The term victimology was coined by German-American psychiatrist Frederick Wertham (1895-1981) in 1949. He insisted that sociologists had to use a scientific approach to study crime victims. Victimology is a subfield of criminology which studies victimization. Its scope spreads over the relationship between victims and criminals, the interaction between victims and the criminal justice system, as well as the connections between victims and societal groups and institutions.
In present law terms, a crime victim is a person who has suffered a direct or indirect harm from an illegal activity. But at the onset of victimology the concept of a "victim" was much more different. In the 1940s and the 1950s, when the new discipline emerged, victims were either not taken into account by criminologists or were considered as unfortunate dupes. The first victimologists challenged this perception of victims and tried to reform it. The first studies of victimology examined the relationship between an offender and a victim. Some research showed that the difference between the two parties was not very clear and defining it became a primary task for the new science.
The first victimologists include Israeli lawyer Benjamin Mendelsohn (1900-1998), German criminologist Hans Von Hentig (1887-1974), and American sociologist Marvin Wolfgang (1924-1998). Mendelsohn and Von Hentig were engaged in the development of "typologies" of crime victims, with particular interest in the typical characteristics of murder victims. Mendelsohn (1937) used his interviews with crime victims to classify the latter into six types. Only the first type, he claimed, had not contributed to the crime in any way and such victims were therefore innocent. The other five types showed what he called an "unconscious aptitude for being victimized."
Von Hentig (1948) studied homicide victims and concluded that the most common victim of such crime is the "depressive type," as this is a very easy target, careless and unsuspecting. The "greedy type" and the "wanton type" also precipitate their victimization due to their motivation for easy gains and vulnerability to stresses, respectively. Von Hentig's thesis about victim-precipitated crime served as a basis for further studies, such as the one by Wolfgang (1958) that concluded that sometimes victim-precipitated homicides were triggered by the unconscious wish of the victims to commit suicide.
In 1971, in his book Patterns of Forcible Rape, Israeli criminologist Menachem Amir attempted to apply the concept of victim-precipitated crime when studying victims of rape. His claims that 19 percent of assault victims have only themselves to blame for their victimization came under fire not only from scholars but also from feminists. One of his most vocal critics was Finnish criminologist and minister of justice Sylvi Inkeri Anttila (b.1916), who in her paper Victimology: A New Territory in Criminology (1974), argued against such extreme approaches to victims. Instead of putting the blame on victims, Anttila believed, researchers should study them and their problems in a scientific, balanced manner.
It was largely due to Anttila's efforts that the field of victimology received broad recognition as a scientific field, with the First International Symposium in Victimology held in Jerusalem in September 1983. Anttila was a featured speaker at the event, outlining the scope of the new field and its perspectives. She stressed that studying crimes from the victim's perspective was providing more evidence to the investigators than the mere focus on offenders. Anttila argued in favor of balanced approaches, instead of theories that portray offenders as villains and victims as innocent law-obeying people. Attila advocated changes in the system, focused not so much on punishment of offenders but on the prevention of crime. She has also pioneered the argument for defending victims not only from the offenders but also from the judicial system.
Crime victims and professionals from the field of victimology formed the World Society of Victimology, whose roots can be traced back to the Jerusalem symposium from 1983. The organization cooperates with the United Nations and the Council of Europe on matters linked to crime victims. In addition, the campaign Victims Rights Week started in the United States in 1981 and since then there have been multiple legislation moves, conferences, and task forces related to victims' problems.
Victimologists gather data via special victim surveys, which are usually richer in information than reports of crime filed with the police. In the United States, for example, victimologists can count on the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), carried out by the Bureau of the Census every six months.