of Self-Legitimization: Toward a Dynamic Explanation of Criminal Behavior. Victimology (1), 29-53.
  10. Fattah, E. A. (2000). Vital Role of Victimology in the Rehabilitation of Offenders and Their Reintegration into Society. From Resource Material Series No. 56, pp.71-86, Hiroshi Iitsuka and Rebecca Findlay-Debeck, eds.
  11. FBI. (n.d.). What We Investigate: White Collar Crime. Retrieved from
  12. Goodey, J. (2005). Victims and Victimology. Research, Policy and Practice. Essex: Pearson Longman.
  13. Hentig, H. V. (1949, May). The Criminal and His Victim. Pp. viii, 461. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948. Social Forces, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp. 445–446.
  14. Justice, M. O. (2015). Code of Practice for Victims of Crime.
  15. McShane, M. D., & Williams III, F. P. (1992). Radical Victimology: A Critique of the Concept of Victim in Traditional Victimology. Crime and Delinquency Volume:38 Issue:2, pp.258- 271.
  16. Schafer, S. (1968). The Victim and His Criminal: A Study in Functional Responsibility. New York: Random House.
  17. Walklate, S. (2007). Handbook of Victims ad Victimology. Willian Publishing.
  18. Wertham, F. (1949). The Show of Violence. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 18, pp.516- 518.
  19. Wolfgang, M. E. (1967). Studies in Homicide (Ed). New York: Harper & Row.
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Historical Development of Victimology and Its Importance for Criminology. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
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