In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Criminal Retaliation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Theorizing Retaliation
  • Peaceful Control
  • Gender and Retaliation
  • Collective Retaliation
  • Retaliation against Researchers

Criminology Criminal Retaliation
Scott Jacques
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0081


Retaliation is about getting even. Rather than relying on the state for help, some victims take the law into their own hands. To some, retaliation is morally justified. To others, however, retaliation is wrong and its curtailment is a primary justification for the formation of governments and their duty to legislate, investigate, and punish deviance. Indeed, many acts of retaliation are defined and treated as criminal. For example, some homicides, rip-offs, burglaries, and property damage are vigilante actions, meaning criminal retaliation. Yet an irony of vigilantism is that—in the long run—it might actually reduce crime. Moreover, retaliation seems to occur most where governments inadequately control crime in the communities they are supposed to serve and protect. The above conceptualizations and theories are among the reasons that retaliation, including vigilantism, is a fascinating topic of study.

General Overviews

Documenting and theorizing “retaliation” cannot precede a definition of the behavior. What is retaliation? The answer to this question depends on the paradigm within which retaliation is viewed. Typically speaking, retaliation is conceptualized as a form of behavior concerned with righting wrong. This definition represents one of the earliest criminological entrees into retaliation, Wolfgang 1957. Psychological conceptualizations of retaliation define it as a means of exacting vengeance. Examples of a psychological version of retaliation may be found in Buss 1961, which views retaliation as a possible outcome of anger. Felson 1993, a chapter on dispute-related violence, is perhaps the best-known psychological typology of predation and retaliation. Somewhat differently, sociological conceptualizations of retaliation define it on a more concrete level; retaliatory actions are those that respond to deviance and do not make use of the government for help (i.e., they are unilateral). Building on the initial entrée into retaliation in Black 1983, Cooney and Phillips 2002 outlines the distinctions between the authors’ social typology and others’ psychological typologies of retaliation and predation. Mocan 2008 uses cross-national data to explore the effect of cross-national and cross-individual differences on vengeful feelings.

  • Black, Donald. 1983. Crime as social control. American Sociological Review 48:34–45.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095143

    This article defines retaliation, or what is also called “self-help,” as a form of conflict management absent the government. This article makes clear that sometimes crime, such as assault or vandalism, may itself be social control, just as is law. This conception of retaliation may be labeled purely sociological, as compared to psychological.

  • Buss, Arnold H. 1961. The psychology of aggression. New York: John Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1037/11160-000

    In an early examination of different types of aggression, Buss proposes that some such acts are motivated by anger within the offender that results from previous encounters. Aggressive actions that emerge out of the anger of offenders may be seen as retaliation.

  • Cooney, Mark, and Scott Phillips. 2002. Typologizing violence: A Blackian perspective. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 22:75–108.

    DOI: 10.1108/01443330210790102

    This article clarifies the difference between Donald Black’s sociological definition of retaliation (see Black 1983) and psychological definitions, such as that proposed in Felson 1993. Criteria for evaluating typologies and definitions are also proposed.

  • Felson, Richard B. 1993. Predatory and dispute-related violence: A social interactionist approach. In Routine activity and rational choice. Edited by Ronald V. Clarke and Marcus Felson, 103–125. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    This is a key reference for studies of retaliation and their differences from and similarities to predation. Retaliation is viewed as a strategy for satisfying the desire for vengeance that results from disputes.

  • Mocan, Naci H. 2008. Vengeance. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 14131.

    DOI: 10.3386/w14131

    With data on almost ninety thousand individuals and fifty countries, the topic of vengeful feelings is explored. Differences in demographic variables—e.g., per capita income and gender—are found to influence the intensity and duration of vengeful feelings between people and nations.

  • Wolfgang, Martin E. 1957. Victim precipitated criminal homicide. Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 48.1: 1–11.

    DOI: 10.2307/1140160

    Based on a study of patterns in criminal homicide, this paper suggests that some victims are killed because of their own wrongdoing. Cases of homicide where the victim initiates the conflict that results in his or her murder are termed “victim precipitated.”

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