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Positivist victimology and victim precipitation

Here we consider the main features of positivist victimology and consider whether victims contribute to their own victimisation.

It has been argued that the main features of positivist victimology are:

The identification of factors which contribute to a non-random pattern of victimisation, a focus on interpersonal crimes of violence, and a concern to identify victims who may have contributed to their own victimisation (Miers, 1989: 3).

The presumptions of positivism suggested that victims possessed characteristics that made it possible to distinguish them from non-victims. These differences could be uncovered by social scientific investigation into those who were victims of crime, which often took the form of crime surveys that could be based on police recorded crime and the Crime Survey for England and Wales. The resulting data could then be put to practical use in developing responses to those situations that were designed to prevent future occurrences of victimisation.

A subset of positivist victimology has been described as ‘victim precipitation’, theories. Scholars working within this framework seek to examine what victim actions or characteristics increase the likelihood or risk of victimisation.

An early study (von Hentig, 1948) suggested that victims were not the passive subjects of actions performed by criminals but instead they played an active role in causing their own harm, so that ‘the behaviour of culprit and injured are often closely interlocked’ (von Hentig, 1940: 303). Von Hentig was therefore interested in the ‘reciprocal action between perpetrator and victim’ in some cases of crime (with examples discussed within his paper including homicide, rape and incest and confidence game) (von Hentig, 1940: 303).

However, an issue that arises from this approach is the accusation of ‘victim blaming’ which suggests that the victim of a criminal offence may have some culpability for the crime because of acts or commission or omission on his or her part.

Von Hentig (1940, 1948), and later Mendelsohn (1956, 1963) identified several characteristics that resulted in some victims becoming more susceptible and attractive to offenders. Von Hentig’s later work (1948) included the development of a typology of victim proneness placed under three broad categorizations:

  1. General, defined in terms of age, gender, vulnerabilities.
  2. Psychological, defined in terms of depression, acquisitiveness or loneliness.
  3. Activating, defined as the victim turned offender.

An alternative (albeit in some respects, related) approach to that of von Hentig was put forward by Mendelsohn (1956; 1963), who put forward a six-stage classification of victims that was based upon legal considerations of the victim’s culpability for a criminal act. Mendelsohn, like von Hentig, directed attention to the dynamics of the process of victimization.

Mendelsohn put forward the science of ‘victimity’ and developed the concept of ‘general victimology’. This sought to establish victimology as an academic discipline that was separate from criminology and whose concerns went beyond a focus on those who were victims of crime to embrace a range of other persons who had suffered from the actions of others, including governments and state agencies and those who were the casualties of accidents and natural disasters.

Wolfgang (1957) examined victim contribution to criminal acts in his study ‘Victim Precipitated Criminal Homicide’ which comprised part of a larger work entitled Patterns in Criminal Homicide. Like von Hentig, he argued that ‘the victim may be one of the major precipitating causes of his own demise’ (Wolfgang, 1957: 1). Wolfgang argued that ‘the term victim-precipitated is applied to those criminal homicides in which the victim is a direct, positive precipitator in the crime’ with ‘victim-precipitated cases’ comprising ‘those in which the victim was the first to show and use a deadly weapon, to strike a blow in an altercation’ (Wolfgang, 1957: 2). Thus, in such instances, actions initiated by the victim become the cause of his or her victimization. These actions may arise as the result of intentional actions undertaken by the victim or through a negative response by the offender towards the victim in which he or she play a passive rather than an active part in the victimization that occurs.

Wolfgang analysed empirical data of victim precipitated and non-victim precipitated homicides and examined differences and similarities in terms of race, sex, age, place and motive, victim-offender relationships, the presence of alcohol, and previous arrest record. Wolfgang argued that ‘criminal homicide usually involves intense personal interaction in which victim’s behaviour is often an important factor’ (Wolfgang, 1957: 10).

Wolfgang’s study revealed a significantly higher proportions of the following characteristics among victim precipitated homicide: 1. Male victims 2. Female offenders 3. Stabbings 4. Victim-offender relationship involving male victims of female offenders 5. Mate slayings 6. Husbands who are victims in mate slayings 7. Alcohol in the homicide situation 8. Alcohol in the victim 9. Victims with a previous arrest record and with a previous arrest record of assault.

Victim precipitated homicides were also found to have slightly higher proportions than non-victim precipitated homicides of altercations and domestic quarrels; inter-racial slaying, victims who are close friends, relatives, or acquaintances of their slayers. (Wolfgang, 1957: 11). Later controversial studies include Amir’s (1967) study ‘Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape’ that examined the part played by the victim in initiation of forcible rape and Virkkunen’s (1975) ‘Victim-Precipitated Paedophilia Offences’ which examined features of paedophilia offences which were not incestuous, where the victim’s behaviour had a positive effect on initiation of the offence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several criticisms have been made regarding what has been termed ‘positivist’, ‘conservative’ or ‘conventional’ victimology. In particular, the concepts of ‘victim precipitation’ and ‘victim blaming’ tend to absolve perpetrators from all or some responsibility for the criminal actions that they had performed.


Is the concept of ‘victim precipitation’ relevant when considering the issue of victimisation within our case study?

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Introduction to Criminology

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