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Critically examine why the early victimisation theories still govern some influence in public, political and media understanding of the processes of victimisation.


Victimology is a scientific discipline which studies empirically the phenomena and causal relationships related to victimisations, including events leading to the victimisation, the victim’s experience, its aftermath and the actions taken by society in response to these victimisations (Dussich, 2006, p.118). In that sense, victimology is a wider field of study. Victimisation survey is an important tool by which a lot of data related to victimology is compiled. This helps policy makers understand the backgrounds of problems and formulate their responses to such problems. For example, such surveys have been useful in providing information and understanding of habitual offenders, who themselves may be victims of abuse as children.

Victimisation theories focus on the place of the victim within the criminology discourse. Benjamin Mendelsohn was the first criminologist to use the word ‘victimology’ in his 1956 article “A New Branch of Bio-Psycho-Social Science, Victimology” (Dussich, 2006, p.116), although there were criminologists before him who had referred to victimology.

Until the early 1970s, crime was usually analysed from the perspective of the accused and victimology rarely figured in such analysis (Dietrich, 2008, p.1). However, even in the early 20th century victimology had made a small but a significant contribution within criminology. These early theories had an impact on the development of policies and practices within the criminal justice system. In turn, victimisation theories were also impacted by criticism and accordingly evolved in response to such criticism. There was a definite consideration to “Victimogenesis”, that is, the origin or cause of a victimisation.


In the present time, these early theories still continue to influence discourse within criminology and continue to impact criminal justice policies and practices.

Victimisation Theories - Evolving Understanding of Victimology

Hans Von Hentig was one of the early criminologists who spoke about the interrelationship between victim and crime, in the sense that at times victims did attribute or contribute in some way to their victimisation. He focussed on the more vulnerable groups of victims such as women, older people, children or mentally challenged persons, whose contribution to their victimisation arose from their own inability to control social or other factors that made them more vulnerable to crime. Hans Von Hentig posited a victim precipitation approach that was later followed by Benjamin Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn’s approach was to posit degrees of victim culpability beginning with victims who were completely innocent of any attribution to their victimisation to victims who could be considered as completely responsible for their victimisation. Stephen Schafer took Hentig and Mendelsohn’s work further and combining these two approaches, created a typology of victim precipitation. This involved three categories: victims with no responsibility (biologically, socially, politically weak); victims with some responsibility (provocative); and victims with complete responsibility (self- victimising).

The early victimologists contributed to victimology by putting the focus on the place of the victims in a crime. This discourse was missing in criminology. In that sense, Hentig, Mendelsohn and others were pioneers and they created a space for victimology within criminology. However, by focussing too much on the role of the victims in their own victimisation, they inadvertently led to victim blaming. Criminologists who were influenced by the victimisation theories and in particular by the victim precipitation approach carried out surveys to create a better empirical understanding of how victims participated in victimisation. Notable among these is Marvin Wolfgang’s survey of US police homicide records. He was able to demonstrate how 26 per cent of Philadelphia homicides between 1948 to 1952, were initiated by victims’s violent behaviour. In Wolfgang’s words, “In many PAGE 7 crimes, especially in criminal homicide, the victim is often a major contributor to the criminal act. Except in cases in which the victim is an innocent by- stander and is killed in lieu of an intended victim, or in cases in which a pure accident is involved, the victim may be one of the major precipitating causes of his own demise” (Wolfgang, 1958, p.1). Taking cognisance of race, gender, age, habits (alcoholism), etc, Wolfgang was able to show evidence of victim precipitation in crimes (Wolfgang, 1958).

This was an important report and it helped in shaping policy and reform within the criminal justice system. For instance, within criminal justice, provocation has come to be recognised as a defence to homicide and other crimes in many jurisdictions around the world. Provocation here may be seen as victim precipitation in the sense meant by Mendelsohn and Hentig. Wolfgang himself stressed upon the need “of defense counsel, prosecuting attorney, and subsequently the court, to determine whether such provocation was sufficient either to reduce or to eliminate culpability altogether” (Wolfgang, 1958, p.7). In the UK, ‘provocation’ (now replaced by ‘loss of control’ by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) is a valid defence for murder. British courts have used earlier common law and later statutory principles to allow the use of this defence as a mitigating factor in murder cases. Notable cases include, R v Duffy, [1949] 1 All ER 932 and R v Thornton, [1996] 1 WLR 1174. Such cases also led to development of jurisprudence of ‘battered woman syndrome’, where the offender, that is the woman suffering from abuse, is seen as the actual victim of the crime perpetrated by the murder victim seen as the actual offender who invited his own victimisation. There is a growing body of jurisprudence in Common law jurisdictions including New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US, where courts and juries have allowed defence attorneys to use this as a mitigating factor in murder cases involving domestic violence.

We see here the continuing influence of the early victimisation theories, particularly, victim precipitation. Dietrich (2008, p.2) says that in an ideal world, a victim would be completely innocent of any contribution to his or her victimisation. However, in a real world, this is a rarity. He says that “With it being understood that the ideal victim and suspect are a rarity, victimologists have studied how individuals become victims and why. This endeavour not only shifted the focus, but it became a feeding ground for animosity on the part of victims and the victim’s rights movement, as they felt that this research was shifting blame from the suspect and placing it on the shoulders of the victim” (Dietrich, 2008, p.2).

The criticism levelled against victimisation theories and in particular, the victim precipitation theory stem from the fact that these theories do tend to allow blame shifting from the offender to the victim. This leads to role reversal at times between the actual victims and offenders. In no crime has this approach been more problematic than in cases or rape and sexual assault. Amir (1967) sparked a controversy in the debate surrounding victim precipitation in rape cases, when he concluded his paper on forcible rapes with “the notion of negligent and reckless behaviour on the part of the victim is as important to understanding the offence as is the appearance of these types of behaviour in the offender. It does not make any offender innocent but allows us to consider some of these men, at least, less guilty and leads us to consider that the victim is perhaps also responsible for what happened to her” (Amir, 1967, p.502). Needless to say, this paper created a undeserved perception for victim precipitation theory for being responsible for victim blaming (Muncie and Wilson, 2013, p.110). A practical implication of this approach was seen in the Ipswich rape trial (R v Allen) where the trial judge commented that the case was a tragedy for the defendant and the girl was responsible for contributory negligence in her own rape by hitchhiking alone at night.

But this criticism also led to a general appreciation within criminology and criminal justice studies that victimisation is worth studying and that the study of victimisation would have to be broadened to include more approaches.

‘Lifestyle exposure theory' and ‘Routine activities theory’ are very similar in their approach to victimology. Both theories took a diversion from the victim precipitation theory, in the sense that they made a deliberate move against the perception of positive contribution of victims to their own victimisation. But both theories continued with the predominant theme of victim precipitation, in that they focussed on the role of the victim in their victimisation. The difference between lifestyle and routine activities theory on the one hand and the victim precipitation theory on the other, is that the former focusses on the passive contribution of the victim and the latter was more fixated on the active contribution of the victim.

The lifestyle exposure theory posited that the lifestyle of the victim, which is characterised by age, race, gender, economic status, etc, shape rates of victimisation. Routine activities theory posits that when three important elements, which are, suitable target, motivated offender and absence of capable guardians, converge in space and time, crimes are likely to take place. Siegal (2016, p.76) says that greater exposure to dangerous places makes an individual more likely to become the victim of a crime. This ‘deviant place theory’ posits that there are some stigmatised places where the incidences of crime are high and those who frequent such areas are more likely to become victims of crime. These areas are poor, densely populated and highly transient (Siegal, 2016, p.76). We have seen the perceptions of the public as to the crimes committed and it is true that crimes committed in non stigmatised places will continue to garner attention and those committed in deviant places will not be considered twice.

Continuing Influence of Early Victimisation Theories in Policies and Practice

Muncie and Wilson (2013, p.110) say that victimology has developed a more macro and global perspective since the time it was first propounded by leading criminologists and they PAGE 7 credit the works of feminists, who threw light on female victimisation and the development of social surveys, which led to a greater understanding of the place of victims in criminal justice discourse. The benefits of this approach to victims can be seen in change in policies and practices that are used to ameliorate the position of victims. This is the new dimension of victimology and although expensive, it is gaining ground. Thus, establishment of victim assistance programs, referrals, legal aid, victim compensation, are all important aids in victimisation. Within the legal process, allowing of victim impact statements in trials is seen increasingly across jurisdictions at the time of sentencing of the offender (Anderson, 2015, pp.55-58).

The UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power in 1985. This provides a universal benchmark by which progress can be assessed in meeting the needs of victims of crime and abuse of power (Dussich, 2006). Great Britain was the origin of a number of significant and innovative practices in victim services, such as the concept of victim reparations all called compensation by Margery Fry in 1957; started one of the first victim support services in the world in Bristol; nationwide victim support services in all major cities controlled by a national office in London; home of the journal International Review of Victimology and has over the last ten years provided leadership within the European community in the area of victim services (Dussich, 2006, p.122-3).

To a great extent, these developments are positive manifestations of the latter victimisation theories that have evolved from the earlier theories. However, the early theories, particularly victim precipitation, is still influential. Greer (2007) points out the influence of victim precipitation in the news media and how some victims are idealised and others are not, creating what is called as ‘hierarchy of victimisation’. Disturbingly, this hierarchy of victimisation affects and is reinforced by both media and official discourses (Greer, 2007, PAGE 7 p.22). Tellingly, Greer uses the missing children cases to demonstrate how, race, class and ethnicity can dominate media coverage of the same events and how ideal and not so ideal victims may be ranged in a hierarchy. This can be related to the earlier victimisation theories of victim precipitation wherein the perception that the victim somehow contributed to his own victimisation in some way.

It is easier for public, media and policy makers to shirk responsibility individually and collectively if the blame is shifted to the victim itself. Moreover, policy makers can respond with harsher measures and responses and justify it on the basis of victimology. One example of this can be seen in the post James Bulger murder trial that led to the abolishing of the PAGE 7 presumption of doli incapax, which provides that a child of 10 to 13 years of age is capable of committing a criminal offence. For these reasons, victimology provides a strong base for both shirking societal responsibility for the crimes and harsher responses by the policy makers.


The early victimisation theories are important because they pioneered victim-centric discourse within the field of criminology and led to certain changes in the criminal justice system as well as other policies and practices. Some of the early theories, in particular, the victim precipitation theory, came under a lot of criticism for shifting the blame onto the victim of the crime. However, this led to the further refinements in the victimisation theories. The early victimisation theories continue to exercise influence in policy and practice. Thus, we continue to see the contribution of the victims in the crime. However, this has also led to changes in policies and reforms within the criminal justice system that have taken into consideration and responded to victimology.

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