We hear a lot about the victims after a criminal offence has been committed - the impact on them, how they should be treated, etc. But who are victims, and how does sociology study them? This is where the study of victimisation comes in.

Victimisation Victimisation

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Table of contents
    • We will go over the meaning of victimisation.
    • We will look at why it is important to study 'victims of crime'.
    • Next, we'll also look at patterns within victimisation.
    • Lastly, we'll consider the two primary sociological perspectives on victimisation.
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    The meaning of victimisation

    First, let's look at a definition of victimisation.

    In sociology, victimisation (or victimology) is the study of who the victims of crime are, why some groups in society are more likely to be victims, and whether they are more or less vulnerable to victimhood because of certain characteristics.

    Victimisation in law

    The sociological topic of victimisation is not to be confused with the legal understanding of victimisation, which is when a person is treated unfairly (in the workplace, for example) for making a complaint about discrimination or supporting someone else who has done so. Victimisation is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

    Who is a victim of crime?

    The United Nations (UN) defines victims as those who "individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws operative within Member States".1

    It is important to study victims not just because they play an essential role in the criminal justice system but to understand their circumstances, ensure they are granted justice, and prevent further victimisation wherever possible.

    Patterns of victimisation

    Different dimensions of victimhood are relevant to law or criminology, but sociology is particularly interested in the patterns and trends of victimisation. Data on this can be found in studies such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW).

    Statistics help reinforce our understanding that the chance of being victimised is significantly impacted by group divides such as class, gender, ethnicity, and so on.

    Let's look at some factors that impact one's chances of being victimised.

    Gender victimisation

    Men are at greater risk than women of becoming victims of violent attacks. For example, men account for most homicide victims - 72% in 2019-20.2

    However, women are generally more likely to be victims of gendered violence such as domestic abuse and sexual assault. Trans people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes.

    Ethnic and racial victimisation

    Ethnic minority groups are at greater risk than white people of being victims of crime in general, as well as of racially motivated crimes. Specifically, mixed-race people are the most likely to be victimised across all ethnic groups.2

    Social class victimisation

    Working-class groups, especially the poorest in society, are more likely to be victimised. For instance, crime rates are typically highest in areas of high unemployment and deprivation, since they have low enforcement of social control (formal and informal sanctions on disorderly behaviour) and people are usually unable to afford security for their homes.

    Victimisation, Broken windows in old building, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Living in deprivation makes people more likely to be victimised.

    Age victimisation

    Younger people are generally at higher risk of victimisation than older people. Teenagers are more vulnerable than adults to offences such as assault, sexual harassment, theft, and domestic abuse.

    The elderly are also at risk of abuse, e.g. in care homes where victimisation is less visible.

    (Dis)ability victimisation

    According to CSEW 2017, having a significant disability also appeared to increase the risk of victimhood. This was especially relevant for children under 15, where 11.9% of those with a chronic illness or disability had been victims of a crime in the previous year, compared to 4.8% of those without.3

    Repeat victimisation

    Unfortunately, those who have been victimised once are very likely to be victimised again. The CSEW shows that although 60% of the population are not victims of any kind of criminal offence in a given year, 4% of the population are victims of 44% of all crimes in that period.2

    Theories on victimisation in sociology

    While examining patterns of victimisation is very helpful in identifying the 'signs' of who is likely to be a victim, it is also pertinent that we know how to approach the subject.

    There are two broad schools of thought in the sociology of victimhood: positivist victimology and critical victimology.

    Positivist victimology

    This branch of victimology has a more conservative outlook. It argues that people contribute toward their own victimhood by exhibiting certain characteristics or behaviours. Walking home alone at night, leaving a window open or valuables visible, can all be seen as contributing to one's own victimisation.

    David Miers (1989) identifies positivist victimology as focusing on three main concerns:

    1. It aims to pinpoint the factors in individuals or their environments that produce the patterns in victimisation explored above - particularly those that create a non-random risk of victimisation.

    2. Its focus is on interpersonal violent crimes - intentional acts of violence by an individual or group against other persons.

    3. It attempts to uncover how victims may have contributed to their own victimisation.

    Initial research in positivist victimology concentrated on the idea of 'victim proneness'. It sought to identify the social and psychological traits of victims that made them more vulnerable - more 'prone' - to victimisation than non-victims.

    Research into victim proneness

    • Hans Von Hentig (1948) distinguished 13 typical characteristics of victims, e.g. that they are more likely to be female, elderly, and have a mental illness or disorder.

    • MJ Hindelang et al. (1978) identified a range of factors that increased people's likelihood of becoming victims of crime, including age, gender, marital status, family income, and ethnicity. They also underlined that people who are often in public places at night-time are more prone to victimisation.

    The basis of such research is the suggestion that victims ‘invite’ victimisation in some shape or form, precisely because of who they are. There have also been positivist studies conducted on specific forms of crime to decipher the role of victims within them.

    Marvin Wolfgang’s (1958) study of 588 homicides in Philadelphia between 1948-1952 found that 26% of homicides involved 'victim precipitation'; i.e., they were caused by events triggered by the victim.4 (They were the first to use violence, among other reasons.)

    Critical victimology

    This branch of victimology is based on sociological conflict theories such as Marxism and feminism, and seeks to show how certain social groups are structurally more vulnerable to victimisation.

    According to critical victimology, the powerless in society are most likely to be victimised and yet the least likely to have this addressed by the state since it often sides with the powerful.

    Structural factors are important in explaining why some people are more prone to victimisation than others. This is because factors such as patriarchy and poverty put powerless groups such as women and poor people at greater risk of victimisation. Living in poverty and deprivation breeds crime, while patriarchal structures impose gendered crimes against women.

    This leads to what Rob Mawby and Sandra Walklate (1994) term 'structural powerlessness'. The state has the power to apply or deny the label of 'victim'– victimhood is socially constructed, not innate. Through the criminal justice process, the state withholds the label of 'victim' at will, denying the victimised person their victim status and rendering them even more powerless.

    When the police decide against charging a man for assaulting his wife or do not investigate an attack in a deprived neighbourhood (presumably due to prejudice), these people are denied victimhood and are left with no power to seek justice for themselves.

    Similarly, Steve Tombs and David Whyte (2007) show that cases of corporate 'safety' crime (for instance, where employers’ breaches of the law cause worker deaths or injuries) are often attributed to 'accident-prone' workers. This both denies the victims official 'victim status' and blames them for their predicament.

    Tombs and Whyte observe that hiding the true causes and extent of victimisation conceals the crimes of the powerful and denies the powerless victims any reparations.

    Criticisms of victimisation theories in sociology

    Now that we have studied the two main sociological approaches to victimisation, let's look at the positives and criticisms of victimisation theories in sociology.

    Evaluations of positivist victimology

    • The logic of positivist victimology can be viewed as victim-blaming. Feminist theorists widely condemn positivist arguments such as Menachem Amir's (1968) claim that one in five rapes are 'victim precipitated', as they burden victims and discourage them from pursuing justice.

    • The idea that victims attract crime through their character or personal actions takes away the agency of criminals and their responsibility for their criminal acts.

    • This approach identifies patterns concerning individual victims of crime but ignores wider structural factors that may increase the likeliness of victimhood.

    • Positivist victimology only focuses on interpersonal crimes of violence – it does not look at, for instance, state crime or corporate crime.

    Victimisation, Protesters holding anti-rape culture signs, StudySmarterFig. 2- Victim-blaming discourages victims of crime from coming forward.

    Evaluations of critical victimology

    • It is valuable in that it brings attention to the way 'victim status' is constructed, and how this benefits the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

    • However, it disregards the steps victims could take to protect themselves from crime, like making their homes secure, as well as the victim's own role in the crime e.g. if they also committed an offence.

    • Social groups that are in power, such as men and the rich, are statistically and/or structurally also at risk of victimisation.

    Victimisation - Key takeaways

    • Sociology is interested in victimisation - who are the victims of crime, why some groups are more likely to be victims, and whether they are more susceptible to victimhood because of certain characteristics.
    • A victim is anyone who has suffered physical, mental, emotional, or financial harm or loss as a result of a crime.
    • It is important to study victims to get them justice, prevent more victimisation, and keep the criminal justice process running.
    • The likelihood of victimisation is greatly impacted by group divides including gender, class, ethnicity, age, (dis)ability, and whether they have already been a victim before.
    • There are two primary approaches to victimisation - positivist and critical victimology.


    1. OHCHR. (n.d.). Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. OHCHR; United Nations.
    2. ONS. (2019). Crime in England and Wales - Office for National Statistics.; Office for National Statistics.
    3. ONS. (2017). Crime in England and Wales - Office for National Statistics.; Office for National Statistics.
    4. Wolfgang, M. E. (2016). Patterns in criminal homicide. In Patterns in Criminal Homicide. University of Pennsylvania Press.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Victimisation

    What is victimisation?

    Victimisation in sociology refers to who the victims of crime are, why some people are more likely to be victims, and whether this is due to particular characteristics.

    What is an example of victimisation?

    An example of victimisation is when someone is attacked or mugged in the streets.

    What are the signs of victimisation?

    'Signs' of being victimised can be taken from which groups are most prone to victimisation - men, ethnic minority groups, poor people, young people, those with disabilities, and those who have been victimised before.

    Is victimisation a form of discrimination? 

    If someone is victimised due to a part of their identity, such as their ethnicity or gender, then that is a form of discrimination.

    What is re-victimisation? 

    Re-victimisation is when a person who has been a victim of crime becomes subject to crime again.

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