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CJCCJ/Volume 64.3 (2022)

Victimology: A Discipline in Transition

By Ezzat A. Fattah
Canadian Scholar Press. Ezzat A. Fattah. 2019. 308 p.

E.A. Fattah’s (2019) Victimology: A Discipline in Transition is an anthology of a particular sort. Fattah first wrote on victimology in 1966 and has been prolific and formative in the discipline. However, the pieces he has chosen for this anthology read as more than an overview of his career. While most chapters stand well enough on their own, there is also a narrative thread throughout the assemblage of chapters that make this book very much about what Fattah thinks victimology should be and the dangers of what he sees it becoming.

Many people think of victimology as the study of victims. Fattah argues for a narrower definition of victimology as the study of “criminal victims” (Fattah, 2019: 5). By criminal victims he does not mean legally defined victims, however, noting that boundaries between harmful or injurious criminal and non-criminal behaviours are often capricious. Instead, Fattah means “criminal” in the tradition of Sellin, Mannheim, and others who view crime as anti-social behaviour or a violation of conduct norms that exist prior to and independent of criminal laws and should be studied as an objective phenomenon. Fattah’s definition of victimology thus draws from a positivistic tradition of the Durkheimian variety. He explicitly rejects the positivism of the Italian School and other “static etiological” theories that explain victimization through “criminals’ traits and attributes,” arguing instead that “crime needs to be explained by a dynamic approach where the offender, the act and the victim are inseparable elements of a total situation that conditions the dialectic of the victimizing behaviour”. (Fattah 2019: 2)

This argument been a cornerstone of positivist victimology. Following on this, the book’s first five chapters cover many contributions victimology has made towards a more empirically informed approach to and understanding of criminal victimization. Throughout his career Fattah has critiqued theories and assumptions that pathologize “criminals” as a species different from other people and “crime” as a distinct category of human behaviour. As Fattah (2019: 151) rightly argues, one of the primary contributions of victimological research since the mid-20th century has been to challenge scholarly and public views of crime that “den[y], minimizes or de-emphasizes the homogeneity, the affinities, the similarities, and the substantial overlap between the victim and offender populations.” This argument is a dominant narrative throughout the anthology, to which I return below.

However, there are other chapters in the book that also deserve mention. Fattah’s chapter “The Rational Choice/Opportunity Perspectives as a Vehicle for Integrative Criminological and Victimological Theories,” first published in 1993, was prescient in the development of applied and theoretical victimology to environmental criminology and situational crime prevention. It remains one of the best applications of positivist victimology to these areas. His chapter on “The Thorny Issues of Crime Victims’ Rights,” also provides strong overview of applied and theoretical problems in victims’ rights legislation, demonstrating the degree to which such often well-intended acts and policies result in poor outcomes for victims and little incentive to participate in them.

However, the central narrative in this anthology is Fattah’s definition of victimology, and defence of this in contrast to what he calls the “new victimology.” For Fattah, the new victimology represents the confluence of academic, advocacy, and activist work over the last half-century that has continually broadened the definition of “victims,” and usurped victimology into an ideological and advocacy enterprise. Fattah (2019: 6) argues that to “extend its boundaries to victimization in a generic sense” risks losing victimology’s scientific specificity and turning it into a “norm-setting” exercise or “humanist movement.”  As with all sciences, he argues, victimology must “define, specify, and delineate its subject” (Fattah, 2019: 6). Contrary to this, Fattah argues the new victimology has largely replaced value-free social-scientific epistemology with ideology and victim advocacy, resulting in the symbolic and material privileging of some types of victims over others, in the use of victims for brazen political expediency, and in the evolution of “victimhood” as an ever-expanding but highly problematic form of individual claims-making and political governance.

In several respects Fattah’s arguments are not that distinct from David Garland, Jonathan Simon and others who have pointed to the rise of the “victim” in public discourse and policymaking. However, Fattah goes further when he argues the new victimology is part and parcel to blame for this. He suggests, for example, that “activist victimologists, wittingly or unwittingly, contribute to conservative politicians’ revival of the old ‘monster’ image of criminals and cater to the punitive attitudes of the general public” (Fattah, 2019: 151-152). By activist victimologists, Fattah (2019: 147) does not mean only conservative victim’s right groups or policymakers, but also “the feminists, the therapists, the social workers, as well as the social and political activists, who defined their mission as improving the lot of crime victims and obtaining justice for those who are victimized.” Thus, for Fattah (2019: 147), this is an issue less about political partisanship than epistemology, with the new victimologists on the one side, and “scholars and researchers . . . who remained faithful to the original conception of victimology as a branch of criminology” on the other.

The contours of this dichotomy push Fattah into some awkward or dubious claims in places. He criticizes the new victimology as sparing “no effort in their search for new types and new forms of victimization,” contrasting this against the view of criminologists, whom he argues over the years have “voiced bitter criticism of the inflationary policy of criminalization” (Fattah 2019: 148). This might be more applicable to European or Canadian criminology. It has been decidedly less so in the US, where for example Wilson and Kelling argued the opposite in their influential “broken windows” theory of crime reduction that proposed targeting and punishing even very minor offenses. Many other American criminologists from the 1980s onwards have supported stop and frisk policies, increased punishments for lesser offences, mandatory sentencing, trying youth offenders as adults, and other policies and practices that inflate or expand criminalization.

Fattah is also on slippery ground in his characterization of feminist scholars as part and parcel of the new victimology. His assessment of “the feminists” – as above with “the criminologists” – ignores the diversity and in some cases fault lines within feminist research and advocacy on domestic and family violence and sexual violence. Fattah (2019: 155) argues that “Victim advocates also have a very different view from that of criminologists regarding the role and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. They favour expansion, not retrenchment.” This ignores longstanding debates between feminists on the question of “carceral feminism,” and particularly work from racial, ethnic, and First Nations scholars and advocates who have long been critical of expanding state apparatuses of punishment as a solution to these problems.

Without belabouring the point, Fattah’s “history” of victimology ignores the broader diversity of empirical feminist and other critical scholarship on victimisation. Yet feminist scholars have been at the forefront of empirical work that, by all other accounts, fits Fattah’s definition of victimology. The problem is that much empirical feminist research on domestic and family violence and sexual violence does not appear to fit within Fattah’s argument that “Criminological and victimological research is increasingly showing that the roles of the victims and offender are neither fixed nor antagonistic, but rather revolving and interchangeable” (Fattah 2019: 221). In cases of street and property crime, this view is a predominant one today within empirical criminology. But it is not predominant within empirical feminist research on domestic and family violence and sexual violence, nor arguably even within empirical “non-feminist” research where there are significant debates and competing theories regarding these types of victimization.

And herein lies the problem with Fattah’s argument about victimology as a “discipline in transition.” The definition of crime favoured by Fattah has largely fallen out of favour within much empirical work. Fattah rejects formal/legalistic approaches and rightly critiques much of empirical criminology for conflating criminal law with crime. On the other hand, Fattah largely ignores the development of empirical “post-positivistic” frameworks that seek to explain or at least account for the relationship between social power and knowledge production. Yet criminology, and victimology with it, have been splitting since at least the 1970s towards these two directions.

Fattah might have also called this anthology “a discipline in decline,” as he argues from an entrenched position against the formal/legalists on the one side, and post-positivists on the other. Both positions are increasingly dominant ones within empirical victimology. Both have also been moving away from each other theoretically and professionally for some time, while positivist victimology finds itself increasingly ignored by the former and critiqued by the latter. Fattah’s anthology is a defence for what he rightly views as a waning approach to a discipline that has in many ways reshaped criminology and disabused it of many of its earlier speculative and philosophical assumptions. He does an exceptional job at laying bare problems in formal/legal and “activist” approaches to victimology, which parallel the never-ending debate about definitions of crime. In his overview of victimology as a “discipline in transition,” however, Fattah falls short of giving sufficient attention to the breadth and depth of empirical work – even two or three decades ago – that has challenged positivist victimology as an objective or value-free discipline and taken issue with many of its core assumptions.

Nevertheless, this book is worth reading. Fattah’s critiques of criminology are as relevant today as they have ever been, and perhaps more so within the ascendency of administrative criminology over the last three decades. It is out of these critiques that he also develops and defends his view on what victimology is and should be. Those not familiar with positivist victimology or Fattah’s work will find this anthology useful in gaining knowledge about both, especially where his writing is erudite and clear. There is much that most readers will readily agree with in this anthology, and much they likely will not – reflecting Fattah’s long history of iconoclasm within criminology. But Fattah is rarely insipid. On the contrary, his work and this anthology continue to push readers to defend their own positions and examine their own assumptions about crime and victimization.


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