In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section State Dependence and Population Heterogeneity in Theories of Victimization

  • Introduction
  • Population Heterogeneity and State Dependence in Criminology
  • Early Population Heterogeneity Explanations for Victimization
  • More Recent Population Heterogeneity Research on Victimization
  • Early State Dependence Research on Victimization
  • More Recent State Dependence Research on Victimization
  • Tests of Population Heterogeneity and State Dependence in the Study of Victimization
  • “Boosts” and “Flags”
  • Support for Mixed Approaches to the Study of Victimization

Criminology State Dependence and Population Heterogeneity in Theories of Victimization
Jillian J. Turanovic, Meghan R. Ogle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0232


One of the most consistent and well-known findings in victimization research is that people who are victimized once are more likely to be victimized again. And while the phenomenon of “repeat victimization” has been documented for decades, the criminological literature has not always been clear about why this relationship exists. Typically, one of two distinct explanations are provided. The first is the state dependence perspective, which views subsequent victimization as the direct consequence of prior victimization. This perspective suggests that being victimized once can set in motion certain processes that heighten the risk of future victimization. Traditionally, this “boost” in risk has been explained by a so-called victim labeling process, whereby the vulnerability or attractiveness of a certain person becomes more known to offenders after being victimized the first time. The second explanation is the population heterogeneity perspective, which proposes that the relationship between victimization and repeat victimization is spurious, because the factors that increase or “flag” one’s risk of being victimized the first time are the same factors that lead to subsequent victimization. This perspective argues that victimization has no independent effect on repeat victimization; rather an underlying stable trait determines both victimization and repeat victimization. Although some scholars have emphasized that population heterogeneity and state dependence hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, they have routinely been treated as competing perspectives within the repeat victimization literature. In what follows, an overview of these perspectives and their origins in the field of criminology is provided. Next, early and recent victimization research in the areas of population heterogeneity and state dependence is highlighted. Some empirical tests of these perspectives are then discussed, as well as research on “boosts” and “flags.” Lastly, evidence is presented to support a more integrative approach to the study of victimization.

Population Heterogeneity and State Dependence in Criminology

State dependence and population heterogeneity perspectives did not emerge in the study of victimization. In the field of criminology, they were initially developed to explain continuity in offending over time. Criminological research has long established past involvement in crime and delinquency as the strongest predictor of future involvement in crime and delinquency. Attempts to explain this strong association traditionally adhered to a strict dichotomy between persistent heterogeneity explanations, which identified characteristics within an individual as the sole cause of continued criminal behavior, and state dependent explanations, which ascribed a causal role to changes occurring outside of the individual in determining the likelihood of the individual’s continued involvement in crime. These explanations were originally thought to be mutually exclusive (see Nagin and Paternoster 1991), which helped to garner empirical attention in the spirit of theoretical competition. Nagin and Paternoster 2000 and Piquero, et al. 2003 provide comprehensive overviews of this debate and the germane issues on each side. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 and Wilson and Herrnstein 1985 provide the most well-known examples of the population heterogeneity argument. Researchers in the 21st century have largely recognized that although treating population heterogeneity and state dependence hypotheses as competing was useful in the development of each perspective, an integration of the two appears most useful in explaining continuity in criminal behavior over the life course (Moffitt 1993, Sampson and Laub 1993, and Sampson and Laub 2005). The following pieces provide an in-depth look at population heterogeneity and state dependence hypotheses and include landmark works that propelled some of these explanations to the forefront of the study of crime.

  • Gottfredson, Michael R., and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A general theory of crime. Redwood City, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A staple of criminological theory where the authors identify self-control as a relatively stable trait, predictive of an individual’s involvement in criminal and analogous behavior from approximately ages eight to ten and up. An excellent example of a strongly argued population heterogeneity account of criminal involvement.

  • Moffitt, Terrie E. 1993. Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review 100:674–701.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.4.674

    A typological theory that recognizes two distinct types of offenders, life-course-persistent offenders (those who offend throughout the life course) and adolescence-limited offenders (those who only offend during adolescence), who can be distinguished from an early age by the presence of neuropsychological deficits. This is a mixed perspective that relies on a population heterogeneity explanation for the life-course-persistent offender, and a state dependence explanation for the shorter offending career of the adolescent-limited offender.

  • Nagin, Daniel S., and Raymond Paternoster. 1991. On the relationship of past to future participation in delinquency. Criminology 29:163–189.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1991.tb01063.x

    Using a three-wave panel data set, this article attempts to determine whether population heterogeneity or state dependence explanations account for the positive association between past and future delinquency. The results suggest that the positive association is principally due to a state-dependent influence, but that there can be mixed explanations for the relationship between past and future offending.

  • Nagin, Daniel, and Raymond Paternoster. 2000. Population heterogeneity and state dependence: State of the evidence and directions for future research. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 16:117–144.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1007502804941

    Clearly lays out each side of the state dependence and population heterogeneity debate, identifies landmark pieces on each side, and reviews the empirical status of each at the time. Also highlights that the state dependence and population heterogeneity perspectives are not hostile to one another and that a mixed explanation for criminal behavior is preferable.

  • Piquero, Alex R., David P. Farrington, and Alfred Blumstein. 2003. The criminal career paradigm. Crime and Justice 30:359–506.

    DOI: 10.1086/652234

    Offers an overview of the state dependence and population heterogeneity debate and focuses on the data and methodological limitations associated with resolving it. A good source to consult when delving into the empirical literature surrounding state dependence and population heterogeneity perspectives.

  • Sampson, Robert J., and John H. Laub. 1993. Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    In this work, an age-graded theory of informal social control was formulated to explain crime over the life course. The foundation of this theory is an amalgam of population heterogeneity and state dependence, where crime is a product of both time stable factors (e.g., stable differences in the propensity to commit crime) and time varying factors (e.g., cumulative continuity and turning points).

  • Sampson, Robert J., and John H. Laub. 2005. A life-course view of the development of crime. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 602:12–45.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716205280075

    A piece that stresses the importance of bridging the dichotomy between state dependence and population heterogeneity accounts of criminal behavior. A great starting point for understanding how these two perspectives may be integrated.

  • Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. 1985. Crime and human nature. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Presents a population heterogeneity model that links intelligence and moral reasoning to criminal behavior—traits that are present early in life and presumed to remain stable. This population heterogeneity perspective is much more firmly rooted in biological explanations than the others mentioned here.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.