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The Four Theories of Victimization

Updated on August 22, 2014

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According to Jennifer Truman of the U.S. Department of Justice, "During 2010, U.S. residents age 12 and older experienced an estimated 18.7 million violent and property crime victimizations (2011). While this rate is down from previous years, this number is disturbing.

The noun "victimization" in this report has two meanings, "an act that exploits or victimizes someone" and "adversity resulting from being made a victim" (Victimization, N.d). Despite these two descriptions of the same word, both illustrate the problem of victimization, especially in number as high as the U.S experiences each year. As a method of countering the problem of crime, and of dealing with the numerous victims left in their wake, criminologists turn to the study of victims and their relationship to the criminal act. While caring and understanding the pain and anguish of the victim and their circle of social influence is of essential, as is providing treatment and counseling; criminologists now view the role of the victim in the criminal process as imperative to understanding the crime itself. Studying and researching victimology helps in gaining a better understanding of both the victim, as well as the criminal, and how the crime may have been precipitated.

For the purpose of understanding and researching victimology, four theories have been developed: victim precipitation theory, the lifestyle theory, deviant place theory, and the routine activities theory.

Number of Victimizations by Year

Type of Crime
Rape/Sexual Assault
Statistics from Truman, P.h. D (2011), and represent data from the U.S. Department of Justice: National Crime Victimization Survey

The Victim Precipitation Theory

The first of these, the victim precipitation theory, views victimology from the standpoint that the victims themselves may actually initiate, either passively or actively, the criminal act that ultimately leads to injury or death. During passive precipitation, the victim unconsciously exhibits behaviors or characteristics that instigate or encourage the attack. Siegel (2006) lists job promotions, job status, successes, love interests, and the like as examples of these unconscious behaviors and characteristics. Additionally, political activists, minority groups, those of different sexual orientations, and other individuals pursuing alternate lifestyles may also find themselves as targets of violence due to the inadvertent threat they pose to certain individuals of power.

Essentially, the victim precipitation theory focuses on the idea that passive precipitation of violence is a result of a power struggle. A politician may feel threatened by an activist group leader because his action draws attention to negative aspects of his personality and actions that will, or may cause, a loss of power in society. This sort of passive precipitation may also be present when the victim is not even aware of the existence of the attacker.

In this instance a new employee may push up the corporate ranks quickly, threatening long-time employees; or a transexual may be the victim of crime due to their existence "threatening" the beliefs and/or ideas of another individual or group of individuals. The latter is a good example of a hate crime, in which victims are often unaware of the individuals that perpetrate the crime, yet their actions and/or characteristics trigger the crime.

Active precipitation, on the other hand, is the opposite of the afore-described. Victimization under this theory occurs through the threatening or provocative actions of the victim. One of the most controversial points of this theory is the idea that women who are raped actively contributed in some way, either through provocative dress, a relationship, or suggested consent of intimacy (Siegel, 2006). Because of this viewpoint, it is hard to convict an accused rapist who has had some form of relationship with the accused, or one that was behaving provocatively or suggestively. When dealing with this theory we must ask ourselves whether or not it is really okay to blame the occurrence of a crime on the victim. This is especially true in cases of rape when flirtation may be present, yet there is no consent to sexual intercourse.

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The Lifestyle Theory

The next theory is the lifestyle theory. This theory purports that individuals are targeted based on their lifestyle choices, and that these lifestyle choices expose them to criminal offenders, and situations in which crimes may be committed. Examples of some lifestyle choices indicated by this theory include going out at night alone, living in "bad" parts of town, associating with known felons, being promiscuous, excessive alcohol use, and doing drugs.

In addition to theorizing that victimization is not random, but rather a part of the lifestyle the victims pursues, the lifestyle theory cites research that victims "share personality traits also commonly found in law violators, namely impulsivity and low self control" (Siegel, 2006). This previous statement was discussed in a psychology journal by Jared Dempsey, Gary Fireman, and Eugene Wang, in which they note the correlation between victims and the perpetrators of crimes, both exhibiting impulsive and antisocial-like behaviors (2006). These behaviors may contribute to their victimization since they cause the individual to put themselves at higher risk for victimization than their more conservative lifestyle counterparts.

Deviant Place Theory

The deviant place theory states that greater exposure to dangerous places makes an individual more likely to become the victim of a crime (Seigel, 2006). Unlike the victim precipitation theory, the victims do not influence the crime by actively or passively encouraging it, but rather are victimized as a result of being in "bad" areas. In order to lower the chance that one will become the victim of a crime, the individual should avoid the "bad" areas of town where crime rates are high. For example, South Central Los Angeles is notorious for its gangs, and high crime rate. The more an individual ventures into South Central, the more likely they are to become the victim of a crime there. Sociologist William Julius Wilson discusses the social and economic inequality that finds more minorities in the victim seat, since minorities are more commonly from low income households that are unable to move away from crime-ridden areas than their caucasian peers are (1990). Moreover, the deviant place theory suggests that taking safety precautions in these areas may be of little use since it is the neighborhood, and not the lifestyle choices, that affect victimization (Seigel, 2006). In a nutshell, if a neighborhood is "deviant," the only way to lower your risk of victimization is to leave the neighborhood for a less deviant, low crime rate area.

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Routine Activity Theory

Lastly, the routine activity theory explains the rate of victimization through a set of situations that reflect the routines of typical individuals. 1. The availability of suitable targets, 2. The absence of capable guardians, and 3. The presence of motivated offenders. According to this theory, the presence of one or more of these factors creates a higher risk of victimization. For example, leaving one's home during vacation creates a suitable target. Leaving a home for vacation in an urban area creates an even greater risk; and leaving one's home on vacation in an urban area in which there is a high number of teenage boys, known felons, or other "motivated offenders" creates an even higher risk for victimization. Communities with ample police protection, alarms and other security devices, and community watch teams, lower their risk by creating guardianship, which is noted under this theory to reduce crime rates.

Empirical evidence for this theory is seen in the work of Cohen and Felson, who noted that the crimes rates from 1960 to 1980 increased due to a decreased presence in the home (i.e less guardianship) (Seigel, 2006). We can also look at practical, everyday examples, such as those of affluent neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have low crime rates, despite the availability of goods. This may be attributed to the high guardianship in the form of security systems, and a lack of motivated offenders.

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While each of these theories has different positives and negatives, controversies and points of contention, as well as points of accord, each also explains in various situations why a certain individual may be the victim of theft, violence, or abuse. Furthermore, with an understanding of the patterns of victimization through the lens of one or more of these theories, the criminal justice system, as well as the general public, may better be equipped to prevent crime and treat the many victims.


Dempsey, J., Fireman, G., Wang, E. (2006). "Transitioning Out of Peer Victimization in School Children: Gender and Behavioral Characteristics." Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 28: 271 - 280.

Seigel, L., J. (2006). Criminology, 10th Edition. University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Thomson Wadsworth.

Victimization. (n.d.). WordNet 1.7.1. via Oxford Dictionary.

Wilson, W., J. (1990). The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago, University of Chigago.

Truman, J. Ph. D. (2011). Criminal Victimization 2010. U.S. Department of Justice: National Crime Victimization Survey.


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