Victimology is the study of crime and its victims. The perpetrator or offender is at one end of the spectrum and the victim at the other. The criminal and the victim represent opposing sides in the war against right or wrong. The victim is typically perceived as the innocent person who became prey to the guilty person who was on the opposing side of morality. The criminal was the bad guy and the victim was the good guy.
In 1948, however, Hans von Hentig, a German criminologist, began to change the societal attitudes towards crime following his study of several homicide victims. Hentig is credited as being a founder of the theory of victimology and was the first to suggest that the victim himself is “one of the many causes of crime,” reports Stephen Schafer, The Criminal and his Victim. Hentig’s theory altered societal attitudes and influenced change by altering the focus of a homicide investigation from the criminal to the victim.
Hentig’s approach was considered brilliant in the late 1940s. It was a new concept that quickly evolved and expanded into a theory. The victims were categorized and labeled while the investigators searched for what we now call an “unknown suspect.”
Investigating the victim’s lifestyle through interviews of friends and family helped law enforcement agents focus their resources and efforts on the victim as an attempt to locate the unknown criminal. They tried to understand why and how one person became a victim when another person did not. It is similar to reverse psychology and the reason victimology is sometimes referred to as “reverse criminology.” These strategies and tactics are still used today. The homicide investigator investigates the victim in an effort to understand the psychological aspects of the criminal which may lead to further clues about the whys and wherefores that led to one person’s death.
As a result of Hentig’s analysis of victims, he further theorized that there is “reciprocality” between the criminal and victim. This means that the victim and the criminal somehow share in the crime by providing somewhat of a reciprocal agreement and, therefore, some shared satisfaction as a result of the crime. Hentig’s theory stated that the victim shapes and molds the criminal and his crime. The relationship between perpetrator and victim, Hentig believed, created an intricate relationship and reciprocal arrangement between the criminal and the victim.
Then, in 1963, another criminologist, Benjamin Mendelsohn, refined Hentig’s theory by expanding on it. Mendelsolm developed a similar idea which he called “victim precipitation.” Victim precipitation is a term which suggests that the victim of a crime had “an aptitude, although unconsciously, of being victimized,” reports Karola Dillenburger, The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. Mendelshom concluded that victims “look, think, and act differently” than non-victims which increase their likelihood of becoming victims. There are as many types of victims as there are types of criminals.
Types of Victims
In 1948, when Hentig developed his theory about victimization and the victim’s role in the crime, it was considered a brilliant approach to the investigation of a homicide. The victim was dead and, therefore, law enforcement could not interview a lifeless body. The murderer was unknown and, therefore, not available for an interview. Crime scene analysis was just beginning to evolve as well. Forensic evidence was a new science. The logical solution was to interview those people who knew the victim. Hentig interviewed the relatives, friends, acquaintances and studied the lifestyle of victim in an effort to learn how or why the victim was murdered.
As a result of Hentig’s studies, he began to categorize victims according to the types of people most likely to become victims. Hentig categorized these victims on the basis of their personality types and assigned labels to them. According to Hentig, there are four types of victims, which he labeled as:
The “depressive” types, according to Hentig, were the easiest target because they were careless and unsuspecting. The “greedy” types were easily deceived because of their “insatiability.” The “wonton” type was vulnerable because of their “neediness.” The “tormentor” type was attacked by the victim of his abuse, explains Karola Dillenburger, “A Behavior Analytic Perspective on Victimology.” The tormentor, it seems, was attacked following the tormenting of another. The tormentor became the victim after the victim retaliated on the perpetrator. This might be analogous to the battered-wife who subsequently kills her abuser.
Contents of a Victim Profile
The field of victimology has further developed since the 1940s when Hentig first developed his theory. It was further studied and refined by Mendelsohn in the 1960s and, now in the year 2013, victims are classified according to multiple traits and, most frequently, according to lifestyle. The victims are graded on a scale from low to high-risk lifestyle. Every aspect of the victim’s lifestyle is examined, analyzed, theorized, categorized and judged.
The victim’s profile now includes details about their physical description, family background, education, marital status, occupation, employment history, medical history, dental records, family background, list of friends and enemies, and basically any other detail that can be discovered about the victim’s personal lifestyle. Victims are profiled just like criminals.
Types of Crimes
The classification of victims has expanded to include victims of many types of crimes. There are victims of natural disasters, accidents, bodily injury, personal injury and mass homicide. Once classified by type of crime, the victim is further analyzed and, subsequently, classified into a sub-classification with yet another label affixed to compartmentalize the victim into a subcategory based on additional known traits.
The victim’s personal lifestyle becomes the basis of the investigation based on the premise that through understanding of the victim, law enforcement can begin to understand the criminal. This assumption may hold valid for cases of individual homicide; however, it must lose credibility when investigating cases involving mass murder.
Through the process of victimology, albeit well-intended, the victim continues to suffer a form of double-jeopardy, once as a victim, and then again, through the “hardships of the civil process,” states Stephen Schafer, the Criminal and his Victim. Civil rights compete with civil justice.
As more people become victims of crime, more laws are passed based on the current societal attitudes as we compare criminals to victims. The prevailing attitudes rise and fall in relation to the prevailing attitude of the times. “Responsibility for one’s conduct is a changing concept and its interpretation is a true mirror of the social, cultural, and political conditions of the given era,” explains Schafer.
This year, as President Obama attended his fourth funeral at a site of a mass murder, he spoke to the victims and, more importantly, he spoke to Americans. He spoke about the needless violence that surrounds us. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” said Obama. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law – no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.”
The nature of societal interrelationships and the ideology of those with powers of authority provide the premise of the problem and propose solutions to solve the larger problem. New laws are written to define morality and increase the consequences for illegal behavior. Each administration, as the current ruling power, wields its political, social and economic strategies to implement new tactics to acquire a vote to pass yet another law that is designed to educate the masses about the difference between right and wrong.
This year, let the political pendulum swing both ways as we seek to stabilize the balance between justice for one and justice for all. Let the pendulum swing in the search for the truth and the search for an unknown suspect. Let the pendulum swing both ways and hope that the balance of justice weighs equally for one and all. Let us protect the civil rights of the criminal without prejudice or subjection of the victim.