Ideasroom

The politics of victimhood

Who gets to decide if someone is a victim? It seems the concepts of “victim” and “crime” aren’t fixed—instead, they are negotiated during social interactions.

Identifying as a victim can be a fraught process. People may prefer to reframe their experiences or choose labels like “survivor” rather than labelling themselves as victims—yet when seeking help on a victim helpline, a victim identity is required to access services.

My PhD research involved analysing nearly 400 anonymised calls to real-life helplines using a method called “conversation analysis”. This showed the different ways callers identified themselves when seeking help.

During these calls, both caller and call-taker negotiated how to label and understand callers’ experiences and identities.

Callers did not always explicitly identify themselves as victims. Sometimes callers categorised their experiences as crimes, to justify why they were seeking help and present themselves as victims without labelling themselves as such.

Understandings callers’ experiences is important in providing help.

Even though people generally have the right to define their own experiences, institutional representatives like call-takers may have professional rights to assess whether callers’ experiences fall under their jurisdiction.

Defining callers’ experiences as crimes was one way to justify their decision to offer support, while defining experiences differently could justify directing callers to other services.

The “conversation analysis” method used shows how tiny details—like how long someone pauses before answering a question—can be very important.

These findings around identifying directly or indirectly as a victim can be implemented into evidence-based training.

The internationally-recognised 'Conversation Analytic Role Play Method' offers a way to translate research findings into training.

Providing detailed analysis of the interactions involved on the helpline can give call-takers different ways to understand the work they do and the challenges that can arise in their role.

A joint understanding of victimisation is important in accessing support services.

We might think of 'crime' as having a fixed meaning, but people negotiate what 'counts' as a crime and who gets to have the final say on this definition. The politics of this labelling is tied up in access to services and making sure people get and give the right support.

(Victim Support chief executive Kevin Tso said the organisation based its training and service delivery on a wide evidence base and welcomed the research.

"We also know that not all people affected by crime and trauma see themselves as victims. Some prefer to be known as 'survivors'; some don't realise that a crime has even been committed against them," he said.

"One of the challenges of providing victim support and of our Victims Rights Act is in fact promoting a definition of victim that is wide enough to capture those who need support.")

Where to get help 

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

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