Last Updated on August 20, 2021 by Karl Thompson
Victimology is the study of who the victims of crime are, why they are victims, and what we can do about this.
Victimology is a relatively recent edition to the A-level sociology Crime and Deviance specification, and is mainly addressed through applying the sociological perspectives.
Patterns of Victimisation
The (Telephone) Crime Survey of England and Wales
The largest Victim Survey in England and Wales is the (Telephone) Crime Survey of England and Wales. The survey used to be face to face but has been conducted by phone since the outbreak of Covid-19, and samples about 38 000 Households a year.
TCSEW crime shows a year-on-year fall in the number of victims of crime for the last 20 years, except for Cyber Crime and Fraud. If we include the later two types of crime (which have only been recorded by the survey for a few years, then the overall crime rate has been increasing for the last few years.
The risk of being a victim of crime varies by social groups and by type of crime. Below is a summary,
- Social Class – people from deprived areas are more likely to be victims of violent crime.
- Age – Younger people are more at risk of victimisation than older people, for crime in general.
- Ethnicity – minority ethnic groups are at greater risk than whites of being victims of hate crime.
- Gender – Males are at greater risk of being victims of violent attacks, about 70% of homicide victims are male. However, women are more likely to victims of domestic violence than me, sexual violence, people trafficking and rape as a weapon of war. Trans people are more likely to be victims of hate crime.
- Repeat Victimisation – There are a few people who are unfortunate enough to be a victim of crime many times over. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, a mere 4% of people are victims of 44% of all crimes in any one year. In contrast, 60% of people experience no crime in any given year.
For a more detailed look at how patterns of victimisation vary by class, gender, age and ethnicity please see this post – Who Are the Victims of Crime?
Sociological Perspectives applied to Victimology
The remainder of this post simplifies approaches to this topic by distinguishing between Positivist and Critical Victimology….
- Mier’s (1989) defines Positivist victimology as having three main features:
- It aims to identify the factors that produce the above patterns in victimisation
- It focuses on interpersonal crimes of violence
- It aims to identify how victims have contributed to their own victimisation.
- Earlier Positivist studies focussed on the idea of ‘victim proneness’, seeking to identify the social and psychological characteristics of victims that make them different from and more vulnerable than non-victims. For example, Von Hentig (1948) identified 13 characteristics of victims, such as that they are more likely to females, elderly and ‘mentally subnormal’. The implication is that the victims in some sense ‘invite’ victimisation because of who they are.
- An example of positivist victimology is Marvin Wolfgang’s (1958) study of 588 homicides in Philadelphia. He found that 26% involved victim precipitation – the victim triggered the events leading to the homicide, for instance, being the first to use violence.
Evaluations of Positivist Victimology
- It is easy to tip over into ‘victim blaming’.
- Positivism tends to focus on ‘traditional crime’s – it doesn’t look at green crime and corporate crime for example.
- It ignores wider structural factors such as poverty and powerlessness which make some people more likely to be victims than others.
Critical victimology is based on conflict theories such as Marxism and Feminism. From a critical point of view the powerless are most likely to be victimised and yet the least likely to have this acknowledged by the state (this is known as the ‘hierarchy of victimisation’).
- Critical Criminology focuses on two elements: the role of structural factors in explaining patterns of victimisation and power of the state to deny certain victims victim status.
- Structural factors are important in explaining why some people are more likely to be victims of crime than others. Factors such as poverty and patriarchy make some people more likely to victims of crime than others.
- Structural factors are important, because from a Marxist perspective because poverty and inequality breed crime and thus living in a poor area means that you are more likely to be both a criminal and a victim of crime while Feminists emphasise that the structure of Patriarchy perpetuates crimes against women such as sex-trafficking and domestic violence, meaning that women are far more likely to be victims of sex-crimes than men.
- At another level, global power structures mean that many people are the victims of harms done by Western Corporations and State Crimes carried out by Western World Governments (Bhopal and the Drone Wars are two good examples) and yet victims in faraway places are highly unlikely to see justice.
- Criminologists who focus on ethnicity and crime would also suggest that Structural Racism means it more likely that ethnic minorities are going to face not only racial crime from the general public, but also discrimination at the hands of the police. Refer to the ethnicity and crime material for more details!
- To overcome this, critical criminologists suggest that criminologists should focus on ‘Zemiology’ (the study of harm) rather than the study of crime, to pick up on the true nature and extent of victimisation in the world today.
- The state’s power to apply or deny the label of victim can distort the actual extent of victimisation. From a critical criminological perspective, the state often sides with the powerful, and does not define their exploitative and harmful acts as crimes. Tombs and Whyte (2007) for example showed that employers’ violations of health and safety law which lead to thousands of deaths of workers in the UK each year are typically explained away as industrial accidents, thus leaving no one to blame and leaving the injured and dead workers as non-victims.
- From a Feminist point of view sexism within the CJS means that most women who are victims of DV and rape fail to come forward, and those who are do are often treated as the guilty party themselves in court, and so are often denied formal victim status and justice.
- Tombs and White note that there is an ideological function of this ‘failure to label’ or ‘de- labelling’ – by concealing the true extent of victimisation and its real causes, it hides the crimes of the powerful and denies the victims any justice.
Evaluations of Critical Victimology
- It disregards the role victims may play in bringing crime on themselves (e.g. not making their home secure).
- Realists argue that it isn’t the job of criminologists to criticise governments and the police, this isn’t the most effective way to reduce crime and thus help victims of ‘ordinary crimes’ such as street violence and burglary.
A combination of the main A-level text books were used to write this post.