The term victimization refers to a process whereby an external force comes in contact with a person, causing that person to feel pain, sometimes causing injury, either of which can be short-lived or which might cause extended suffering and sometimes death. That force can be legal or illegal, natural or human caused, biological or chemical, expected or unexpected, social or individual, civil or uncivil, intended or unintended; the list of possibilities is endless.
Those persons who are the direct recipients of the external force are the primary victims, the ones who suffer first, feel pain the most severely, and are usually injured the worst. Other persons who are related to, or acquainted with, the primary victims and are negatively affected (usually emotionally) are the secondary victims. This group can feel an intense sense of sympathetic suffering in proportion to the severity of the injury and the nature of their relationship to the primary victim. Both primary and secondary victims can become traumatized by the original victimization and consequently need some degree of psychological treatment to diminish their pain and to recover.
Persons familiar with the original victimization but not related or acquainted to the primary victim (usually neighbors or members of the same community or in the broader social audience) are tertiary victims. They can be influenced emotionally, financially, or socially. These persons can be those who received news of the original victimization via conversations, via the news media, or as witnesses to the event. In some cases even these tertiary victims will become traumatized and will need treatment.
The study of victimization and its victims is part of a relatively new science. A Romanian lawyer, Beniamin Mendelsohn, first coined the word victimology in 1947 and promoted its concept as the science of “victimity,” the study of all victims. He referred to his concept as “general victimology” to distinguish it from “crime victimology,” which is concerned only with crime victimization. He also proposed the establishment of a society of general victimology, the establishment of victimological research institutes, victim departments in all national governments, a journal of general victimology, the creation of victim clinics, and national societies in each country.
All of these proposals came to fruition. The World Society of Victimology, founded in 1979, is open to all forms of victimization (although most of its activities focus on crime victimization). At least six victimology institutes exist worldwide, some limited to crime victimization and others to general victimization. Many governments have established special offices dedicated to victims of crime and concern themselves with distributing information about victims, monitoring a wide range of victim support activities. In the United States, this office is the Office for Victims of Crime located within the Department of Justice. At least five international journals dedicated to victims actively publish works about all aspects of victimology. Tens of thousands of victim assistance centers function across the globe, especially in most of the developed countries but also in many of the developing countries as well. Finally, there are about 20 national victim societies across the globe. Consequently, it is understandable that Mendelsohn is called the “Father of Victimology.”
In the United States, the first official measurement tool on the extent of crime and victimization was the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), created by the
International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1927. Compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with data submitted voluntarily by police departments from all over the United States, these statistics unfortunately gave information mostly about the offenders, focusing on eight index crimes, but had little information about victims.
Because of the growing evidence about a sizable “dark figure” of victims (those who do not report their victimization) and the recognition that the UCR had been providing insufficient information about victims, a new national survey on victims appeared in 1966. This survey, now known as the National Crime Victimization Survey, confirmed that actual victimization rates exceeded UCR data, roughly double the number reported to the police. The survey provided a wealth of new information about victims and victimizations that has, for almost the past 4 decades, given victimologists details about victims and their behaviors never before available. In recent years, both of these surveys have become more expansive and sophisticated sources of statistics and information about victimization.
Beyond collecting survey data about crime victims, victimologists also conduct research to measure the cause-and-effect relationships that surround victimizations. These studies explore topics such as victim vulnerability, victim-offender interactions, victim impacts, victim trauma, victim blaming, victim needs, victim recovery, and many other topics that help victimologists better understand victim behaviors.
The last general category of research used in conjunction with victims is evaluative research used to measure the efficiency and efficacy of victim service programs. These studies focus primarily on victim services for such programs as those dealing with child abuse, sexual assault, elder abuse, victim advocacy, victim/witnesses, spouse abuse, burglary victims, accident victims, and victims of drunk drivers. The results of these studies help determine what aspects of services are valuable to keep, so as to better reduce victims’ suffering and facilitate their recovery.
The main concerns of contemporary victimology are crime victims (persons injured as a result of an illegal act), disaster victims (persons injured as a result of either natural or human-caused catastrophes), and a special category referred to as “abuses of power victims” (persons injured as a result of genocide, apartheid, racketeering, inquisitions, torture, or ethnic cleansing).
The response to victimization has become a permanent part of 21st-century culture, especially in the United States. Currently, there are victim’s rights in all states; service programs that help all types of victims; victimization research studies, which are major components of many scientific endeavors; universities that offer related academic degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels; professional victim advocates; and major parts of national and state budgets dedicated to providing assistance to a wide range of victims. Today, the concepts of victimization, victim rights, and victim assistance are familiar to most Americans, and sociologists believe that these changes have made a significant contribution to the improvement of the human condition.
John P. J. Dussich
- Elias, Robert. 1986. The Politics of Victimization: Victims, Victimology, and Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Fattah, Ezzat A. 1991. Understanding Criminal Victimization: An Introduction to Theoretical Victimology. Scarborough, ON, Canada: Prentice Hall.
- Karmen, Andrew. 2006. Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.