Updated: Apr 20
Missing persons is an area of research that at large has been neglected in current sociological and criminological scholarship. However, in the last few years, there have been global efforts made to further advance missing persons research and include missing persons as the subject of study within these disciplines. When treading unattended research waters, scholars are tasked with exploring how to situate their area of interest across and within various paradigms, theories, disciplines, and so on. Given the absence of research in this area and, ergo, lack of dominant paradigms, researchers have the ability to examine this topic from several angles, especially given that it is a nuanced and complex issue. Thus, researchers can choose various entry points when establishing a domain of inquiry for missingness. In this blog post, I argue that missing persons research has relevance in victimological scholarship, and that with such research, we could begin to advance our understanding of missingness. As a new scholar embarking on victimological discourses, theories, and empirical debates, I see many promising avenues for missing persons research under the victimological umbrella.
Victimology is most often considered as a scholarship that studies crime victims. However, being a victim could be argued to extend beyond suffering harm due to criminal victimization. Being a victim could also be conceptualized as a person who has suffered harm due to trauma, accidents, natural disasters, substance abuse, mental health issues, and physical illness (Daigle, 2013). Thus, victimization comprises a set of diverse experiences that can cause harm and suffering for the person experiencing it and the people surrounding the individual. There is a wide range of theories that address victimization. However, most of these theories only address criminal victimization and describe why some individuals are more likely than others to experience criminal victimization. Others focus on victim-blaming and victim legitimacy. However, I argue, upon further examining these theories, there is certainly connections that can be drawn and applied to missing persons.
To this end, when a person goes missing, several challenging aspects arise related to responding to and locating the missing person that are relevant to this connection. One of the first questions posed is whether or not the disappearance was voluntary or non-voluntary — as well as if a crime has or has not been committed. When individuals voluntarily disappear, events or experiences often make the individual choose to disappear. These experiences could be related to trauma, neglect, mental health issues, or substance abuse, which are all notions that may cause the individual harm. That is, victimizing events and experiences could be contributing mechanisms that influenced their decision to go missing (Bricknell, 2017; Hills et al, 2016). Further, individuals who disappear due to being subjected to a crime suffer harm due to their criminal victimization when involuntarily being abducted by someone or forcefully made to go missing. In fact, taking these connections into consideration, missing persons could be thought of as victims. Many of the individuals who have voluntary went missing have gone through experiences that caused them harm and as a result went missing, others who involuntarily went missing have been subjected to a crime and thus can be viewed as a crime victim.
With this in mind, the following are some connections that could be fruitful avenues for further inquiry to advance our understanding of missingness. Lifestyle Routine Activity Theory (Daigle, 2013; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2003), which combines the central theoretical claims of Routine Activity Theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) to explain crime and lifestyle theories to explain the prevalence of presence in high-risk environments, is one theory that needs to be explored further in relation to missing persons. When using Lifestyle Routine Activity Theory to think about victimization, we think of a motivated offender and lack of capable guardian in a context where a suitable victim is present. Moreover, with the lifestyle component (Hindelang et al., 1978), we add the presence of environments where these components often exist to explain the higher likelihood of an individual being victimized. If we extend this concept to missing persons by addressing engagement with previous victimization in the form of criminal victimization, substance abuse, mental health issues, and trauma, among others, we can potentially understand more about voluntary disappearances. In addition, we could use this theoretical framework to understand involuntary disappearance as these disappearances can fall under the criminal victimization umbrella, through the experiences many of the individuals have been subjected to prior to going missing.
Another example of a theoretical application that can further understand missing persons is the Ideal Victim concept by Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie. The Ideal Victim (Christie, 1986) there is based on a set of characteristics that a victim should have to maintain the highest level of legitimacy when claiming their victim label according to society. Thus, if a victim fulfills these characteristics, they are more likely to be viewed as legitimate victims by society. When further exploring Nils Christie's concept of the Ideal Victim, missing persons is a highly interesting population to explore further. A missing person is often subjected to risk assessments based on several factors (i.e., risk factors) related to their disappearance — for example, if their disappearance was voluntary or involuntary, their history of previously going missing, what they were doing when disappearing. Also, the individuals they usually socialize with. By further examining the linkages of and mechanisms contributing to these risk factors, we may understand more about how missing persons are perceived by society and learn more about the level of empathy and legitimacy missing persons and their family members have when claiming the victim label or seeking help to find their loved ones.
The fact that there often are many unanswered questions and missing information when individuals go missing offers additional ambiguity when society tries to understand how to perceive missing persons. Many questions could be explored further in relation to missing persons and victimological theories. These two examples are only an effort to highlight the applicability of victimological theories to missing persons and the need for further exploration on the topic. Altogether, although missing persons may not always be considered victims and is not an area currently taken upon as a matter in victimological scholarship, many of the reasons why they disappear could be linked to victimization. However, to further understand this topic, we need to explore this connection. By understanding more about the theoretical connections of missing persons and victimization theories, we may gain greater knowledge of the factors that contribute to involuntary and voluntary disappearances. It is only then we can learn more about what concepts, discourses, and theories are the most useful to further advance our understanding of missingness.
Writer: Michelle N. Eliasson, M.A.
Michelle is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the University of Florida. Her primary research areas are victimology, policing, criminal justices professionals, Restorative Justice, ethnography, and qualitative methods. Her most current work focus on Swedish and American officers and various aspects of their understanding of the victim label and their assessment of victims. Michelle's B.S. in Criminology and Sociology comes from Lund University, Sweden, and her M.A. in Sociology is from University of Florida.