J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
Unpacking the Victim-Offender Overlap: On Role
Differentiation and Socio-psychological Characteristics
Jean-Louis van Gelder • Margit Averdijk
Manuel Eisner • Denis Ribaud
Published online: 21 December 2014
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Objectives Provide insight into the victim-offender overlap and role differentiation by
examining to what extent socio-psychological characteristics, risky lifestyles/routine
activities and immersion in a violent subculture explain differences between victims,
offenders and victim-offenders. Specifically, we measure to what extent anxiety and
depression, negative peer relations, dominance, and self-control account for differences in
adolescents’ inclination towards (violent) offending, victimization or both, over and above
risky lifestyles/routine activities or immersion in a violent subculture.
Methods Building on the method proposed by Osgood and Schreck (Criminology
45:273–311, 2007), we use two waves of panel data from the Zurich Project on the Social
Development of Children and Youths, a prospective longitudinal study of adolescents in
Results Incorporating socio-psychological characteristics provides a more encompassing
view of both the victim-offender overlap and victim versus offender role differentiation
than routine activities/risky lifestyles and subcultural theory alone. Specifically, sociopsychological characteristics in particular differentiate between those who take on predominantly offender roles versus those who are predominantly victims.
Conclusion Unpacking the victim-offender overlap and examining differences in sociopsychological characteristics furthers our understanding of the etiology of the victimoffender overlap.
Jean-Louis van Gelder and Margit Averdijk are both to be regarded as first author of this article.
J.-L. van Gelder (&)
Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR), De Boelelaan 1077a,
1081 HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
M. Averdijk D. Ribaud
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), Zurich, Switzerland
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
Keywords Victimization Victim-offender overlap Subcultural theory Risky
lifestyles Routine activities
Research on the association between victimization and offending has yielded strong correlations between the two (e.g., Berg et al. 2012; Hay and Evans 2006; von Hentig 1948;
Lauritsen and Laub 2007; Lauritsen et al. 1991; Ousey et al. 2011; Jensen and Brownfield
1986; Schreck et al. 2008; Singer 1981, 1986; Wolfgang 1958). As Lauritsen and Laub
(2007) note, little if any research has actually failed to demonstrate the association and it
holds across time, place, subgroups, data-sources and type of crime. Unsurprisingly, it
ranks among the most robust empirical relations in criminology (Reiss and Roth 1993).
However, in their search for common correlates, few studies have explicitly considered
that only part of the offender population also falls victim to crime and that not all victims
also engage in offending. This lack of specificity has implied a restricted ability to account
for unique processes and antecedents of overlap between offenders and victims or lack
thereof (Schreck et al. 2008). That is, a focus restricted to victim-offenders to the neglect of
how victims and offenders differ may mean losing vital information regarding the etiology
of this relation. Additionally, the more individuals tend to adopt one role over the other, the
greater the need for specific and separate theorizing and research to account for both
phenomena (Schreck et al. 2008, p. 874).
Recently, various studies (e.g., Broidy et al. 2006; Daday et al. 2005; Schreck et al.
2008; Mustaine and Tewksbury 2000) have started to address this gap in the literature and
revealed meaningful differences between victims, offenders and victim-offenders. Building
on this research and using an analytical method proposed by Osgood and Schreck (2007;
see also Schreck et al. 2008), the present study examines what factors underlie the tendency to primarily take offender or victim roles in cases of violence. That is, our focus is
not restricted to the victim-offender overlap, but in particular addresses factors that are
associated with people’s tendency towards victimization versus offending.
Extending earlier work, the present study goes beyond using routine activities/risky
lifestyles and subcultural theory as explanatory factors by also examining a series of sociopsychological characteristics, such as anxiety, depression and social isolation, that may
account for differences in offender versus victim role-taking. We hypothesize that these
characteristics can discriminate between those individuals who tend to adopt victim roles
and those who predominantly tend towards offending. In line with earlier work, we expect
that routine activities/risky lifestyles and subcultural theory explanations discriminate in
particular between the group of victim-offenders and their normative peers who have
neither been victimized nor have offended.
To examine these predictions, we use data from the Zurich Project on the Social
Development of Children and Youths (z-proso), a longitudinal study of a sample of urban
Swiss adolescents containing extensive multiwave data on both offending and victimization. Analogous to Schreck et al. (2008), we focus on violent offending and victimization
during adolescence as it has been associated with a variety of important negative life
outcomes such as school failure, substance use, and juvenile arrests, and because identifying risk factors of violent outcomes is critical with regard to adolescent development.
Below, we first briefly discuss the dominant perspectives that have been used to account
for the victim-offender overlap, i.e., routine activities/risky lifestyle theory and subcultural
J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
theory. We subsequently provide an individual differences perspective that details how
socio-psychological characteristics are likely to be related to victimization, offending or
both. This is followed by an overview of our research design, method of analysis and
presentation of the results. We conclude with a discussion of how our findings extend
previous efforts and contribute to the literature, and provide suggestions for future research.
Routine Activities/Risky Lifestyle and Subcultural Explanations
for the Victim-Offender Overlap
The first major publication to draw attention to the fact that victims and offenders may
belong to the same group of individuals was von Hentig’s (1948) The Criminal and His
Victim in which he argued that although the ‘‘doer-sufferer relation is put in our codes in
mechanical terms (…), the relationships between the perpetrator and the victim are much
more intricate (…). It may happen that the two distinct categories merge. There are cases in
which they are reversed and in the long chain of causative forces the victim to assume the
role of a determinant’’ (pp. 383–384).
Another early publication drawing attention to the overlap is Wolfgang’s (1958) analysis of incident files of homicides. This study showed that victims and offenders were
often no strangers to each other as killings were frequently the result of domestic quarrels,
altercations over money, or motivated by jealousy or revenge, each of which implicate a
prior social relationship between the parties involved. Importantly, the victims had often
been the first to use physical force against their eventual slayers (Wolfgang 1958).
These early works provided initial support for the idea that victims and offenders are not
as distinct as was generally assumed and while most crime research still tends to be either
offender-focused or victim-focused, it is now commonly understood that offenders and
victims overlap in various important ways (Jennings et al. 2012).
Routine Activities/Risky Lifestyle Theory
The most common theoretical framework to account for the victim-offender overlap is the
routine activities/lifestyle perspective (Cohen and Felson 1979; Hindelang et al. 1978). The
underlying idea is that risky lifestyles (Hindelang et al. 1978) and routine activities (Cohen
and Felson 1979) bring potential victims into contact with motived offenders and expose
them to situations conducive to victimization. In addition, Osgood et al. (1996) found that
unstructured socializing with (deviant) peers in the absence of authority figures also predicts participation in offending. Other studies report similar findings (Anderson and
Hughes 2009; Bernasco et al. 2013; Bernburg and Thorlindsson 2001; Hay and Forrest
2008; Maimon and Browning 2010).
Substance use, e.g., illicit drugs and alcohol consumption, which is also characteristic of
risky lifestyles, is yet another factor related to both victimization (e.g., Felson and Burchfield 2004; Gover 2004; Lauritsen et al. 1992; Malik et al. 1997; Vogel and Himelein
1995) and offending (e.g., Elliott et al. 1985, 1989; Zhang et al. 1997).
An alternative perspective regularly used to account for the relation between victimization
and offending is provided by subcultural theory/subculture of violence explanations, which
posit that violence occurs predominantly among groups that hold norms that support or
J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
encourage the use of force to resolve conflicts, such as gangs (Anderson 1999; Berg et al.
2012; Berg and Loeber 2011; Cohen 1955; Jacobs and Wright 2006; Lauritsen and Laub
2007; Singer 1981, 1986). According to this perspective, individuals alternate between
offender and victim roles in areas characterized by disorganization and norms of violence
(Schreck et al. 2008).
In early support of this idea, Wolfgang’s (1958) study of homicide in Philadelphia
showed that a quick resort to physical combat is a measure of daring, courage, defense or
status and a cultural means of expression especially for lower-class males. In a similar
vein, Singer (1981, 1986) argued that the association between victimization and offending
is partially rooted in cycles of retaliatory violence that are driven by oppositional conduct
norms. In the US context, subcultures of violence are often interpreted to be neighborhoodrelated and linked to neighborhood disadvantage and disorganization. For example, in a
recent study, Berg et al. (2012) found that the reciprocal relation between victimization and
offending was particularly strong in neighborhoods where a street culture predominates. In
Europe, on the other hand, differences between neighborhoods tend to be less obvious and
neighborhood context tends to exert a much smaller influence on the offending rate of its
residents (Averdijk et al. 2012; Müller 2008). Instead, subcultures of violence are more
related to honor cultures expressed in violence-justifying masculinity norms, which are
closely related to ethnic and socio-economic background (Cohen 1972; Enzmann et al.
2003; Ribeaud and Eisner 2009).
Although most empirical evidence sides with theories that suggest that offending
increases the risk of victimization (Ousey et al. 2011), a negative relation between victimization and offending has also been argued. For example, ethnographic accounts (e.g.,
Anderson 1999; Katz 1988) suggest that the use of violence against others can be used to
gain respect, demonstrate toughness, and avoid subsequent harassment and hence serves as
a deterrent to victimization. Ousey et al. (2011) found evidence for the commonly found
reciprocal positive relation between offending and victimization in a longitudinal model
without controls added to it. However, when controlling for time-stable individual characteristics and dispositions, victimization turned out to be negatively related to later
offending and vice versa. As will be argued in more detail below, we think that it may
precisely be individual characteristics and dispositional factors that can account for differences between victims-offenders, non-offending victims, and non-victimized offenders.
Victims, Offenders and Victim-Offenders
Foreshadowing recent attempts to increase specificity in the victim-offender outcome
variable, von Hentig (1948) argued that not all victims are alike in the sense that certain
groups of victims are passive recipients of violence whereas others actively contribute to
their own misfortunes. Hence, in spite of the fact that victims and offenders often belong to
the same group, victims and offenders should not simply be treated alike in analytic
Recently, several studies have started to examine how victims and offenders differ. For
example, focusing on assault among undergraduate students, Mustaine and Tewksbury
(2000) found that several factors differentiate victims and offenders. Whereas victimization was best predicted by a high exposure to potential offenders or likely criminal events
and, to a lesser extent, by the potential victim’s alcohol use and lifestyle, offending, was
best predicted by demographic characteristics and participation in other illegal activities.
J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
Furthermore, Klevens et al. (2002) found that victims tended to avoid risky activities,
whereas victim-offenders did not.
For homicide, Broidy et al. (2006) found that victims with no prior offending history
differed from the offenders on demographic characteristics and social contexts. In contrast,
Daday et al. (2005), comparing victims and offenders of non-lethal violence, found that
both victims and offenders live in socially disorganized neighborhoods and share risky
lifestyles and violent behaviors.
Recently, Schreck et al. (2008) proposed a novel statistical approach to analyze tendencies to gravitate towards either violent offending or victimization. Based on a longitudinal study of US adolescents, they found meaningful variation in the tendency toward
either victimization or offending for age, drinking and attachment to parents. Older participants tended towards a victim role, as did those who got drunk frequently and those who
were more attached to their parents.1 Other variables, such as those reflecting risky lifestyles and emotional distress, were associated with a general exposure to violent
encounters, whether as a victim or as an offender, but not with the differential tendency
towards either victimization or offending.
In sum, recent research suggests that there may exist certain characteristics that predispose people towards offending but not victimization and vice versa. Nevertheless, as
Broidy et al. (2006) argue, while a variety of theories can help make sense of the victimoffender overlap, there is little theoretical discussion of the conditions under which victim
and offender populations diverge and such discussion would be an important step towards
understanding the vulnerabilities that presage victimization, particularly where traditional
measures of structural disadvantage, risky lifestyle and criminal involvement do not appear
to be operative. Below, we explore the possibility that socio-psychological characteristics
can account for these differences.
An Individual Differences Perspective on the Victimization-Offending Nexus
It was again von Hentig (1948) who was among the first to link individual dispositions to
people’s tendency towards victimization by proposing different ‘psychological types of
victim’, such as ‘the depressed’, ‘the wanton’, and ‘the tormentor’. He also suggested that
individual-level variables could explain differences between victims and offenders. In the
present study, we follow von Hentig’s intuition and examine the possibility that specific
socio-psychological characteristics account for differences in people’s inclination towards
offending, victimization or both, over and above risky lifestyles/routine activities or
immersion in a violent subculture. Below, we draw out an individual differences perspective grounded in the idea of violent crime as social interaction.
Violent Crime as Social Interaction
Exceptions aside, violent crime typically implies social interaction, and often also an
interpersonal relationship between the actors that precedes the interaction. As psychological characteristics of individuals influence the onset and development of their social
Note that in the publication by Schreck et al. (2008), there is an error as the positive sign of the coefficient
(‘drunk’) in the body text (p. 892) should instead be negative [as it is (correctly) displayed in Table 5 of their
publication] implying that being drunk is related to a tendency towards victimization instead of offending
(Schreck personal communication, September 5, 2013).
J Quant Criminol (2015) 31:653–675
interactions, and interpersonal behavior more generally, it is plausible that certain types of
characteristics will also have an impact on how violent interactions come about and
develop. If correct, this assumption implies that victims who do not double as offenders
possess certain characteristics or traits that set them apart from the latter. More specifically,
we argue that there is a constellation of different but related individual characteristics and
behaviors that seem to work together to increase people’s risk of victimization. Analogously, those offenders who are able to avoid getting victimized, in spite of their own
engagement in delinquency and hence exposure to risk factors such as those embedded in
risky lifestyles/routine activities and violent subcultures, are likely to be endowed with
different sets of individual qualities than victims and victim-offenders.
Anxiety, Depression and Negative Social Relations
One of the few individual differences variables used in prior research on the victimoffender overlap is self-control. The core idea of self-control theory is that those who lack
it tend to disregard the longer-term consequences of their behavior, which puts them at risk
for crime (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Schreck (1999) reformulated the theory to also
account for victimization by arguing that low self-control produces vulnerability to crime.
For example, the disregard of long-term consequences makes it less likely that people will
take precautions against victimization (Schreck 1999). Several recent empirical studies
support the claim that low self-control is predictive not only of offending but also of
victimization (e.g., Daigle et al. 2008; Schreck 1999; Ousey et al. 2011; Piquero et al.
2005). In the present study, we examine self-control in combination with a larger set of
socio-psychological dispositions. In contrast to self-control, which on the basis of earlier
work we expect to primarily influence the overlap between victims and offenders, these
other socio-psychological characteristics are expected to discriminate in particular between
victims and offenders.
While criminologists examining the victim-offender overlap have mainly focused on
self-control, psychological research on peer victimization has also examined other variables. Importantly, some of this research (e.g., Swearer et al. 2001; Craig 1998) distinguishes between victims, perpetrators and victim-perpetrators demonstrating meaningful
differences between these groups. We think that these findings may extend to general
victimization in meaningful ways and therefore draw from this literature to develop our
individual differences perspective.
As most (violent) crime implies social interaction, it makes sense to assume that victims’ emotional states and behaviors, in particular their internalizing problems, such as
anxiety and depression, influence their risk of victimization. Specifically, youths with
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