How Has Victimology Developed?

Updated June 19, 2017

The concept of victimisation has changed from its ancient roots to its modern definition. The field of study that analyses victims is known as victimology, and it has evolved as well. Victimology examines a number of factors, including victim attitudes and conduct, their relationships with offenders and society's treatment of them.

Victim Definition

The notion of a "victim" originated millennia ago in ancient civilisations, according to North Carolina Wesleyan College. In those days, a victim was a person or animal sacrificed to honour a God or leader. As time went on, the concept of a victim was expanded to include other meanings. Victimology, or the study of victims, was founded in the 1940s. At that time, victimologists defined victims as "hapless dupes who instigated their own victimisation." Later in the 20th century, feminists opposed this notion and redefined the concept to remove blame from victims. Today, the concept of victimisation has been expanded even further to include harm done upon someone from any cause. Such causes include crime, natural disasters, diseases and human-rights violations.

Victimology Definition

This field of study is a subfield of criminology and focuses on society's reaction to breaking the law. Victimologists study several facets of victimisation, including the harm itself, the relationship between victims and offenders, the criminal justice system and the media, the costs of crime and victim's rights movements.

Early History

The fathers of victimology are two German criminologists, Hans von Hentig and Benjamin Mendelsohn. They studied the behaviours, characteristics and vulnerabilities of crime victims. In 1937, Mendelsohn proposed a theory that most victims have certain characteristics that make them more prone to be victimised. He identified six types of victims, the first of which, "the innocent," is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The remaining five types describe victims who somehow contribute to their own harm. Mendelsohn called that "victim precipitation." In 1948, von Hentig developed similar theories when he studied homicide victims. He put them into categories such as the "depressive type" who is a careless, easy target, and the "greedy type" who is easily fooled because his lust for gain is more powerful than his suspicion. Several other victimologists in the 1950s and 60s continued to theorise that victims were somehow responsible, whether consciously or unconsciously, of causing their own victimisation.


A shift in the definition and study of victims came with the women's movement of the 1970s and '80s. According to the United States Department of Justice, feminist leaders viewed the poor response of the criminal justice system to sexual assaults and domestic violence as symptomatic of women's lack of status, power and influence. Feminists united under the belief that it was no longer OK to blame the victim. They redefined the concept of the victim as someone that was in an "asymmetric" situation. Here, asymmetry means "anything unbalanced, exploitative, parasitical, oppressive, destructive, alienating, or having inherent suffering." This new definition was centred on power imbalance, in which the victim has suffered injury because of something beyond her control. Those in the women's movement worked to provide care for victims of rape and domestic violence, creating rape crisis centres and other forms of support and advocacy. As a result of victimology studies in the 1970s and beyond, and social movements such as feminism, today there are many different support groups and organisations dedicated to helping victims. Families and Friends of Missing Persons, Parents of Murdered Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are just a few of the groups that provide counsel and support to victims and their families. Even the terminology has changed as many victims now prefer to call themselves "survivors."

Criminal Justice System

As victimology continued to develop, so too did the treatment of victims by the criminal justice system. In the days when victimology blamed the victim, too often they were treated poorly by law enforcement and judicial officials. The criminal justice system has since tried to improve its standards when handling the needs of victims. According to the USDOJ, a 1974 victimology study revealed the biggest failure in criminal prosecutions came because witnesses refused to help a justice system that didn't care about their needs. This study spurred a number of programs designed to improve the relationship between criminal justice officials and victims and witnesses. They began teaching officials the proper way to handle victims as well as providing crisis services and compensation programs.

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About the Author

Lesley Henton has a journalism degree and over 20 years of writing experience. She belongs to the Golden Key and Kappa Tau Alpha National Honor Societies. She's been published in regional magazines like "Brazos Family" and "In the Zone." Henton co-edited and wrote in the books "Discovering Greater Phoenix" and "Los Angeles: Place of Possibilities."