The Idea of Vulnerability
The Substantive Positivist View
The idea of vulnerability is a theory’s answer to the question about what inspires offenders to prefer some targets and not others, and is usually implicit rather than explicit. This idea speaks to what we might predict about the broader pattern of victimization, including whether victims and offenders are often the same people, and, if so, why. Although substantive positivism never openly acknowledges an idea of vulnerability, its theories nevertheless take a clear position on the meaning of vulnerability and the determination of who falls victim. Vulnerability to crime is commonly understood in academic criminology to mean the proximity of a desirable target to someone who is inclined to commit crime, who perceives that the tempting reward is within easy reach, and who then reasons that the crime is only minimally risky and getting away with it is likely. Substantive positivism, as we suggested above, must reject this definition with prejudice, as well as all related theories (e.g., Cohen & Felson, 1979; Hindelang et al., 1978; Miethe & Meier, 1990; Wilcox, Land, & Hunt, 2003). To endorse this definition suggests not only that the true cause of crime is more likely to be found in the immediate situation than distant motivational antecedents, it also implies a reasoning offender who must respond to such things as risk and difficulty. It also implies victims act in their own interest and offenders fear what potential targets are doing—an idea of victimization antithetical to that found in substantive positivism.
Substantive positivism’s assumptions, as we will demonstrate, force us to simplify vulnerability down to the “motivated offender.” Whatever the theory says is the offender’s motivation, there the victim will be. That is, the very nature of motivation means that offenders are particular about whom they target, as required in the assumption of causal determinism. If wealth acquisition motivates the offender, only those with money are vulnerable and victimization data would reflect this.
Motivation, presumably, is sufficient to ensure the offender can find a way to get within striking distance of the target; substantive positivist theories usually gloss over this issue, so one cannot be sure. In some cases, theorists solve this problem by making the required victims offer themselves up for predation. For instance, Schur (1957) never quite gives an explanation as to why businesspersons and their swindlers combine to interact in the first place; however, he implies that victims of con men are socialized to seek out their victimizers. Amir (1971) similarly posits in statement of obvious absurdity that some women seek their rapists out of a spirit of “rebellion.” Further, because the assumption of determinism makes anything like victim avoidance or defensive behavior theoretically uncertain, “guardianship” is never an issue for the offender, at least not for long. Redefining vulnerability to offender motivation means that if one can eliminate the causes that motivate the offender to commit crime, then the theorist can all but guarantee complete safety for potential victims. This is how targets become invulnerable in substantive positivism, not through their own defensive action.
Simplifying vulnerability in this maimer, to where only the offender’s specific motivation is needed to give meaning to vulnerability, is not necessarily problematic for a crime theory, provided the offender’s motivations produce victims such as those shown in victimization data. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Recall that we know that victims and offenders are often the same people (Lauritsen & Laub, 2007; Wolfgang, 1958). Offenders and victims share all the same correlates, for instance divorce, job loss, accidents, educational failure, and substance use. We present two case studies below as illustrations for how substantive positivism addresses the idea of valuer ability, and explain how theh internal logic results in predictions inconsistent with the results of good research.
A Case Study: Cultural Deviance Theory. Selim (1938) and Sutherland (1947) developed widely influential cultural accounts of rule breaking and for them the “justifications and rationale” for all acts of crime were products of group socialization. Any explanation of crime, in their view, must attend to differential exposure to nouns in favor or against rule breaking. Part of the long-recognized appeal of the cultural deviance perspective lies in its description of society as coercively enforcing the values of the powerful upon the politically and socially marginal, which resonates with those friendly to social justice within criminology and sociology (e.g., Kornhauser, 1978; Taylor et al., 1973). Many victimologists also appear to endorse this perspective (Karmen,
2016). Cultural deviance theory begins with the assumption that there is no human nature. Whatever people do, even how they perceive reality, is wholly the product of their socialization. Cultural variability (in particular, notions of right and wrong) is infinite. Crime is thus a function of normative conflict, where the powerfill formally define notions of right and wrong; however, informally, each subculture struggles to hold onto its identity. It is difficult to overstate the influence of these tenets on classic and contemporary criminological theory (Anderson, 1999; Haynie, 2001; Matsueda & Anderson, 1998; Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996; Sutherland, 1947; Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967).
The implications of cultural deviance for the offender are well understood. Offenders must positively leant to commit crime, thus committing crime in response to then- socialization and the value the group assigns to certain actions. One can infer from this that a victim's precautions only matter to the degree that the offender has learned to define “precautionary behavior” as meaningful; offenders operate in then- own reality, and accordingly are under no requirement to respond to victim actions in the expected way. We will return to this point in a moment. When we mm to the victim, it follows that the population of likely victims too will conform to their socialization. As Sutherland (1956) pointed out, some subcultures value life while others do not; self-preservation, fundamental to choice theories and the basis for precautionary behavior, is treated in cultural deviance theory as an “ethnocentric value” (Komhauser, 1978, p. 36). Weis and Borges (1973, p. 81) echo this sentiment: “Rooted in the social structure which is characterized by male domination, the socialization processes of the male and the female act to mold women into victims and provide the procedure for legitimizing them in this role.” Anderson (1999, p. 125), more recently, wrote “Assailant and victim must both know their roles... [the robber] wants to wield his power undisputed... no thing conveys tins recognition better than the clear act of total deference.” In these examples, people can be socialized through their culture to tamely accept criminal damage to their material interests and physical well-being.
In normal understanding, the ability to engage in precautionary behavior speaks to the idea of vulnerability. The internal logic of cultural deviance does not leave this impression; in fact, there is a much stronger impression that whatever the target does, it does not matter. Since offenders define reality as their culture does, not as the target intends, precautions have no meaning unless the offender was socialized in the first place to fear or respect them. Precautions, properly understood in cultural deviance theory, are—like any symbol—infinite in their variety and all arbitrary as far as the criminal act is concerned. All victim action is therefore as meaningful or meaningless as the placement of a religious decal on a car in the belief that it will stop a thief from stealing it. That is to say, no one will see the point of locking the door unless the culture provides the appropriate socialization; however, none of it matters unless the offender was raised in a culture that taught its members to respect locks or decals more than automobile theft. Precautions and difficulties (guns, doors, savage dogs, concealment and avoidance, prayer) thus are all symbolic—the offender can and does simply disregard them. For example, Anderson (1999) is clear that the attacker who is motivated to engage in assault will proceed anyway, in spite of the victimization script requiring immediate resistance from the target and possibly lethal reprisal.6 “People often feel constrained not only to stand up and at least attempt to resist during an assault but also to ‘pay back'—to seek revenge—after a successful assault on theft’ person...their very identity, their self-respect, and their honor are [at stake]’’ (Anderson 1999, p. 76). In this way, cultural deviance theory nullifies Cohen and Felson’s (1979) concept of guardianship beyond any hope of reconciliation. “Precautionary behavior” as such, in cultural deviance theory, is “culturally inappropriate” for stopping the offender. In order for precautionary behavior to have any possibility of achieving the intended effect, cultural deviance theory must presuppose so many normative coincidences that the attempt inevitably brings into stark relief Dennis Wrong’s (1961) criticism of its “oversocialized” human nature. Victim precautions or defensive behavior therefore cannot figure in the idea of vulnerability.
In cultural deviance theory, the offender is required to be the cause of crime and the offender’s motivation is what defines the idea of vulnerability.7 Offenders learn, from the subculture, to regard certain people or actions as necessitating a sequence of behaviors that the broader society calls “criminal.” Given the infirrite variability of culture, specifically notions of right and wrong, across the world (Komhauser, 1978), “vulnerability”—which really would be anything about a person that triggers the offender to act—thus can mean literally anything and may or may not have anything to do with the objective qualities of what a victim does or says. For instance, “Theoretically, victim precipitation of forcible rape means that in a particular situation the behavior of the victim is interpreted by the offender as a direct invitation for sexual relations or as a sign that she will be available ... if he will persist in demanding it” (Amir, 1967, p. 493; emphasis ours). Menachem Amir, a student of Marvin Wolfgang who was applying his subcultural perspective to female rape victims, specifically means that rapists learn to react “in a particular situation” to certain traits of women, such as their gender, dress, reputation, or alcohol usage, with forcible rape.8 That is, the offender selects victims based on some arbitrary criterion: gender, race, religion, membership in some outgroup, or a particular behavior defined as warranting a criminal response. Cultural deviance theory implies no consensus in laws or values, neither can there be consensus across the world or within complex societies about who offenders prefer to target and what aspects of a person’s actions constitutes “vulnerability.”
When we mm to the evidence, cultural deviance theory suggests patterns of victimization and victim behavior that the data do not support. Precautionary behavior, at least those that do not entail painful expense or inconvenience, is actually widespread (Meier & Miethe, 1993). Rates of victimization even among college students—whose age places them among those with the highest risk of victimization—suggest they are far more effective at avoiding victimization than not (Fisher, Sloan, Cullen, & Lu, 1998). When we turn to the victim-offender correlation, cultural deviance allows for this as a possibility, but not as a basic fact. Some cultural deviance theories postulate that offenders and victims can be the same people (at least in areas where reprisal is a norm; see Singer, 1981,1986), but more usual is the assertion that offenders target members of out-groups (e.g., Anderson, 1999; Komhauser, 1978; Sykes & Matza. 1957; Weis & Borges, 1973). Data in fact show that the correlation between victimization and offending persists everywhere around the world where there is sound information on victims and offenders (e.g., Lauritsen & Laub, 2007; Posick, 2013). Offenders and victims everywhere also appear to share the same correlates (e.g., Gottfredson, 1984; Lauritsen et al., 1992; Straus, 1999). While cultural diversity across the world is self-evident, basic patterns of victimization are more noteworthy for their consistency than their differences—indicating that differences of culture are not behind them.
A Case Study: Integrated Criminological Theory. Integrated theories were developed with the intention of moving criminology beyond what Hirschi (1989) had termed the “oppositional theoretical tradition,” where crime theories (usually strain, cultural deviance, and control theories) fought unproductively over logical assumptions—in fact, the very complaint that led to the creation of substantive positivism in the first place. Integrationists would instead revive what they believed were the best aspects of substantive positivist open-mindedness by pitting the leading variables from each theory head to head, creating a new theory only from what survived. The theoretical integrationist would be more concerned about empirical adequacy and less bothered about logical controversies and disciplinary allegiance, in this way giving the appearance of fairness; however, in practice disciplinary allegiances and logical controversies stubbornly persisted (e.g., Elliott, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985; see Hirschi, 1987). Critics alleged that “fairness,” to an integrationist, only meant impartiality toward the theories and ideas that substantive positivism had created and endorsed. Discredited substantive positivist theories thus received a level of solicitous treatment in integrated models that would not be extended to choice theories (Hirschi, 1979; Hirschi, 1989). That is to say, integration has to be understood as simply a reaffirmation of the longstanding tenets of substantive positivism. Since substantive positivism and theoretical integration share the same precepts, the pioneering integrationists did not consider the victim as something problematic for the offender—or even to consider victimization as an important correlate of crime (e.g., Elliott et al., 1985; Johnson, 1979; Thomberry, 1987). If they addressed the idea of vulnerability’ directly at all, they followed the usual substantive positivist protocol and defined it entirely in terms of the offender’s motives (e.g., Agnew, 2014). The offender, as before, is the true cause of crime— leaving integrated theories vulnerable to the same incorrect predictions noted earlier with cultural deviance theories, including being unable to anticipate or account for the correlation between victimization and offending or the existence of shared predictors.
On the other hand, a virtue of integrated theory is its supposed flexibility and open-mindedness. What is to stop someone from retrofitting an integrated theory to account for ideas of victimization and vulnerability? Robert Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory is the most important contemporary integrated theory and, to his great credit, he published a paper theorizing that victimization (or vicarious victimization) created negative affect, or strain, which could lead to crime (Agnew, 2002). His theory does not automatically preclude an idea of victimization. Although adopting a strain orientation, Agnew deeply infuses his theory with the choice perspective: offenders act when the benefits are high and the costs are low. He also grants people the ability to be responsive to pain, or “negative stimuli” (Agnew, 2007, 2012).9 All of this suggests that people have some capacity for independent reasoning, although the theory does not directly say this. The experience or threat of victimization that brought on strain might thus lead to crime, but because of Agnew’s decision to take the choice perspective seriously the theory seems to allow that victims or those who fear victimization can be inspired to cope with their strain by taking precautionary action instead. Moreover, if offenders attend to costs and benefits, as the theory claims, this would allow them to be deterred by such precautions.
To the degree that general strain theory endorses the precepts of choice theory, it avoids many of the pitfalls that considering victims would normally invoke; however, to the degree it adheres to substantive positivism it creates difficulties for itself. One of Hirschi and Gottfredson’s (1990) criticisms of substantive positivism is the inability of its theories to distinguish between what are causes and what are effects. They wrote: “First, throughout the 20th century, evidence has accumulated that people who tend to lie, cheat, and steal also tend to hit other people; that the same people tend to drink, smoke, use drugs, wreck cars, desert their spouses, quit their jobs, and come late to class. Second, evidence has accumulated that differences in such tendencies across people are reasonably stable over the life course” (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1990, p. 421). They also have a higher risk of becoming victims (Schreck, 1999). Choice theory, thanks to its internal logic, views tendencies for all of these things to happen in the same people as originating from low self-control (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Then correlations with offending are spurious. The integrationist, in contrast, only perceives variables and statistically significant correlations. Which are causes, which ones are effects? What multivariate coefficients are real and meaningfill, and which ones are simply artifacts of differences in measurement (but that conceptually measure the same thing)? Relying on the presuppositions of substantive positivism, Agnew draws the appropriate conclusion that crime is the effect and other conditions correlated with crime must be a cause. Victimization is similarly relegated (Agnew, 2002).
Although this does superficially grant general strain theory the ability to “explain” the victimization-offending correlation, one of the basic facts all crime theory should account for, it introduces an unexpected problem. Namely, general strain theory is not capable of having an idea of vulnerability, at least not without producing a causal model of tortuous complexity. Recall that the correlates of crime and victimization are the same. Note, too, that general strain theory has systematically assimilated virtually every known correlate in order to explain crime—at least 80 variables by a recent count (see Felson & Eckert,
2018). While giving the illusion of an intellectually vital and compelling theory of crime, the humble victimologist is unfortunately left with no unique variables to explain why individuals became victims in the first place. General strain theory, left unmodified, finds itself predicting that victimization or vulnerability is random—or even not caused (recall that all distinct phenomena in substantive positivism have to possess unique causes). At this late date, such a hypothesis would encounter difficulty from the facts. It seems to us that the only recourse for general strain theory to save itself is to specify causal arrows going from every other variable (e.g., crime, divorce) back to victimization. This resolution seems to make sense, in light of the basic principles of the theory where the offender cormnits crime to cope with strain, implying that victims are targeted specifically with this motive in mind. By committing crime, the offender becomes a source of strain to others and thus a victim. If one can allow the inclusion of a causal arrow fr om offending back to victimization, one camrot stop there. After all, evidence shows that people who perform poorly in social interactions on a variety of dimensions are odious to others and get attacked (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). And if one can do this, one must include arrows between each source of strain with the other sources, hr this way, any attempt to develop the idea of vulnerability’ results in an exaggerated complexity that makes general strain theory indistinguishable from Thombeny’s (1987) interactional theory. If one believes that the purpose of theory is to reduce complexity (Hirschi, 1989; Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2008; Lauritsen, 2005), general strain theory loses its value as a theory of crime. General strain theory is not unique in this problem, as it would apply to any integrated theory (e.g., Agnew, 2014; Bernard & Snipes, 1996; Elliott et al., 1985; Wikstrom et al., 2012) where no internal logic exists to allow the theorist to draw a line between causes and effects. Successfully accommodating ideas of victimization and vulnerability would fir st require that integrated theories become choice theories, making integrated theories redundant.