The politics of victimhood

Who gets to decide if someone is a victim? According to research by recent Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate Dr Emma Tennent, 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.

Tennent’s research for her PhD in Psychology involved analysing nearly 400 anonymised calls to real-life helplines using a method called ‘conversation analysis’. Her analysis showed the different ways callers identified themselves when seeking help. “During these calls, both caller and call-taker negotiate how to label and understand callers’ experiences and identities.”

Tennent found that callers did not always explicitly identify themselves as victims. “Callers categorised their experiences as crimes to justify why they were seeking help,” Tennent says. “It also allowed them to present themselves as victims without labelling themselves as victims directly.”

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,” Tennent says. “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 in the research “puts interaction under the microscope”, Tennent says, and shows how tiny details—like how long someone pauses before answering a question—can be very important.

Tennent identified places in interaction when callers described their experiences. Sometimes callers categorised themselves as victims directly, and other times they described their experiences as crimes to present themselves as victims without saying so directly. She analysed how these descriptions were related to the action of asking for help.

These findings can be implemented into evidence-based training, Tennent says.

“The internationally recognised Conversation Analytic Role Play Method offers a way to translate research findings into training,” Tennent says. “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 to accessing support services,” Tennent says. “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," said Mr Tso.

"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."

Read the original article on Newsroom.