Adolescent Victimization and Violent Self-Help

AuthorRobert Apel,John D. Burrow
Published date01 April 2011
Date01 April 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Adolescent Victimization
and Violent Self-Help
Robert Apel
and John D. Burrow
A generation of criminological research demonstrates considerable overlap between victim and
offender populations. Although there is compelling theoretical and empirical evidence that
criminal offenders live a high-risk lifestyle that exposes them to a higher likelihood of becoming vic-
tims of crime themselves, we take as a point of departure the possibility that an individual’s experi-
ences as a crime victim might also motivate them to engage in certain forms of violent behavior as a
form of ‘‘self-help.’’ In this study, violent self-help is conceptualized to encompass gang membership,
handgun carrying, and aggravated assault. An analysis of data from a nationally representative sample
of adolescents (12 years of age at the initial interview) provides support for the proposition that
experienced and vicarious victimization are precursors to later violent behavior, even among youth
with no history of violent behavior.
experienced victimization, vicarious victimization, gang membership, handgun carrying, aggravated
It has been long known that there is considerable homogeneity in populations of victims and
offenders(Gottfredson, 1981; Singer,1981). The predominant perspectivefor understanding this over-
lap derives from the lifestyle-exposure model of Hindelang, Gottfredson, and Garofalo (1978) and,
more generally, the opportunity model of criminal victimization (Cohen, Kluegel & Land, 1981).
Briefly,antisocial behavior is partand parcel of a lifestyle that entailselevated exposure tothose times,
places, and personsthat account for a disproportionate shareof criminal behavior. As a group activity
dominated by young people, participation in delinquent behavior brings one into routine contact with
other young, crime-prone individuals. Put simply,delinquent youth are more vulnerable crime targets
by virtue of their elevated exposure to the criminal opportunity structure. In a related fashion, such
deviant behavio r as excessive alc ohol consumption ta kes place in loca tions (e.g., parti es, bars) where
exposure to the risk of victimization may be quite high. Moreover, intoxication has an obvious link
with victimization risk because of diminished guardianship capacity.
School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, Albany, NY, USA
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert Apel, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222, USA
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
9(2) 112-133
ªThe Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204010376939
A number of victimization studies within the lifestyle-exposure tradition do indeed demonstrate
that deviance and delinquency are strongly correlated with victimization risk (Esbensen & Huizinga,
1991; Finkelhor & Asdigian, 1996; Jensen & Brownfield, 1986; Lauritsen, Sampson & Laub, 1991;
Singer, 1981). Often, inclusion of deviant/delinquent behavior accounts for a substantial proportion
of the sociodemographic differences in victimization. What is often implied by this tradition
of research is that delinquent behavior is a precursor to victimization, that is, delinquency is ‘‘victi-
mogenic’’—a term used by Jensen and Brownfield (1986). However, there is also the very real pos-
sibility that victimization is in turn a precursor to certain forms of delinquency, especially those of a
violent and interpersonal nature. In other words, although crime may indeed be victimogenic, it is
also plausible that victimization is criminogenic.
At least two research traditions underlie the potentially criminogenic consequences of victimiza-
tion. First and foremost are studies of the ‘‘cycle of violence’’ such as that by Widom (1989). Studies
in this tradition focus on the intergenerational transmission of violent behavior, specifically, the
impact of abuse and neglect in childhood on the risk of violence in adolescence and adulthood.
Second is the idea of crime and delinquency as a form of ‘‘self-help,’’ a notion attributable to Black
(1983), who observed that some crime—assaults in particular—can be understood as ‘‘the expres-
sion of a grievance by unilateral aggression’’ (p. 34), often intended as a form of punishment dis-
pensed for a real or perceived wrong.
The point of departure for the current study is Black’s (1983) observation that some crime serves
the social control functions of retribution or deterrence. We use this idea to develop intuition con-
cerning the relationship between victimization and violent behavior in adolescence. In the section
that follows, we provide an overview of the theory of self-help as originally outlined by Black
(1983). We then discuss the implications of this theory for understanding one particular set of ado-
lescent responses to victimization—gang membership, handgun carrying, and aggravated assault;
what we collectively refer to as violent self-help. Following a description of the data and methodol-
ogy, we present the empirical results. We close with a discussion of the utility of the concept of vio-
lent self-help for understanding the victim–offender overlap.
Theoretical Framework
The idea that some delinquent/criminal behavior serves a social control function has roots in the
work of Donald Black (1983, 1990, 1993, 1998), who sensitizes us to the fact that much crime is
a form of conflict management. Many crime events are not isolated incidents with a well-defined
‘‘victim’’ and ‘‘offender’’ but rather are part of an ongoing interpersonal dispute wherein one party
in the dyad has been wronged or feels aggrieved and retaliates to reestablish equilibrium (Black,
1983)—‘‘attack and counterattack’’ or ‘‘tit for tat,’’ in a manner of speaking. Viewed in this light,
some episodes of criminal behavior can be interpreted as part of a reasoned (to the offender)
response to prior conduct deemed insulting or injurious, if not outright criminal itself, on the part
of the would-be victim. Black also argues that many such responses to insults and offenses operate
in the shadow of the law. They give unofficial recognition, and perhaps a degree of satisfaction, to
those parties who feel that their grievances are overlooked or disparaged by traditional agents of
social control such as police and prosecutors (see Doyle & Luckenbill, 1991). To the extent that
victims seek remedies for their grievances that cross the legal boundary into criminality itself—the
taking of matters into their own hands, as it were—such behavior is said to be self-help, defined as
‘‘the expression of a grievance by unilateral aggression’’ (Black, 1983, p. 34).
Self-help is a form of social control that mirrors the functions of formal sanctioning by agents of
the criminal justice system—retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and restitution. It is in this sense
that self-help is a kind of punishment or threat of punishment meted out in the shadow of the law,
that is, where formal legal avenues for reparation are largely invisible, unavailable, or otherwise
Apel and Burrow 113

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