Small Wars Journal

The Victim Identity Model: The Pathology of Apithological Organized Collective Violent Conflict

Thu, 11/04/2021 - 2:00am

The Victim Identity Model: The Pathology of Apithological Organized Collective Violent Conflict

by J. Kane Tomlin

This is a theoretical piece looking to reframe what might drive groups to violence in terms that are equally pertinent to Insurgencies, COIN, as well as great power competition.


When attempting to explain the causes of group violence, conflict theories usually focus on the international system of anarchistic self-help, innately violent human nature, the legal framework of warfare, the clash of civilizations, violent mass movements, or a combination of demographic, economic, sociological, and psychological factors. However, none of the major organized conflict models in existing literature explains all inter- or intrastate organized violence.

The grounded theory development process employed in this study sought to integrate many of these theories into a holistic model of group violence that focuses on an element often overlooked: the vicarious victim. The victim identity model is a sociological extension of both the psychological victim identity construct and social categorization theory. The main hypothesis is that a prerequisite for organized forms of collective violence is a motivated organizational leadership element that convinces his or her followers of their in-group victim status. This vicarious in-group victimization legitimizes the stated retaliatory causes of the group, subsumes individual responsibility to the group, and enables psychologically normal group members to commit violence against their perceived aggressors.





The victim identity model (VIM) is the result of a research project aimed at identifying patterns of organized group violence that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely. The goal was a stochastic determinative model of group violence drawing on many different measurements. Researchers of interpersonal violence have queried psychological factors to determine the root causes of interpersonal violence. Psychologists have not treated organized collective violent conflict as pathological, possibly due to the absurdity of defining behavior that is so prevalent as deviant. Researchers have therefore considered group violence to be apithological. Apithology is the study of wellness (or the absence of sickness) and its causes in both society and nature. It contrasts with pathology, the study of sickness. Scholars who believe interpersonal violence is pathological and group violence is apithological may be ignoring commonalities between the two forms of violence.

Warriors, by definition, are those charged by their in-group with the task of killing members of an out-group during times of conflict. One of the challenges in studying the full spectrum of violence between larger groups may be the belief that pathological interpersonal violence exists independently of apithological group violence. If pathological violence is bad for a society, and the people who engage in it are deviants, but warfare is a necessary evil, and warriors themselves are good for society, then different variables should correlate with each form of violence. But what if this is not the case? I believe that both of these apparently different phenomena may share some variables.

Researchers studying group violence have generally defined the causal variables of violence in sociological terms, including economics, realism, diplomacy, and so on. Psychological research undertaken on warfare has typically been limited to psychological profiling of key leaders; researchers have rarely sought to understand what makes warriors willing to follow these leaders.

One of the exceptions was Lt. Col. John Baynes, author of Morale: A Study of Men and Courage, who argued that the personal psychological profiling of individual soldiers led to his definition of a unit’s morale: the sum total of each individual’s nobility of spirit, love for the cause and one’s country, loyalty, esprit de corps, and unselfishness (Baynes, 1988, p. 97). Although Baynes made some salient points, he expressed his views as principles that a unit’s leaders should foster, not as specific individual motivations that lead group members to engage in organized group violence. The importance of morale in warfare is most salient after the commencement of hostilities. The reasons why we humans fight remain elusive.

Conceptualize violence as a spectrum with respect to both different dimensions of measurement and different historical periods. State-only sponsored warfare is a relatively new phenomenon; the system of international states has existed only since the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Trinitarian warfare dominated international conflicts for 300 years, peaking in the 1940s during World War II and the subsequent rise of state-owned weapons of mass destruction. Although technological improvements in killing have impacted the number of casualties in violent conflicts, the presence of collective group violent conflict has been reasonably steady (Hedges, 2007). Warlike behavior appears part of human nature, and variables leading to organized violence should not be linked to specific historical periods (Waltz, 2001). By analogy, the speed of Internet communication does not explain why certain ideas spread. Instead, it explains the speed at which they spread; ideas spread for other reasons that do not depend on technology.

A comprehensive model of group violence should address the causes of state-sponsored, sectarian, and insurgent violence and may explain the motivations or justifications for the members of warring parties to willingly enter an unnatural psychological state in which they commit to killing each other, regardless of historical era and scale of conflict. The VIM postulates that these motivations or justifications come from a victimization by proxy called macrovictimization, and that perceived victimization lowers inhibitions against violence, similar to the victim-offender overlap in Criminology but at scale.

Problem Statement

If one deduces that human conflicts, be they riots, wars, terrorist attacks, or street gang fights, depend on some common variables then policy-makers could achieve their national security, strategic, and political goals by ensuring that either (a) violent conflict is avoided or (b) violent conflict against the winner subsides after “success” in combat by manipulating these common variables to reduce the likelihood of violence. Iraq is a modern example of that failure for the United States in which a “mission accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier did not equate to a pacified country. Developing a system that practitioners of strategic security could use to manipulate such variables may be a worthwhile endeavor.

The VIM may form a part of such a system. The VIM bolsters and addresses weaknesses of intelligence or policy options derived from the realist, civilizational clash, constructivist, imperialist, financial, sectarian, or international legalist theories of conflict (Arendt, 1970; Clausewitz, 1976; Gilpin, 1988; Grossman, 2009; Grotius & Neff, 2012; Huntington, 2011; Van Creveld, 1991; Waltz, 2001). A model that can be used to analyze emerging tensions to provide policy makers with solid predictions about whether, and under what conditions, conflicts may escalate would be ideal. Although the human condition is complex and will likely never be deterministically understood in its entirety, scholars should continue to strive for better models of human behavior in this area, especially considering the consequences of group violence.

Psychologists have been more comfortable studying the individual mind, while scholars of strategic studies have been more comfortable studying other apithological causes for group conflict do not include the minds of the warriors themselves. Enough history is available to determine that volunteers enter warfare at similar rates to conscripts, so a draft does not appear to affect the total number of warriors who participate for their own psychological reasons (Hedges, 2007).

After a conflict, warriors may suffer from various psychological disorders, such as posttraumatic stress (PTS); however, they are generally thought to be psychologically normal prior to combat, and most regain their nondeviant normalcy afterward (Grossman, 2009; Grossman & Christensen, 2007). Insurgents, terrorists, and street gangs may also view themselves as warriors, and they often describe themselves as soldiers or warriors; accordingly they are included in the term warrior for this article (Halff, 2013).

The main difference between interstate warfare and sectarian, revolutionary, or other forms of nonstate warfare is ultimately the size of the groups involved. The underlying reasons for the initiation of war appear similar, otherwise there would be major shifts in the total number of wars fought over time. Although technology has impacted the number of people involved, wounded, and killed in violent conflicts, humans have been at war with each other for 92% of recorded history (Hedges, 2007). Warfare and warlike behavior may be part of human nature. If so, the variables of any holistic model of violence cannot be linked to specific historical constructs and must instead explain all historical evidence.

Prior to the state model of war, people thought wars were fought for justice, religion, expansion, civilizational competition, or the very existence of the group involved in conflict (Van Creveld, 1991). Economic motives, such as empire expansion, plunder, and military contracts, have also been proposed, but these have not predicted warfare. Nor can economics explain every instance of warfare, because the net cost of war typically outweighs any gains (Moffatt, 2014).

A functional model of organized group violence would ideally establish the motivations for separate parties to willingly enter into an unusual psychological state, one in which the members commit to killing each other; independently of both the historical era and the scale of the groups in conflict. The VIM seeks to disassociate group violence from variables that depend on either the historical period or on the total number involved. If historical period and scale can be controlled, some new variables may emerge.

Research Questions

Does a person’s sense of victimization increase the likelihood of retaliatory violence? If so, can a person have an equally strong reaction if they are not directly victimized? Does the victimization of fellow in-group members create this same reaction? Does an organization’s ability to convince its self-identified in-group members of their victim status increase the likelihood of group-wide retaliation? Does the macrovictimization phenomenon coincide with organized group violence? Is there a concept within macrovictimization corresponding to perceived victimization by individuals that leads to increasing reactive and proactive violence?

Call for a New Theory

Seminal non-psychological theories of organized group conflict may not account for some hidden variables relating to the perceived victimization of each group. Psychologically normal people hesitate to use violent conflict to settle disputes unless they feel they have no other choice (Waltz, 2001). However, individuals who identify themselves as victims are freed to retaliate in what they view as a just war, even if they are not defending themselves from imminent harm. Victims of interpersonal violence may become codependent (choose to continue to be victimized), become abusers, or both (Matthews, 2011; Zur, 1995). By extrapolation, the same phenomena could occur in larger groups through a process of victimization by proxy, or macrovictimization: Individual victims who choose to become aggressors and fight create conflict instead of assault; victimized groups that fight create warfare instead of a massacre. The fundamental identifications that individuals have with their state, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other demographic group provide the motivation to join others who share their victim status.

Literature Review ADDIN EN.CITE.DATA

The purpose of discussing the literature on grounded theory modeling, sociology, psychology, and social psychology reviewed here is to recreate the cognitive conditions experienced while conducting the meta-analysis during the grounded theory development process led to the development of the VIM. The VIM only serves to explain qualitatively the impact of macrovictimization, social identity, and leadership on group violence; there are no quantitative data currently available to determine the scale of the relationships between these variables. Ideally, future scholars will subject the model to quantitative analysis to better shape its predictive value.

The literature reviewed encompassed psychology, sociology, social psychology, national security, international relations, and the military using a grounded theory approach and meta-analysis coding (Creswell, 2012; Strauss & Corbin, 1997). The grounded theory approach assumes that reviewing source data without a preconceived notion of a theoretical development can lead to the formation of a new theory itself. I conceptualized the VIM through research surrounding various forms and sources of apithological group violence.

Social psychologists had performed a similar discovery process, but instead of the individual, they looked at group interactions that occurred at both intragroup and intergroup levels and attempted to derive psychological meanings from group behavior. Unfortunately, they seldom focused on intergroup violence (Doosje et al., 2002; Haslam et al., 1995; Postmes & Branscombe, 2010; Tajfel, 2010; Turner & Oakes, 1986). Military and sociological researchers looked at group-level and phenomenological research to try to understand how national-level intergroup wars are initiated, prosecuted, and ultimately resolved. These scholars have recently also focused on sectarian and other forms of intragroup violent conflicts (Dahl, 2014; Gates, 2014; Gentile, 2011; Jaschik, 2015; McChrystal, Collins, Silverman, & Fussell, 2015; Sandole et al., 2004). The sociological literature under review originated from various fields of study but was primarily focused on criminal justice.

The psychological models of interpersonal victimization and the victim identity pathology contributed to the sociological and military theories reviewed. The VIM postulates that variables applying to interpersonal violence identified by Zur, Matthews, and Sykes (2011; 1992; 1995) could theoretically apply to organized group violence, provided that the retaliatory violence was not committed by a pathologically deviant person. In the social sciences, deviant behaviors and actions such as interpersonal violence are known as social pathologies.

Social pathology refers to deviant behaviors that members of a society have agreed are immoral or unacceptable. For example, in most cultures, murder is considered a deviant behavior and social pathology because it is harmful to society and a transgression against a fundamental social boundary. Pathologically deviant people were not a subject of my research, because I focused not on why pathologically deviant people behave antisocially and violently, but rather on why apithological (healthy) people sometimes behave violently.

The sources of literature reviewed were a combination of textbooks, scholarly articles, and historical philosophical works addressing the phenomenological, psychological, criminological, and the tactical literature that together address “the reasons why we fight.” Among strategic works, I found The Clash of Civilizations, On Killing, and The True Believer to have the greatest influence on the VIM, while “Rethinking ‘Don’t Blame the Victim’ the Psychology of Victimhood,” A Nation of Victims, Becoming Evil and Social Identity and Intergroup Relations provided the bulk of underlying psychological and social psychological perspectives.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is an approach to research in which data collection and data analysis take place simultaneously, with collection and analysis informing each other (Birks & Mills, 2015; Charmaz & Belgrave, 2007; Dunbar, 1999; Glaser & Strauss, 2017; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Typically, the traditional deductive scientific theory development process involves many iterations of the deductive scientific method. Deductive reasoning theories or models are proved true or false based on experimentation (Hardcastle, 1996; Shoemaker, Tankard Jr, & Lasorsa, 2003; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).

In contrast, grounded theory uses inductive and abductive reasoning, in which conclusions are probable rather than certain (Glaser & Strauss, 2017). Social science lends itself to inductive and abductive reasoning, because social interactions are complex, not complicated. Complicated process modeling begins to falter when it encounters complex problems. For example, which way will a school of fish or a flock of birds move next? Where will the next Islamic lone wolf terrorist, inspired by ISIS social media, strike? Human social interactions are equally complex, and therefore lend themselves to grounded theory modeling rather than deductive reasoning and experimentation (BenningTV, 2014; McChrystal et al., 2015).

The grounded theory model I developed did not encode raw data, per se, instead the inductive reasoning occurred during review and subsequent meta-analysis of the seminal literature on collective group violence. General themes began to emerge that ultimately led to the development of the VIM. During the inductive and abductive cycles, “selecting or constructing a hypothesis that explains a particular empirical case or set of data better than any other candidate hypothesis, as a provisional hypothesis and a worthy candidate for further exploration” was the goal (Flick, 2013, p. 153).

Each new data point in the literature added to the VIM as I contextually reviewed the body of literature and discovered hypotheses from individual works that did not appear to fit the empirical data any better than the candidate hypothesis (Mayhew, 1984). Ordinarily, grounded theory modeling discourages a traditional literature review, but because the raw data to be coded was the meta-analysis of literature used in the abductive process, the literature review was a guiding process, not a constraining one (Ramalho, Adams, Huggard, & Hoare, 2015).

Sociological Literature

Data led criminal justice scholars Bernard, Vold, and Snipes to develop a deviant criminological behavioral model, originally expressed in Vold’s Theoretical Criminology. It posits a process by which deviant in-groups deliberately choose behaviors that are shunned by the out-group and initiates the concept of the existence of group behavior in which an individual deliberately chooses an illogical (and illegal) strategy to respond to out-group pressure (Bernard et al., 2010; Boduszek, Dhingra, & Debowska, 2016).

Deviant group models posit that unchecked deviant group behavior leads to stronger in-group social identification and increasingly violent behavior. At the group level, deviant behavior theories may be applicable to deviant nations or even deviant international terrorist movements, which lead to “gangs” of terrorists or despots that thrive outside the mainstream international order. Bernard used the term social capital to refer to the inability of the community at large to form meaningful connections with deviant subgroups, which leads to deviant groups rejecting majority norms and pursue alternative subcultural norms (Bankert, Huddy, & Rosema, 2017; Boduszek et al., 2016; Mawson, Best, Beckwith, Dingle, & Lubman, 2015). On the international stage, Iran, Nazi Germany, the post-Arab-Spring Middle East, or Panama under Manuel Noriega are possible examples of this phenomenon (Orizio, 2003). The more they defied international pressure and sanctions, the stronger the bond seemed to be between members of these national “gangs”, just as predicted by Bernard et al.

Victimized individuals may behave in any of many different ways as a survival mechanism during the initial victimization period. However, once they have regained the ability to resist, most will in one form or another (Zur, 1995). Victims of have demonstrated increased willingness to hold themselves blameless and receptive to retaliating (Sykes, 1992; Zur, 1995). It stands to reason that in-group leaders could use the concept of macrovictimization to increase their power and in-group adherence, especially considering that violence is often the only truly final arbitration available to victims (genuine or otherwise) in the international anarchistic system (Flauto, 1999; Goens, 2017; Marina, 2009; Polka & Litchka, 2008; Weed, 1990).

Although Bernard et al did not focus on the victimization of groups, his criminological work illustrated how deviant groups form (Bernard et al., 2010). Moving from criminology toward international relations, Vold’s research proved useful when combined with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. If Huntington’s conclusions were reconceptualized using self-identified deviant in-groups based on ever-shifting in-group attractions, data about violence could explain both his cultural clash model and other forms of group violence that his model does not address.

Perliger and Milton (2016) from the US Military Academy’s Combatting Terrorism Center attempted to develop a life cycle of terrorist self-identification and radicalism. A review of existing models of radicalization revealed that most have a similar structure of three general stages:

  1. The first stage includes an increase in political awareness and political knowledge and efficacy. In this stage, the individual develops political and social perceptions usually related to his own sense of political or social deprivation [emphasis added] that trigger him to look for viable answers to perceived injustice or deprivation [emphasis added]. These answers, in many cases, are provided by his close social network.
  2. The second stage usually includes the growing affinity of the individual to a specific religious or ideological framework that seems to provide answers and channel his growing frustration into actual political activism [emphasis added]. This is manifested in his growing interest in the activities of a specific group, increasing interest in the group’s ideology, and seeking of opportunities to become more politically active, including the decision to travel to areas of conflict in the case of foreign fighters.
  3. The next stage relates to actually joining a militant group, further internalizing its ideology, and the increasing willingness to engage in extreme activities, including violent ones (Perliger & Milton, 2016, p. 8).

Perliger and Milton also found evidence that “suggests the possibility of relative deprivation playing a role in the radicalization process. Some individuals may be more susceptible to the narratives of fulfillment offered by jihadi groups if they feel that their current situation is below what their qualifications seem to indicate that they deserve” (2016, p. 18).

Behaviorist philosophers such as Eric Hoffer claimed individuals who make up mass movements are subconsciously afraid of freedom and actively seek out leadership that unites them, gives them a common hatred, ennobles them as followers, and frees them from personal responsibility (Shattell & Darmoc, 2017; Shields, 2004; Yilmaz, 2017). Other prominent theorists on group violence, such as Samuel Johnson and Hannah Arendt, looked at power as a variable when attempting to understand group violence. They assumed that the frustrations associated with either goal denial by powerful leaders or loss of previously held power were the impetus for organized violent conflict outside of both criminology’s deviant group models and the realist, liberalist, or constructivist models of international relations (Arendt, 1970; Johnson, 1982).

Samuel Huntington theorized that the post-Cold-War conflict landscape would be based on civilizational fault lines, as he expressed in The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington broke the world into nine major civilizations and predicted that future conflict would occur where these civilizations met (fault lines) (Huntington, 2011). Huntington’s theory appears incomplete not because its major elemental constructions are falsifiable, but because its units of analysis and the specificity of its in-group determinants of civilizational composition were too rigid. When studying the many nuanced groups involved in a violent conflict, a more refined model of group identification is required. Group violence is based on both the identity of each individual and the strength of the identity compared to other competing affiliations. This author can simultaneously identify with American, Irish, Protestant, military, Japanese, and Southern in-groups with varying degrees of strength. If conflict exists between any of these groups, the strength of the in-group affiliations affects which in-group identity I “wear” at any given moment. Warfare is the ultimate litmus test of these affiliations, as demonstrated by the Japanese Americans who became fierce warriors for the US Army against their “civilization” of Japan in World War II (Cooper, 2000).

At intermediate units of analysis (such as clans or tribes) there exist conflicts that are far deadlier than the intercivilizational wars predicted by Huntington. The underlying argument by Huntington, that people identify with civilizations and that those civilizations clash, is true at this unit of analysis only if the “civilization” is reduced; in the case of the Rwandan genocide, for example, the “civilization” is reduced from African to the Hutu and Tutsi tribes (Huntington, 2011).

At the largest units of analysis, a multipolar civilization-based world requires not Huntington’s nine civilizations but an almost infinite matrix of organizations and identities. Conflict will continue along civilizational lines; however, the civilizations will not always be clear and should be defined as demographic, ideologic, or cultural in-groups. When the United States invaded Iraq, segments of both the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam united to oppose the US occupation. With decreasing US presence, their in-group affiliation with Islam appeared to weaken relative to their in-group affiliations to the two sects.

For example, after 9/11, the majority of Americans appeared to affiliate strongly with the American national identity (Burgo, 2013). Burgo referred to the unification phenomenon as splitting, a psychological defense mechanism. Splitting refers to a shift to black-and-white thinking following events like 9/11 in order to resolve the “unbearable ambiguity: when we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity, we ‘resolve’ that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts” (Burgo, 2013). Thus the unity of the country increased, peaked at some point, and—in the absence of any new great threats to those who self-identified strongly as Americans—will continue to wane as other affiliations gain importance within the population.

Psychological Literature

Psychological theories of interpersonal victimization were developed by Zur, Sykes, and Matthews (2013; 1992; 1995). Combining these interpersonal psychological models with strategic security and international relations frameworks led to the themes developed and presented.

The aspect of victimization, including interpersonal marginalization, that is of interest to conflict theorists consists of the normal observed human reactions to both real or perceived microvictimization (Averdijk, Van Gelder, Eisner, & Ribeaud, 2016; Cho, 2017; Coleman, 2005; DeCamp & Newby, 2015; Fedurek, Slocombe, & Zuberbühler, 2015; Frey, Pearson, & Cohen, 2015; Gollwitzer, Braun, Funk, & Süssenbach, 2016). Matthews et al. focused on a victim’s reaction and the mental shift that occurs allowing the victim to internalize a cognitive framework that justifies his or her abuse of others, often called the victim–offender overlap (Posick & Zimmerman, 2015; Pyrooz, Moule Jr, & Decker, 2014; Reingle, 2014).

The victim identity is a psychological construct in which a persistent state of victimization changes a persons’ psychology; people in such cases identify themselves with the traits of a perpetual victim. A perpetual victim loses his or her sense of ability to overcome the situation, and this makes violent retaliation more palatable, especially when the cloak of the victim removes personal responsibility (Zur, 1995).

In Emotional Intelligence, Coleman found that moments when humans were observed to allow emotion to overcome reason were due to the brain’s amygdala, which scans all senses even before the cortex for signs of danger: When it finds one it reacts instantly to counter it, even before logical thought begins (Coleman, 2005). Coleman also found a universal trigger for anger that resulted from the reaction of the amygdala, thus demonstrating a linkage between a perceived threat and retaliation. This led to those who were primed for rage perceiving completely innocent gestures as threatening. Those who did not feel themselves capable of countering a threat, and were thus convinced they were about to die, were the ones who developed PTSD: “It’s the feeling that your life is in danger and there’s nothing you can do to escape it [emphasis in original]—that’s the moment the brain change begins” (Coleman, 2005, p. 204).

Social Psychological Literature

Social psychological results on group identity and group victimization provided additional elements of the group self-identification, group organization, and group macrovictimization processes (Carvalho, 2016; CostaFont & Cowell, 2015; Haslam & Turner, 2014; Hogg, 2016; Hogg, Abrams, & Brewer, 2017; Jenkins, 2014; Junger, 2016; Mawson et al., 2015; Steffens, Haslam, Jetten, & Mols, 2018; Tajfel, 2010). Henri Tajfel indicated that group strength could be measured by observing and coding the visibility of the in-group’s identity within a larger society, the geographical proximity of group members, the goal alignment of group members, the level of abstraction used by the in-group, and the level of accentuation or homogeneity within the group itself (Carter, Drury, & Amlôt, 2018; Carvalho, 2016; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2014; Steffens, Haslam, & Reicher, 2014; Stewart et al., 2016; Teng, 2017; Thomas et al., 2015; Trepte & Loy, 2017; von Sivers, Templeton, Köster, Drury, & Philippides, 2014).

The results of Tajfel’s studies suggested that social cohesion has little or no link to group formation; instead, social identification was strongly correlated to group formation. In short, an individual’s perception that he or she belonged a group was a much stronger predictor of group formation than the actual compatibility of in-group personalities (Fransen et al., 2015; Tavits & Potter, 2015; Thomas et al., 2015). Shared threats and in-group failures increased in-group cohesiveness significantly. In essence, empirical evidence indicated two things: (a) members of an in-group (regardless of how it is formed) discriminate against out-groups, and (b) in-group fears and tragedies increase in-group adhesion and out-group discrimination (Devine, 2015; Fransen et al., 2015; Guo & Li, 2016; Leavitt & Sluss, 2015; Mawson et al., 2015; Stewart et al., 2016).

James Waller was inspired by Hannah Arendt’s famous quote about the Holocaust describing the “banality of evil” that later became the title of a book (Arendt, 1964; Waller, 2007). In Becoming Evil, one of Waller’s more disturbing conclusions was that Arendt was correct: Ordinary people are capable of committing extraordinary evil. In fact, the monsters who could kill millions of Jews in Germany or Tutsi’s in Rwanda were typically able to resume a fairly normal life afterwards.

While a VIM-type violent mass movement does not need a belief in an all-powerful and benevolent god, it certainly requires a belief in a “devil” (Hoffer, 1951). That devil must be actively tormenting the in-group victims and thus warrant a violent response. The real mechanism of injury of these movements is the belief by large proportions of their members that they are being victimized (even if only by proxy).


The VIM is based on variables that reflect both in-group self-identification and perceived in-group victimization at the hands of an out-group aggressor, even when victimization is not actually experienced firsthand by all in-group members. Qualitative coding, theme development, and pattern analysis determined the qualitative presence or absence of overlap between the three main variables of the VIM: leadership, social identity, and macrovictimization. One variable overlaps with another if there were terms within the literature that link the variables. The meta-analysis theme-development process relies on related subjects overlapping more than unrelated subjects in the literature. The goal was to code the primary data set for phenomenological overlap to see if the psychological victim identity behavioral models can be extended to larger units of analysis.

Victimization by proxy is also known as macrovictimization, and it is the process by which directly victimized individuals effectively express how their microvictimization was really a victimization of all in-group members, creating strong feelings of empathy with like-minded in-group members. Macrovictimization may be reinforced by leaders who are capable of articulating this victimization to the group. This process creates macrovictims, who have never been directly victimized but who may experience the same lowering of inhibitions against violence as microvictims do. Macrovictimization seems to create groups of psychologically normal people who are willing to commit violence against out-group members without ever having been directly wronged by their perceived aggressors.

Research Design

I created an initial list of seminal literature to review. My goal was twofold: (a) to select as many primary sources of the various theories referenced in the initial seminal literature list as possible and (b) to research back chronologically to the origins of the various theories presented in the course literature.

To measure seminal literature overlap, I first grouped the topic’s disparate main thematic variables into the three main subject-level variables, and then divided the main variables into subvariables. The main potentially correlated variables of the VIM are in-group leadership, strength of in-group identity, and the magnitude of in-group victimization, otherwise referred to as macrovictimization. These variables appear to be related and self-reinforcing; it appeared that increased strength of one variable led to increases in other variables. These major variables assess the group violence phenomenon under study by combining the in-group’s ability to organize and obtain its goals with its propensity to commit organized violence against perceived victimizers.

Terminological analysis is “the discipline concerned with the formation, description and naming of concepts in specialized fields of knowledge . . . it is normally preceded by knowledge acquisition (usually not formalized), and followed by document preparation” (Skuce & Meyer, 1990). Terminological analysis is performed by detecting themes, inconsistencies, relationships, and textual representations in source literature. The lack of leadership subvariables meant that it could be terminologically analyzed directly. A group has or does not have a leader, a widely accepted vision, and regular communication documenting the vision.

The other two major variables needed further decomposition into subvariables, which were found to be easier to define, measure, and relate to the VIM via terminological analysis (Devine, 2015; Doosje et al., 2002; Goens, 2017; Haslam et al., 1995; Haslam & Turner, 2014; Hoffer, 1951; Hogg & Reid, 2006; Jenkins, 2014; Matthews, 2011; Mawson et al., 2015; Nauroth et al., 2015; Postmes & Branscombe, 2010; Reingle, 2014; Sykes, 1992; Tajfel, 2010; Trepte & Loy, 2017; Turner & Oakes, 1986; Turner & Onorato, 1999; Zur, 1995).

For the strength of in-group identity main variable, the subvariables were

  • visibility of group identity,
  • geographical proximity,
  • goal alignment,
  • level of abstraction, and
  • level of accentuation.

The macrovictimization main variable was decomposed into the subvariables of

  • proximity of victimization,
  • severity of victimization, and
  • immediacy of the victimizer threat to the in-group.

For example, in Figure 1, from Waller’s book Becoming Evil, the reference to Hutu insiders would lead this author to code for the presence of macrovictimization in sociological or social identity literature, because the increasing proximity of the threat of Hutu insiders to the supposed Tutsi victimization.


Figure 1. Becoming Evil screen capture (Waller, 2007, p. 2505).

The following subvariable definitions illustrate the combinations of main variable facets that comprise the main variables of the VIM.

The variable of leadership’s ability to express victimization to the masses / express the group’s vision is coded as L and is not further divided.

The variable of strength of identity subvariables are

  • visibility of group identity (high = we look exactly the same, I can visually spot members of my group; low = our group has many physical differences and I cannot tell members of my group by sight);
  • geographical proximity (high = same building; low = linked only by technology);
  • goal alignment (high = our group’s goals are exactly the same; low = we have many different goals within the group);
  • level of abstraction (high = me; low = all humans); and
  • level of accentuation (high = our group is totally homogeneous and unique; low = our group has many things in common with out-groups and our in-group has differences internally).

The variable of level of macrovictimization subvariables are

  • proximity of victimization (high = intimate primary knowledge of victimization; low = no primary knowledge of victimization, only secondary knowledge);
  • severity of victimization (high = in-group genocide; low = nonviolent harassment); and
  • immediacy of threat (high = imminent; low = unknown future threat).

Part of the challenge to understanding and coding the severity of macrovictimization is the inevitable difference that occurs between the perspectives of in-group members and out-group observers. Ultimately an individual’s perspective of their reality becomes their actual reality in terms of observable cognitive reactions and behaviors of that individual (Tornow, 1993). This helps explain why “we” do not think anything is wrong, but “they” feel a grave injustice has been done and an existential threat exists, both of which require immediate and severe retribution to preserve the existence of the macrovictimized group (Plato & Jowett, 1991). Objectivity is not detrimental overall, but failure to appreciate the psychological states of in-group members may lead to underestimation of the stresses in play that promote a macrovictimization mindset and may lead to a lowering of inhibitions against violence. Understanding of the apparent relationships between the variables is far from complete, and I urge other researchers to refine any gaps in the definition of the model and its variables.

Qualitative Research

Coding of the source material served two important goals. First, the coding created a matrix that could be used to measure the qualitative strength of the descriptive text. Second, the activity of subvariable definition and literature coding created an opportunity to look for previously undiagnosed linkages between disparate models of human behavior.

I grouped the seminal literature according to the three main variables, during meta-analysis, I coded each subvariable found and placed it in one of the three main variable groups. A subvariable that differed from the main variable of the source indicated an instance of literature overlap. The works in the first collection of literature analyzed were those that would be typically be categorized as either sociology or social identity.

Table 1

Social Identity Seminal Literature Coding


Total Pages

Leadership References

Macrovictimization References

Social Identity Pages

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing





Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis





On Killing





On Violence





Rediscovering Social Identity





Revolutionary Change





Social Identity and Intergroup Relations





Social Identity as Both Cause and Effect





Social Identity, Personality, and the Self-Concept: A Self-Categorization Perspective





The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order





The Significance of the Social Identity Concept for Social Psychology With Reference to Individualism, Interactionism and Social Influence





The Transformation of War





Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging










Table 1. Social Identity Literature

By coding the 3,387 pages of total literature in this subject area and deducting a page from the 3,387 total for each page determined the overlap. Out of the 3,387 pages, 138 referenced leadership and 407 referenced macrovictimization. After deducting these pages of subject overlap, 2,842 pages remained in the social identity part of the overlap matrix. I repeated the process for the smaller bodies of work on leadership and macrovictimization.

Table 2

Leadership Seminal Literature Coding


Total Pages

Macrovictimization References

Social Identity References

Leadership References

Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis





FM 6-0, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces





2014 Maneuver Warfighter Conference—General Stanley McChrystal





Chinese Military Modernization: Force Development and Strategic Capabilities





Why Arabs Lose Wars





The True Believer





Men Against Fire





Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World










Table 2. Leadership




Table 3

Macrovictimization Seminal Literature


Total Pages

Leadership References

Social Identity References

Macrovictimization References

Let's Focus on Victim Justice, Not Criminal Justice





Large-Scale Victimisation as a Potential Source of Terrorist Activities





The Victim Identity





A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character





Rethinking ‘Don't Blame the Victim’ the Psychology of Victimhood





The Theory of Moral Sentiments





Microaggression or Neglect?





Believing That Life Is Fair Might Make You a Terrible Person










Table 3. Macrovictimization

Presence or absence of each subvariable should not be confused with importance, I assessed only frequency of mentions, not importance. The final qualitative matrix of subject overlap was therefore determined by a meta-analysis of both the number of pages within each initial subject that did not overlap with other subjects and the number of pages that overlapped with other subjects. The VIM matrix may be an indicator that some subvariables and variables overlap more than others, indicating variation of the strength of their relationships within the seminal literature to group violence.




The qualitative analysis of the seminal literature relating to the VIM (consisting of meta-analysis and cross-model linkage overlap) reinforced the grounded theory deductive process. The VIM’s main and subvariables were present at all levels of conflict and historical periods (trinitarian and nontrinitarian).

Table 4 illustrates some interesting qualitative findings from the seminal literature meta-analysis and overlap results.

Table 4

Seminal Literature Overlap


Related Topic

Sociology / Social Identity




Commonality % Base Subject

Book Topic

Sociology / Social Identity



























Commonality % Overlap






Table 4. Seminal Literature Overlap

The green cells represent the total counts of the remaining nonoverlapped pages from each of the three base subjects after the literature coding process, as summarized in Tables 1–3. The orange cells indicate pages that were coded in one of the other subject areas and so were instances of subject overlap. When a page of seminal literature was coded as an instance of overlap, it was subtracted from the base count of subject pages. If one assumes that overlap of two subject areas indicates closeness between the subjects, such as may occur between mathematics and physics, then the consistency of these overlaps may indicate levels of closeness. Seminal literature from the leadership and macrovictimization subjects were similarly and consistently overlapped across the seminal literature.

This study may serve more as an opening salvo of intellectual thought than as the conclusion of a deterministic grounded theory process; however, a new theoretical model or field of study provides enormous opportunity for other scholars to engage in the process of discovery.

Research Question Analysis

Does a person’s sense of victimization increase the likelihood of retaliatory violence?

 According to the psychological evidence across the spectrum of individual and social psychological research, a person’s sense of individual victimization does decrease his or her personal inhibitions against retaliation and increase his or her desire to retaliate by means up to and including violence. This process has been observed in individuals who were otherwise psychologically healthy. A persistent sense of individual victimization has also been found in people who were not psychologically healthy. The persistent sense of victimization, or victim identity, and its consequent reduction in inhibition of violence concerns many psychologists.

If so, can a person have an equally strong reaction if they are not directly victimized?

Research has indicated that military units that have recently experienced a macrovictimization event fire their weapons in statistically higher numbers than other US soldiers and are more likely to commit war crimes. Anecdotal evidence, such as recruitment numbers after 9/11 and evidence provided by Tajfel, support the same conclusion in non-US military populations. It is likely that people who are not directly victimized can still experience the same lowering of inhibitions against violence and increase in desire to retaliate by violent means as those who are directly victimized.

Does the victimization of fellow in-group members create this same reaction?

SIM research provides overwhelming evidence that once group members self-identify with their in-group, they actually subsume their group identity into their self-identity. SIM researchers also demonstrated authoritatively that in-groups naturally end up discriminating against out-groups even when it proves detrimental to the in-group itself. These results indicate that in-group members feel strong bonds of attachment to each other. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it is reasonable to suppose that victimization of in-group members creates an equally strong victimization reaction among other in-group members who have already partly combined their identities with that of the group.

Does an organization’s ability to convince its self-identified in-group members of their victim status increase the likelihood of group-wide retaliation?

The evidence supporting the role of in-group leaders in expressing and amplifying the group’s macrovictimization level is less clear. Leadership has been shown to be an effective message disseminator and influencer of in-group thoughts; however, the only evidence that this specifically includes macrovictimization of in-group members is in the writings of the leaders themselves, and the impact of these writings on group members is harder to measure. At a minimum, in-group leaders have definitely tried to convince group members of their macrovictimization through communication of the in-group macrovictimization itself, and it can be reasonably assumed at least some leaders are successful in this process.

Does the macrovictimization phenomenon coincide with organized group violence?

Based on the seminal literature subject overlap matrix it appears more likely than not that macrovictimization coincides with an increase in organized group violence undertaken in the name of retaliation or self-defense. It appears likely that the observations of conflict theorists documented in seminal literature throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have recorded macrovictimization’s effects on the level of in-group participation in apithological violence against perceived out-group oppressors. Additionally, it appears more likely than not that people who are predisposed to seek out mass movements are much more likely to become macrovictimized due to a myriad of psychological and sociological factors present and expressed by their participatory in-group behaviors.


If an individual’s reality is based on his or her perspective, then macrovictimization is not a specific action but rather is defined in the mind (Plato & Jowett, 1991). It is important to remember the subjective aspect of victimization, because groups and individuals who make up an in-group or an out-group do not necessarily adhere to the same set of values. Judging the presence or absence of macrovictimization in a given situation without exercising empathy may lead to false conclusions. Americans may not feel that they have victimized the Middle East, but that in no way reduces the perspectival reality of many Middle Eastern people who feel that they have been severely victimized by the west, in general, and America, in particular.

Individual victimization stems from an event that the individual’s mind interprets to be evil, unfair, or unethical. In contrast to natural misfortunes, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, victimization events aggrieve the victim because there is perceived intent on the part of the victimizer. Particularly in western countries,

when violence occurs and victims suffer, or when inequalities exist, it is interpreted not as an act of God or a manifestation of karma, but as a failure that must be corrected. This view of “failure” readily leads to victimhood and blame (Zur, 1995).

Depending on an individual’s locus of control (the degree to the individual feels that he or she has control over life), the individual may struggle to overcome victimization. Those with a high internal locus of control view themselves as able to overcome misfortune and typically do not suffer from the long-term effects of victimization.

Integrating Into Existing System Models

Combining the theoretical themes of the VIM with existing widely accepted conflict models tends to make their overall postulations stronger, though this may mean that the VIM is not a complete model on its own. For example, integrating the VIM into trinitarian warfare may help to explain the decline in trinitarian warfare in modern history. It is possible that the decline of Clausewitzian-style total warfare after World War II is the direct result of the ability of the nuclear deterrents of first world nation-states to render first world powers impotent to victimize each other directly for fear of nuclear escalation that would lead to global annihilation. Consequently, conventional warfare between first world nation-states may be less likely because there is less perceived victimization that would rally nation-state in-group macrovictims to take up a violent cause against another first world nation-state (Van Creveld, 1991).

Modern conventional nation-states are more likely to conduct wars against intrastate or stateless aggressors—counterinsurgency operations or counterterrorism, for example. In lieu of the traditional nation-state existential macrovictim mentality that the United States experienced during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the current American macrovictimization process is a fairly intense version of the macrovictim identity that followed 9/11. However, because America’s enemies are weaker and do not pose a real existential threat, US rhetoric is more important.

The macrovictimization of the west by terrorist attacks from within coupled with the rhetoric used since 9/11 are mutually reinforcing the mindset that leads to western intervention in the Middle East, which in turn causes many Muslim’s across the globe to believe that their in-group is being victimized by these invading groups from the west. Total war may be declining, but it is rapidly being replaced by a perpetual war, one in which the United States cannot predict where the next attack will occur.


Description automatically generatedFigure 3. Victim Identity Model Venn diagram.

The VIM is a theory that may establish many of the conditions that lead to macrovictimization and posits that these causes are likely to lead to organized group violence in psychologically apithological individuals. Therefore, the VIM may have implications for policy makers at multiple levels of governance in both state and nonstate organizations.

Conflict and warfare tend to occur when a members self-identify with an in-group, experience macrovictimization’s violence inhibition lowering effect. Society and leaders should understand the relationship between the VIM and potential violence. As the Venn diagram in Figure 3 indicates, groups that score high for only two of the three major variables of the VIM seem less prone to violence than groups that score high for all of them.

The American war in Vietnam is an excellent example of what tends to occur when in-group leadership is unable to convince enough of the group’s members of their macrovictimization; the loss of in-group popular support made the war impossible to execute (McMaster & Williams, 1997). Pathologically violent leaders will likely always exist, but if society at large can remove or limit the macrovictimization process that the VIM indicates is a key cause of group violence, those leaders may find people less willing to go to war with them.


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About the Author(s)

Dr. Kane Tomlin is a former US Army Master Diver, Special Programs Director for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a current executive consultant with the state of Florida. Professor Tomlin teaches Applied Cybersecurity, National Security, Domestic Terrorism, and Emergency Management at Excelsior College in Albany, NY.  Kane has deployed twice to Iraq (in 06-07-08 and 10-11) and has worked extensively around the globe while a member of the Army’s Engineer Dive Teams.