Title: Understanding the persistence of the victim-offender overlap: Modeling causal mechanisms across place and time
Name: Mark T. Berg

University of Iowa

Year: 2008
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

A puzzle in the literature on interpersonal violence is the strong association between violent offending and victimization. Nearly five decades of research conducted on self-report and official records of lethal and non-lethal violence has persistently discovered a strong correlation between offending and victimization. This association, known as the victim- offender overlap, is one of the most durable empirical findings in the criminological literature. Despite decades of research the complex etiology of this phenomenon is not well understood. Few studies have failed to find evidence of this association and far fewer, if any, have isolated its sources. The purpose of this research project was (1) to develop and test theoretical claims regarding the role of neighborhood mechanisms in producing the victim-offender, and (2) apply a novel longitudinal design that accounts for potential unobserved sources of spuriousness. Some researchers argue that the association between victimization and offending is stronger in more disadvantaged places owing to the presence of contextualized conduct norms that emphasize retaliation and reciprocal violence. Furthermore, the correlation will be weak or zero in low-poverty neighborhoods where the social environment condemns aggressive responses to disrespectful treatment in favor of avoidance or tolerance. Still other scholars argue that the correlation between offending and victimization will be negative in disadvantaged neighborhoods because aggressive posturing is a strong deterrent to aggressive treatment in these environments. These hypotheses were tested based on multiple waves of longitudinal data from sample of adolescents and examined using a within-person regression estimator that effectively eliminates unobserved sources of heterogeneity from model coefficients. Altogether, the findings indicated that the victimization-offending association is pronounced in poorer neighborhoods, meaning youth who are victimized are significantly more likely to commit violence and vice-versa. However, the relationship was statistically zero in low poverty neighborhoods such that offending and victimization were not significantly associated with one another. I later confirmed these findings in another related study in which measures of neighborhood honor culture processes were specified as contextual mechanisms. Taken together these findings yield novel insights into the etiology of the victim offender overlap and suggest the neighborhood social environment has powerful effects on the way people respond to offensive treatment. The findings from this study have important implications not only for substantive research, but also for violence prevention policy, particularly programs aimed at reducing the spread of retaliatory violence in the urban landscape.

Subsequently, I also discovered in an incident-based study from this project that young men who are victims of serious violence are significantly less likely to contact the police if they have committed violent crimes themselves; however, this unwillingness to report was especially strong among victims who lived in disadvantaged, high-crime neighborhoods places often affected by acrimonious police-citizen relations, and where norms of honor or the street code sanction a form of private justice as the preferred method of handling disputes. Insofar as victims use their own brand of justice to rectify grievances and perceived injustices, these findings suggest improvements in police-citizen relations in poor communities could quell the escalation of conflicts and incidence of retaliation.


Berg, Mark T. and Rolf Loeber. (2011). Examining the neighborhood context of the violent offending-victimization relationship: A prospective investigation. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 27:427-451.

Berg, Mark T., Lee A. Slocum and Rolf Loeber. (2013).Illegal behavior, neighborhood context, and police reporting by victims of violence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 50: 75-103.

Berg, Mark T., Eric A. Stewart, Christopher Schreck and Ronald L. Simons. (2012). The victim-offender overlap in context. Examining the role of neighborhood street culture. Criminology, 50: 359-390.