In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section General Opportunity Victimization Theories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Macrolevel Opportunity
  • Microlevel Opportunity
  • Multilevel Opportunity Perspectives
  • Crime and Victimization Opportunities at the Place Level
  • Integrated Opportunity Perspectives with the General Theory of Crime
  • Gendered Opportunity
  • Age-Graded Opportunity and Opportunities for Victimization against Adolescents
  • Personal Victimization and Opportunity
  • Property Victimization and Opportunity
  • Applications of Opportunity Theories

Criminology General Opportunity Victimization Theories
Bradford W. Reyns
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0229


Since the latter part of the 1970s, the field of victimology has focused much theoretical attention and empirical study on identifying risk factors for victimization. Risk factors are variables that are associated with some outcome—in this case, criminal victimization. Theories in victimology and criminology, then, have been developed to explain victimization in terms of victimization risk. The leading explanation for victimization risk that has emerged over the last four decades is the opportunity perspective, which attributes risk to opportunities for victimization. Early opportunity research hypothesized that opportunities for victimization are created through varied processes, including large-scale social forces (i.e., macrolevel) and individual behaviors (i.e., microlevel). Empirical studies of the relationship between macrolevel opportunities and crime rates and microlevel opportunities and victimization supported these hypothesizes and prompted further development of the opportunity perspective. Subsequent theoretical refinements explained that victimization opportunities are created through multilevel processes. Acknowledging this, researchers also have explored different sized units of analysis (e.g., cities, neighborhoods, micro-places) within which opportunities are created and concentrate. Recent additions to the opportunity perspective include integrated, gendered, and age-graded refinements, which present more complex and nuanced arguments involving the circumstances under which victimization opportunities are created and acted upon by offenders. Overall, the expansive body of research that has tested the opportunity perspective has largely supported its utility in explaining a variety of types of victimization, including personal and property victimizations. Propositions from the opportunity perspective have also been adopted and applied in various capacities by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to prevent and/or reduce victimization opportunities.

General Overviews

Opportunity theories of victimization have flourished over the years, in terms of both theoretical development and empirical testing. For the most part, general information on the opportunity perspective can be categorized in one of two ways: (1) literature reviews of the current state of theory and research, or (2) influential pieces that moved the field forward. Among the former, Felson and Clarke 1998 is perhaps the best starting point in providing a primer on opportunity theory. Here, the authors review the principles of opportunity and explain its relationship with crime. Early articles such as Gottfredson 1981 and Meier and Miethe 1993 also review the principles of opportunity theory, but do so specifically within the context of criminal victimization. It is important to note, however, that research of this era often referenced “lifestyle” or “routine activity” theories without pointing out the implicit link between these behaviors and opportunities for victimization. Conversely, more recent overviews of opportunity theories of victimization make this argument explicit. Books like Andresen 2014, Felson and Eckert 2016, and Fisher, et al. 2015 each provide reviews of opportunity, but with different emphases in terms of its function. These texts address the role of opportunity in environmental criminology, crime prevention, and victimology, respectively. Within the latter category, Cook 1986, Miethe and Meier 1994, and Wilcox, et al. 2003 each provide theoretical refinements or advancements to the opportunity perspective. Cook 1986 views opportunity in terms of aggregate supplies of opportunities produced by victims and demands for opportunities sought by offenders, introducing some of the early arguments for a multilevel opportunity perspective. Miethe and Meier 1994 utilizes opportunity as one of the two important concepts in the structural choice theory of crime, which considers criminal motivation and victimization opportunity as the key ingredients in criminal events. Finally, Wilcox, et al. 2003 introduces a fully articulated multilevel opportunity theory. In all three cases, the authors also provide a general overview of the concept of criminal opportunity.

  • Andresen, M. A. 2014. Environmental criminology: Evolution, theory, and practice. New York: Routledge.

    Includes a comprehensive overview of environmental criminology, tracing its origins, explaining its theoretical foundations, and reviewing its practical application. Since much of environmental criminology is focused upon the role of opportunity in causing crime or how opportunity reduction can aid in crime prevention, this book provides a useful summary of its main points. Part 2, covering theories in environmental criminology, is particularly relevant to understanding general opportunity victimization theories.

  • Cook, P. J. 1986. The demand and supply of criminal opportunities. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 7. Edited by M. Tonry and N. Morris, 1–27. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    In this theoretical piece, Cook explains the relationship between criminal opportunities and victim protective behaviors. This relationship is compared to the supply and demand of products in an economic market. According to this thesis, high crime rates result in individuals taking greater protections against crime (i.e., reducing opportunities). Over time, as the crime rate declines, individuals relax their prevention behaviors, creating more crime opportunities to be acted upon by offenders.

  • Felson, M., and R. V. Clarke. 1998. Opportunity makes the thief: Practical theory for crime prevention. Police Research Series, Paper 98. London: Home Office, Research Development and Statistics Directorate.

    This theoretical appraisal of the opportunity perspective provides a general overview of the three main opportunity theories from criminology: the routine activity approach, crime pattern theory, and the rational choice perspective. It also includes an explanation of ten principles that govern the relationship between opportunity and crime. This report offers a good introduction to opportunity as an explanation for criminal victimization and crime events.

  • Felson, M., and M. Eckert. 2016. Crime and everyday life. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Reviews the ways in which routine activities of daily life are related to criminal opportunities and victimization. As part of this review, the authors explain foundational opportunity concepts and discuss the importance of opportunity in understanding a number of distinct types of crime, including teenage crime, gang crime, technology crimes, and white-collar crime, among others. Generally considered to be an approachable introduction to opportunity concepts for students.

  • Fisher, B. S., B. R. Reyns, and J. J. Sloan III. 2015. Introduction to victimology: Contemporary theory, research, and practice. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides an overview of the opportunity perspective and explains how opportunities affect victimization risk. The text also highlights findings from empirical research into the role of opportunity in criminal victimization. Chapters 2 and 3, which review opportunity theories of victimization and contemporary theories of victimization, respectively, are of particular interest.

  • Gottfredson, M. R. 1981. On the etiology of criminal victimization. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 72:714–726.

    DOI: 10.2307/1143011

    Reviews the state of criminal victimization research, with a discussion of the genesis of victimization opportunity and a specific focus on the issue of exposure to victimization risk through lifestyle. The paper highlights the difference between absolute and probabilistic exposure, and discusses how to predict probabilistic exposure, before closing with some ideas for theoretical development in the victimization literature.

  • Meier, R. F., and T. D. Miethe. 1993. Understanding theories of criminal victimization. Crime and Justice 17:459–499.

    DOI: 10.1086/449218

    A comprehensive literature review of the opportunity theories of criminal victimization (lifestyle-exposure theory and routine activity theory) and their major theoretical concepts (i.e., proximity to crime, exposure to crime, target attractiveness, capable guardianship). The article also reviews some problems with evaluating the theories, followed by an argument for integrating victimization and crime theories in the mold of structural choice theory.

  • Miethe, T. D., and R. F. Meier. 1994. Crime and its social context: Toward an integrated theory of offenders, victims, and situations. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    This book builds upon prior research and presents an integrated theory of criminal events. The theory combines leading arguments from criminology and victimology to explain that criminal events are a function of offender motivation, victimization opportunity, and the social context in which victims and offenders meet. Also included are a comprehensive review of the opportunity theories of victimization and an empirical test of Miethe and Meier’s structural choice theory.

  • Wilcox, P., K. C. Land, and S. A. Hunt. 2003. Criminal circumstance: A dynamic, multicontextual criminal opportunity theory. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    The primary contribution of Criminal Circumstance is the introduction of multilevel opportunity theory. This theory integrates arguments from the general opportunity research base and the communities and crime research literature to explain that crime opportunities are generated by individual and environmental factors, and that these factors are also interactive. Interactions between these micro- and macrolevel factors produce dynamic criminal opportunities.

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