Victim precipitation theories generally involve an explanation of how an individual’s behavior may contribute to his or her own victimization. Behavior by a victim that initiates subsequent behavior of the victimizer is referred to as victim precipitation. The examination of victim precipitation, while important from an etiological perspective, is not without controversy. Victim precipitation theories have been accused of being veiled attempts at victim blaming. In addition, studies that have examined the concept of victim precipitation have been criticized for relying on poor methodology.
Development of Victim Precipitation Theories
Early attempts at studying victim behavior involved the development of typologies that allowed victimologists to determine who was most responsible for the criminal incident—offender or victim. For instance, Mendelsohn developed a victim typology based on the culpability of the victim, where victims were placed on a continuum between totally guiltless and completely responsible.
Wolfgang first introduced the formal concept of victim precipitation in his seminal work on homicide in 1967 when he argued that, in some instances, the victim may initiate the behavior of the victimizer. To test this assertion, Wolfgang collected official data on 588 homicides that occurred over the course of 4 years in Philadelphia and found that almost 26% (150 homicides) fit his definition of victim precipitation.
Subsequent studies that have included a measure of victim behavior in their analyses have found that victim-precipitated violent crimes are most likely to occur between a female offender and a male victim known to one another. Alcohol is another common predictor, with one or both parties having consumed alcohol prior to the incident.
Prior research that has examined the concept of victim precipitation has been criticized for insinuating that the victim was somehow responsible for his or her own victimization. This is generally referred to as victim blaming.
For example, Amir’s research, which examined the concept of victim precipitation in relation to incidents of forcible rape, was subject to criticism largely because of his conceptualization of victim precipitation, which focused on the offender’s interpretation of the victim’s behavior. Feminist scholars were particularly disturbed and argued that Amir used rape myths to justify sexual assault.
Because of such criticism, it is important to differentiate victim precipitation, which is a behavioral concept, from provocation, which is a legal notion. Provocation is a legal concept used by criminal courts to determine and measure offender culpability. In contrast, victim precipitation is a behavioral concept used by social scientists to determine the causes of victimization. The criterion for establishing provocation from a legal stance is the behavior of the offender, particularly the mindset of the offender and his or her level of self-restraint. For instance, courts look at the reasonable behavior of a “normal” individual in the same circumstance.
Victim precipitation, in contrast, focuses on the behavior of the victim without accusations of fault or guilt. As such, the study of victim precipitation allows the researcher to take into consideration situational factors, providing a richer, more thorough explanation of the criminal event. The concept of victim precipitation is important from an etiological perspective because it allows us to consider a multitude of factors that contribute to a criminal incident.
A primary methodological issue is the large number of cases where there is insufficient detail to allow for an accurate determination of victim precipitation. Missing data raise the question of validity in research findings. For instance, although in 1967 Wolfgang found that 26% of homicides were victim precipitated, in 44% of the incidents he was unable to make a determination due to missing data. As such, his findings may over or underestimate the prevalence of victim precipitation.
Other methodological concerns related to victim precipitation include competing or conflicting accounts, temporal ordering of events, and operationalization of key variables.
- Amir, M. (1967). Victim precipitated forcible rape. Journal of Criminal Law, 58, 493–502.
- Felson, R. B., & Messner, S. F. (1998). Disentangling the effects of gender and intimacy on victim precipitation in homicide. Criminology, 36, 405–423.
- Polk, K. (1997). A reexamination of the concept of victimprecipitated homicide. Homicide Studies, 1, 141–168.
- Wolfgang, M. E. (1967). Victim-precipitated criminal homicide. In M. E. Wolfgang (Ed.), Studies in homicide (pp. 72–87). New York: Harper & Row.
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