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Social Construction of Victims | Victiminology Theories

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2918 words Published: 18th Jul 2018

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“Some victims are more deserving of the label ‘victim’ than others. Critically analyse this statement in light of your knowledge of theories in this area.”

The word ‘victim’ can be associated with a person who has experienced some form of misfortune or suffering, however, when the word ‘victim’ is thought of in a policing perspective it is typically “used to refer to the complainant of a crime” (Wakefield, 2008:315). This essay aims to critically analyse the statement; ‘some victims are more deserving of the label ‘victim’ than others’, using different theories in relation to this. The essay will firstly; analyse two theories in relation to victimisation, secondly; it explore Nils Christie’s approach to the ‘ideal victim’ and lastly; the media’s role in representing the ‘ideal victim’ will be portrayed through the comparison of news coverage on the Madeline McCann case and the Shannon Matthews case.

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Historically criminology and criminal justice have been solely focused on the understanding of criminal offending, however, since the 1960’s “a variety of paradigm shifts, scientific advances, and social and political forces … provided a foundation from which theories of victimisation emerged”, also known as the study of Victimology (Wilcox, 2010:978). This shift occurred when scholars decided to investigate ‘crime’ as more than just the behaviour and conduct of a criminal, instead it was viewed as a ‘system’ which involved a victim, time and place as well as the offender (Wilcox, 2010:978). It was in the 1960’s when a more socio-political movement anticipated for greater attention to be brought to victims of crime and their rights in the criminal justice system. With both scientific and socio-political movements it created an ideal opportunity for the development of different theoretical outlooks on victimisation. Collectively, these perspectives focused on many casual influences from lifestyles to broad-based social inequality (Wilcox, 2010:978). A major theory which emphasis’s these different influences is the radical theory of Victomology.

The theory of radical Victimology, which emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s, can be linked to the work of Benjamin Mendelsohn (Friday, 2000:62) and can be thought to be an offspring of Radical Criminology and Sociology. Mendelsohn’s argument for a vicitimology which looks at human rights and allows and investigation into the role of the state in determining who is a ‘legitimate’ victim and how the criminal justice system is concerned in the making of criminals and victims, is what is thought to be the origins for radical Victimology. As a consequence of this argument, “radical victimology acknowledges, in particular, those victims who have been rendered invisible” (Marsh, 2004:110). These victims, according to Quinny (1972), are best described as “victims of police force, the victims of war, the victims of the correctional system, the victims of state violence, and the victims of oppression of any sort” (Marsh, 2004:110). According to Marsh, it can be said that the idea of a ‘conventional’ radical victimology is what has been an aid for representing the problems faced by the poor and powerless which is a result of a limited structural foundation of victimisation (2004:110). Similarly to radical victimology, there are critical theorists who also address the idea of whether people “are aware of their social reality” and if it is safe to think that “the state is neutral in its response to crime and victimisation” (Marsh, 2004:111).

The similarity of radical victimology and critical victimology is that they both attempt to theorise about the social issues within victimology. One version of this theory of victimology can be demonstrated through the importance of labelling, and as Meirs (1990) suggests that people may “claim the label, but the key questions for a critical victimology are, who has the power to apply the label and what considerations are significant in that determination” (Davies, 2004:38). In this version, Meirs uses the hypothetical outlook of “symbolic interactionism” (Davies, 2004:38) to enlighten his practice of the word ‘critical’. In general, critical victimology looks at the problems contained in the relationship between the state and its citizens; “it does not see the state as neutral rather the states mechanisms contribute to those victims we see and those we don’t see” (Marsh, 2004:112). Therefore it is not neutral, instead self-motivated and self-interested and according to critical victimology this would raise problems when it comes to gender, race and class and how these are expressed in policy terms. Therefore, it can be said that critical victimology is a theoretical perspective which inspects the wider social context of modern societies which focuses on “the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy influence the ways in which victims are perceived and responded to” (Marsh, 2004:112).

Both these theories explore the different reasons why some people may become a victim to certain crimes. In an ideal world any person who falls victim to a crime should be seen and treated as equal victims, whether they have been hurt psychologically, physically, financially or socially, but there has been the ever standing debate of what makes an ‘ideal’ victim and Nils Christie was the first criminologist to explore this idea.

In 1986, criminologist Nils Christie created the concept of the ‘ideal victim’. According to Christie, the ideal victim encompasses at least six main characteristics; the victim is weak, they were involved in a respectable activity at the time of incident, the victim was in a place at the time of the incident where they could not be blamed for being, the victim did not know their perpetrator, the offender is seen as ‘big and bad’ or can be described with very negative connotations and lastly the victim has enough impact to claim the status of a victim (Lindgren, 2011:21-22). Christie uses the situation of an elderly lady being mugged by a male drug abuser while on route to see her sick sibling as the perfect example of who an ideal victim is, but the ideal victim also has an opposite according to Christie. His example of this would entail something along the lines of a young male who is drunk and in a dingy pub and is robbed by those he is associating with, Christie believes in this situation there is the prospect to claim moral accountability: “he should not have gone to such a bar, he should not have gotten drunk, he should not have associated with those types etc” (Lindgren, 2011:22). Regardless of evidence of any physical, psychological or economical harms, if an individual is not classified as a ‘victim’ then that individual risks little or no protection evidently because they are not comprised of the ‘standard’ vision of a victim of crime. Therefore raising the argument for; is there people more deserving of the label ‘victim’ than others, and what is the decision of being more deserving influenced by?

The phenomenon of the ‘ideal victim’ arises questions like why some people – normally those from a socially deprived background or from ethnic minorities – appear to be less deserving of the label victim even although they clearly satisfy each category of Christie’s theory. It can be argued that the media are at large to blame for depriving so many individuals of the label ‘victim’ because not all victims of crime receive equal attention in the news or media. It has been said that “there exists a ‘hierarchy of victimization’, both reflected and reinforced in media and official discourses” (Greer, 2007:22). On one side there are individuals who have obtained the status of being an ‘ideal victim’ and will attract huge levels of media attention, creating a shared global-scale grieving, and generating possible changes in criminal justice policies and practices (Greer, 2004; Valier, 2004, Cited by: Greer, 2007:22). On the other side of the hierarchy there are the individuals who fail to obtain a victim status or are seen as an ‘undeserving victim’ which would result in that individual receiving “little, if any, media attention, and pass virtually unnoticed in the wider social world” (Greer, 2007:22). Comparisons of the news and media coverage from the disappearances of Madeline McCann and Shannon Matthews can help to illustrate the media’s role in representing the ‘ideal victim’.

In May 2007 three year old Madeline McCann was reported missing while on a family holiday in Portugal. Her parents left her and her two siblings in their apartment while they went for dinner and when they returned Madeline was missing from her bed, and unfortunately it is still unknown what happened to her today. Madeline’s disappearance sparked international attention from the media and was described by the Daily Telegraph as “the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history” (Telegraph.co.uk). Then nine months after Madeline’s disappearance in February 2008 nine year old Shannon Matthews was reported missing by her mother. Shannon was found safe on the 14th of March and her mother was later charged “with child neglect and perverting the court of justice over her daughter’s disappearance” (BBC.co.uk) as she had set the whole thing up in order to receive money. Even although the Matthews case was a set-up there was still 24 days of Shannon being ‘missing’ and the news coverage and interest on her story was majorly lesser than that of Madeline McCann’s. According to an Independent news article after nine days there were 465 UK press stories released on Madeline McCann in comparison with only 242 on Shannon Matthews (Independent.co.uk). Also their Wikipedia profiles were both very different, Madeline McCann’s profile reached 2,182 words after only nine days yet Shannon Matthews profile only managed to reach 151 words after the same amount of time (Independent.co.uk). According to the same Independent news article the rewards offered for the two girls were significantly different; the reward for Madeline McCann reached a massive £2.6 million whereas the reward for Shannon Matthews was only £25,000 (Independent.co.uk). Therefore the differences in the number of press stories, Wikipedia profiles and reward figures, sparks the question of how do we understand the media’s discrimination between the two stories?

The answer to this question lies within the origins of legitimate and ‘deserving victims’. Madeline McCann was a classic version of an ‘ideal victim’. She was a young, pretty, and photogenic girl from a stable, middle-class family with two Doctors as parents who lived in a detached house in Leicestershire (Independent.co.uk). On the other hand, Shannon Matthews came from a working class family living in a council house in Dewsbury Moor. Her father hadn’t seen her for years while she lived with her mother, step-father and six other siblings – of which were from her mother’s relationships with five different partners (Independent.co.uk). While the public’s hearts where captured by the story of Madeline McCann, Shannon Matthews did not attract the same type of attention. Public donations for Shannon Matthews only managed to reach thousands at most (Independent.co.uk) yet public donations for Madeline McCann excelled to £1.1 million and some of these donations were made by A-list celebrities such as; David Beckham, Christiano Ronaldo, John Terry, J K Rowling and more (Independent.co.uk). Madeline McCann personified the concept of an ‘ideal victim’ whereas it was Shannon’s background which denied her the ‘deserving’ victim label. The acknowledgement of “ideal or legitimate victim status and related levels of media interest are clearly influenced by demographic characteristics (Greer, 2007:23).

The media’s role in representing the cases of these two missing girls show that ‘class’ can be a major factor in portraying who becomes deserving of the label ‘victim’. Not only the factor of ‘class’ but other demographic characteristics such as age, sexuality, race and gender can sometimes determine the media’s interest in a somewhat direct style. Still, the idea remains that the majority of criminal victimisation both emphasises and imitates social inequalities and divisions, and whilst doing this “feeds into the wider structures of power, dominance and subjugation from which they derive” (Greer, 2007:42). It can be said that in the media representation of ‘victims’ of a missing persons case, or crimes similar to this, that these inequalities remain to have the greatest impact. This impact is shown through the portrayal of such victims who appear to show prospects of newsworthiness. However, the impact can equally be detected from the consideration of those who do not show horizons of newsworthiness.

To conclude, this essay has explored the question of whether certain victims are more ‘deserving’ of the label than others, and used different theories and concepts to analyse this. Firstly the essay looked at two theories of victimology; radical and critical, and showed how different types of people may be more victimised than others – largely through social structures of the power of the state. From these theories the question arose of what an ‘ideal’ victim may constitute and this concept was explored through criminologist Nils Christie, which in his perspective the ideal victim would be a vulnerable person (youth or elderly) carrying out an innocent task (going to visit a family member or friend) and being robbed or attacked by a person out of their control (strong and perhaps a drug/alcohol abuser). Then from this concept came the issue of; is there are certain people more deserving of the label victim, and what is this decision based upon? This essay used the idea that the media plays a large role in portraying who the ideal victim is and who is not. This portrayal was used through the news coverage and stories of the disappearance of two young girls, Madeline McCann in 2007 and Shannon Matthews eight months later in 2008. Madeline McCann was a young pretty girl from a middle class background, whereas Shannon Matthews was from a working class background living in a council house with brothers and sisters who had different fathers. The news coverage of Madeline McCann was much greater than Shannon Matthews, to the point where everyone around the world knew who Madeline McCann was on a first name basis, whereas Shannon Matthews struggled to even be known by the whole of the U.K. Therefore the media portrayed Madeline McCann to be a more deserving victim than Shannon Matthews based upon their looks, backgrounds and ‘newsworthiness’ and evidence of this can be shown through the differences in; public donations, rewards, Wikipedia profiles and how many news articles where printed about each girl after nine days of each of their disappearances.


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