Reviewing The Development Of The Victimization Survey Criminology Essay

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The development of the victimization survey took place in the mid 60's in the US and in the 80's in the UK, as an alternative to measure "crime known to the public rather than crimes recorded by the police" (Colman and Moynihan, 1996, p. 71). Despite the implementation the methodology has been, in general, well received by the criminologists, as any measurement methodology it is not capable to count 'the total number of illegal acts which take place in society' (Maguire, 1996, p. 74-5) because of "their particular techniques of construction" (Reiner, 2007, p. 58). The risk is that results are biased and then the whole explanation potentially fails.

In order to address this issue, this essay will identify its general methodological limitation, and it will focus on three particular vulnerabilities: gender, race and age. In this regard, this essay will consider the British Crime Survey's data and methodology and it will compare them with some local surveys to conclude that, firstly, the BCS is a valid method to count 'traditional crimes' though less reliable to understand special crimes, secondly triangulation is needed to evaluate the general trends, and thirdly some of its methodological limitations are linked to the original idea that inspired it, namely to challenge the Police statistics and the possibility to uncover the 'dark figure' of crime.


The general limitations should be identified:

How to define crime: and whose definition should prevail in a conflict. (Reiner, 2007, p. 58). This is especially relevant because different surveys do not share the same criteria (legal, sociological,etc.) and also because some surveys give the victim the opportunity to define it. In this case, either a broader or a limited consideration would bias the survey.

Another problem is that it can only measure crimes with aware individual victims (p.59 and Sparks, 1977, 227), and when they are not part of the consent and as a household survey; it does not cover crimes against the homeless (p. 59 and Stark Limitations (Sparks, 1977, p. 226), no use for victimless crimes.

Response rate: 75%, but the non respondents may have a different experience and in this case "the people not interviewed were very different from those of respondents, that could result in a degree of bias" (Tipping, S. Et all, British Crime Survey, 2009, p. 11). Effectively, Crawford et al (1990, in Maguire, 1996, p. 77) "found that those who refused to complete their questionnaire for the Second Islington Crime Survey were more likely to have been recent victims of violent crime than those respondents who co-operated" (p. 77). So, the problem is that it is not at random. "Response rates and the possible bias which can only be partially solved by careful weighting of the sample to counter the biases" (p. 77).

Other factors as memory (Sparks, 1977, p. 222) could give inaccurate answers, respondent tend to forget victimization.

II. Gender

The vulnerability of the victim survey to gender bias has been a matter of long discussion. The clearest example is the fact that the BCS under-recorded the cases of domestic and sexual violence against women [1] and, consequently some explanations were biased. In this regard, the following key issues should be considered:

(a) A victim survey as BCS does not help to unveil the "hidden figure of crime". Moreover, distortions have occurred. A clear example of this is the fact that the BCS states that women [2] were more prone to fear crime while they have less statistical probabilities to be affected by it, some authors explain this with the fact that women are physically and socially more vulnerable than men (Maxfield in Stanko, 1988, p. 40). However, as Stanko describes, feminist researchers found that many types of interpersonal violence do not appear either in official statistics or in victim surveys (1988, p. 40), and only a small proportion of sexual and physical assaults against women are revealed (Stanko, 1988, p. 45).

Special consideration must be taken in relation to the kind of population sampled, the wording of the questions, the situations in which the survey takes place, and the role the interviewer assumes. Jones, MacLean and Young (1986) show in their local survey in Islington that, contrary to the BCS, they were able to find many more cases of rape and sexual assault. Consistently with this finding, "Radford (1987) and Hall (1985) have also found widespread sexual assault cases. On top of the effect that a different wording of the questions might have, the use of careful trained researchers who were able to conduct 'interviews sympathetically' was the key element to find a higher rate of female victimization' (Young, 1988, p. 170).

The other problem is that recalling the assaults for a given period of time is useful for comparison purposes of police statistics but not for the real victim (p. 168), because it implicitly assumes that people automatically compare themselves to their cohort (...). This approach also misses the frequency of violence (1986, 182) and mythically considers all victims as 'equal' (p. 173).

The non-responded questions are especially relevant in these cases. It is not only a matter of quantitative results "because certain sorts of crimes against certain sort of persons are disproportionately represented" (conf. Young 1988, 169).

(b) Multiple victimization biases the survey in two ways: on the one hand when the "assault" is repeated periodically each situation does not appear as memorable (Genn, 1988, p. 91). On the other hand, there are problems in counting when the victim remembers each one of multiple cases, "Their experience will inflate gross victimization rates and greatly increase estimates on the probable risk of becoming a victim of the population as a whole". To avoid it, some surveys reduce the counter problems by excluding or reducing the number arbitrarily (p. 91), because they use the concept of a 'discrete event' notion of crime (p. 91). The problem here is in the design of the survey; by ignoring it, the survey will show a distorted image of social reality (p. 92).

III Ethnicity

As it was explained in the introduction the focus of this essay is not related to describe in what areas the victims surveys and especially the BCS has been successful. It will focus on their difficulties to explain the whole picture of crime. In this regard, both the definition of ethnic victimization as the methodology that has been used make this conclusion biased. Here, again, the general consideration should be applied but, still remains to be considered two aspects that affect the counting and, consequently the public policies that are implemented.

In relation to 'low level' harassment, Verdee explains that "although the BCS represents an important step forward in providing a more accurate estimate of the scale of the problem (…) it remains only a partial picture (…) the surveys do no capture all the different forms of harassment, especially 'low-level' racial harassment" (Virdee, 1997, p. 263). This is linked both with the perception of some conduct as a crime or criminal behavior (p. 263) but also with the approach of the questionnaire and the interviewer. The covered ethnic victimization was also demonstrated by local surveys (ex. Moss-side study).

On the other hand, a survey problem was indentified in relation to the counting by events, which implies some misunderstanding in the complexity of the phenomenon. As Bowling explains (1998, 162) the problem that the 'surveys address is in the developing ways of capture violent racism and victimization as a process'. The repeat or multiple victimization imply a challenge for the BCS because it is needed to consider not only the event, but a complete account of an event creates a methodological problem "because victimization surveys are best suited to produce aggregate statistics and do not deal with statistical outliers (p. 163). By doing this "the general orientation of contemporary victimization surveys has tend to marginalize the experience of those suffering forms of repeated victimization such as racial violence…" (p. 163). All the actors and the relationship among them shoud be considered. Victimization surveys tend to produce static descriptions. Linked with it, is the idea that the time period is also a factor of bias since it is not adequately prepared to describe a dynamic and relational situation.

Finally, as Bowling explains (1998, 165) this biases the real approach to the problems and, consequently the public policies that would be implemented based on it. A clear example is that by considering ethnic victimization as a one-dimensional criminal factor, the normative response is prevailed while, on the contrary, if the phenomenon would have been in a dynamic and multi-factorial way a community response would appear (p. 165). Thus, a methodological holistic approach is needed (p. 167).

IV. Age

The BCS is especially biased by age because it does not consider children and considers old people only partially: "Two other groups whose special problems are largely missed by survey material are the very young and the very old" (Maguire, 1988, p. 9).

Regarding the children it is necessary to consider that even if the BCS has been sensible to criticism and has recently included children from 10 to 15 in the survey, it still does not complete the picture. Some local surveys have established that children are much more vulnerable to be victims of crime than offenders.

On the other hand, cases like sexual abuse also share the problem that has been detailed in 'gender' and are also vulnerable to the hidden figure of crime, but without the possibility to be recorded at all.

Most households take sample of adults, 16 or more. Younger respondents are generally omitted because of the need to negotiate parental permission, and because youngsters are not necessarily seen as good respondents for reporting household crime, or general matters such as income levels. Conventional victimization questions also need to be adapted to reflect the day -to - day experience of the young, and to bring into scope behavior which some may not appreciate as 'criminal'" (p. 236).

In 1992: by "using a self completion paper questionnaire, they were asked about victimization and harassment away from home. Briefly, results showed that young teenagers experienced a high level of incidents covered by the survey, although many were not seen as serious. Few incidents came to the attention of the police, and many were not reported to parents or teachers either" (p. 236). (see Aye Maung 1995a).

In UK, a number of surveys of young people focus on offending and bullying victimization. Ex.: On track Youth Lifestyles Survey 2001 by Sheffield University as part of the evaluation of the On Track components of the Crime Reduction Programme. Some (p. 237).

Another strategy is by asking adults about their experiences when they were children. The case of elderly is also biased because some institutions are missed, like nursing homes, and also because of memory problems.

V. Conclusion

The number of problems that have been reported before can conspire against the reliability of the survey. In this regard, I consider that, as Steven Box states (1981, p. 164 in Coleman and Moynihan, 1996, p. 75), victimization surveys are best suited for 'ordinary crimes'. "They are less able to capture such crimes as rape and domestic violence, although some local surveys have been specifically designed for this purpose" (idem, p. 75).

However, some of these factors could be avoided if the survey, the BCS, is not as linked to the police criteria as it is.

Finally, the BCS still has a great validity to define general trends in regular crimes, but it has to be triangulated to be more accurate.