V. Theories of Victimization

Relative to the field of criminology, which originated around the mid-18th century, victimology is a young field with roots in the late 1940s. Since that time, several generations of scholars have advanced its theoretical beginnings and promoted the reemergence of interest in the victim through a wide range of research questions and methods.

A. First Generation: Early Victimologists

First-generation scholarly work in victimology proposed victim typologies based on the offender–victim dyad in a criminal act. Common to the ideas of these early victimologists was that each classified victims in regard to the degree to which they had caused their own victimization. These early theoretical reflections pushed the budding field of victimology in a direction that eventually led to a reformulation of the definition of victimization.

1. Hans Von Hentig

German criminologist HansVon Hentig (1948) developed a typology of victims based on the degree to which victims contributed to causing the criminal act. Examining the psychological, social, and biological dynamics of the situation, he classified victims into 13 categories depending on their propensity or risk for victimization. His typology included the young, female, old, immigrants, depressed, wanton, tormentor, blocked, exempted, or fighting. His notion that victims contributed to their victimization through their actions and behaviors led to the development of the concept of “victim-blaming” and is seen bymany victimadvocates as an attempt to assign equal culpability to the victim.

2. Benjamin Mendelsohn

Benjamin Mendelsohn (1976), an attorney, has often been referred to as the “father” of victimology. Intrigued by the dynamics that take place between victims and offenders, he surveyed both parties during the course of preparing a case for trial. Using these data, he developed a six-category typology of victims based on legal considerations of the degree of a victim’s culpability. This classification ranged from the completely innocent victim (e.g., a child or a completely unconscious person) to the imaginary victim (e.g., persons suffering from mental disorders who believe they are victims).

3. Marvin E. Wolfgang

The first empirical evidence to support the notion that victims are to some degree responsible for their own victimization was presented by Marvin E. Wolfgang (1958), who analyzed Philadelphia’s police homicide records from 1948 through 1952. He reported that 26% of homicides resulted from victim precipitation. Wolfgang identified three factors common to victim-precipitated homicides: (1) The victim and offender had some prior interpersonal relationship, (2) there was a series of escalating disagreements between the parties, and (3) the victim had consumed alcohol.

4. Stephen Schafer

Moving from classifying victims on the basis of propensity or risk and yet still focused on the victim– offender relationship, Stephen Schafer’s (1968) typology classifies victims on the basis of their “functional responsibility.” Victims’ dual role was to function so that they did not provoke others to harm them while also preventing such acts. Schafer’s seven-category functional responsibility typology ranged from no victim responsibility (e.g., unrelated victims, those who are biologically weak), to some degree of victim responsibility (e.g., precipitative victims), to total victim responsibility (e.g., self-victimizing).

5. Menachem Amir

Several years later, Menachem Amir (1971) undertook one of the first studies of rape. On the basis of the details in the Philadelphia police rape records, Amir reported that 19% of all forcible rapes were victim precipitated by such factors as the use of alcohol by both parties; seductive actions by the victim; and the victim’s wearing of revealing clothing, which could tantalize the offender to the point of misreading the victim’s behavior. His work was criticized by the victim’s movement and the feminist movement as blaming the victim.

B. Second Generation: Theories of Victimization

The second generation of theorists shifted attention from the role of the victim toward an emphasis on a situational approach that focuses on explaining and testing how lifestyles and routine activities of everyday life create opportunities for victimization. The emergence of these two theoretical perspectives is one of the most significant developments in the field of victimology.

1. Lifestyle Exposure Theory

Using data from the 1972–1974 NCS, Hindelang, Gottfredson, and Garofalo (1978) noticed that certain groups of people, namely, young people and males, were more likely to be criminally victimized. They theorized that an individual’s demographics (e.g., age, sex) tended to influence one’s lifestyle, which in turn increased his or her exposure to risk of personal and property victimization. For instance, according to Hindelang et al., one’s sex carries with it certain role expectations and societal constraints; it is how the individual reacts to these influences that determines one’s lifestyle. If females spend more time at home, they would be exposed to fewer risky situations involving strangers and hence experience fewer stranger-committed victimizations.

Using the principle of homogamy, Hindelang et al. (1978) also argued that lifestyles that expose people to a large share of would-be offenders increase one’s risk of being victimized. Homogamy would explain why young persons are more likely to be victimized than older people, because the young are more likely to hang out with other youth, who commit a disproportionate amount of violent and property crimes.

2. Routine Activities Theory

Cohen and Felson (1979) formulated routine activities theory to explain changes in aggregate direct-contact predatory (e.g., murder, forcible rape, burglary) crime rates in the United States from 1947 through 1974. Routine activities theory posits that the convergence in time and space of a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian provide an opportunity for crimes to occur. The absence of any one of these conditions is sufficient to drastically reduce the risk of criminal opportunity, if not prevent it altogether.

Routine activities theory does not attempt to explain participation in crime but instead focuses on how opportunities for crimes are related to the nature of patterns of routine social interaction, including one’s work, family, and leisure activities. So, for example, if someone spends time in public places such as bars or hanging out on the streets, he or she increases the likelihood of coming into contact with a motivated offender in the absence of a capable guardian. The supply of motivated offenders is taken as a given. What varies is the supply of suitable targets (e.g., lightweight, easy-to-conceal property, such as cell phones and DVD players, or drunk individuals) and capable guardians (e.g., neighbors, police, burglar alarms).

3. Empirical Support

Researchers commonly have used lifestyle exposure and routine activity theories to test hypotheses about how individuals’ daily routines expose them to victimization risk. These theories have been applied principally to examine opportunities for different types of personal and property victimizations using diverse samples that range from school-age children, to college students, to adults in the general population across the United States and abroad. The data are generally supportive of the theories, although not all studies fully support the theories.

C. Third Generation: Refinement and Empirical Tests of Opportunity Theories of Victimization

Researchers’ continued testing of lifestyle exposure and routine activity theories has generated supportive findings and critical thinking that has led to a refining and extension of them. Miethe and Meier (1994) developed an integrated theory of victimization, called structural-choice theory, which attempts to explain both offender motivation and the opportunities for victimization. This further refinement of opportunity theories of victimization was an important contribution to the victimology literature.

One of the first studies of opportunity theories for predatory crimes was conducted by Sampson and Wooldredge (1987), who used data from the 1982 British Crime Survey (BCS). Their findings showed that individual and household characteristics were significant predictors of victimization, as were neighborhood-level characteristics. For example, although age of the head of the household was an important indicator of burglary, the percentage of unemployed persons in the area also predicted burglary. Sampson and Wooldredge’s multilevel opportunity model was among the first to test lifestyle and routine activity theories. Multilevel modeling of lifestyle exposure and routine activity theories continues to draw the attention of scholars seeking to test how both individual characteristics and macrolevel ones—for example, neighborhood characteristics— frame victimization opportunities (see Wilcox, Land, & Hunt, 2003).

Victimization theories have been expanded to examine nonpredatory crimes and “victimless” crimes, such as gambling and prostitution (Felson, 1998), and deviant behavior such as heavy alcohol use and dangerous drinking in young adults (Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996). The theories have also been applied to a wide range of crimes in different social contexts, such as school-based victimization in secondary schools (Augustine, Wilcox, Ousey, & Clayton, 2002), stalking among college students (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000), and even explanations of the link between victimization and offending (Sampson & Lauritsen, 1990). Other scholars have examined how opportunity for victimization is linked to social contexts and different types of locations, such as the workplace (Lynch, 1987), neighborhoods (Lynch & Cantor, 1992), and college campuses (Fisher, Sloan, Cullen, & Lu, 1998).

D. Fourth Generation: Moving Beyond Opportunity Theories

Work by Schreck and his colleagues suggests that antecedents to opportunity, such as low self-control, social bonds, and peer influences, have also been found to be important predictors of violent and property victimization (Schreck, 1999; Schreck & Fisher, 2004; Schreck, Stewart, & Fisher, 2006). Schreck, Wright, and Miller (2002) examined the effects of individual factors (e.g., low self-control, weak social ties to family and school), and situational risk factors (e.g., having delinquent peers, having a lot of unstructured social time) on the risk of victimization.

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