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date: 04 December 2020

Witnessing and Victimhoodlocked

  • Sandra WalklateSandra WalklateDepartment of Sociology, Social Policy, and Criminology, University of Liverpool


It is without doubt that the 21st century is marked by ever-present 24-hour media. Mobile phones, iPads, and Wi-Fi networks mean that many people in many different parts of the world are “connected” to each other and to global events as they happen in ways not really imagined less than a century ago. Of course the nature of this connectivity is variable. It dominates more in some parts of the world than others, in urban areas more than rural, among wealthier communities more than poorer ones, and perhaps among younger people more than older people. Such variations notwithstanding, it is the case that the minute-by-minute live reporting of events, as they happen, exposes the nature of those events to people not necessarily close to them or impacted by them, albeit vicariously. Such exposure means that people are potentially witnesses to events and images they would not otherwise have experience of. It is within this context this article considers the concepts of victim, witness, and the linkages between them.

The concept of the witness has a varied history, from its presence in the law, to its connections with religious affiliation, to its legacy in experiences of atrocity. These different historical legacies are suggestive of different claims to victimhood. Simultaneously, these different claims to the status of victim (who constitutes a victim and under what conditions) have become conflated. In mapping the trajectories of each of these concepts, it is possible to discern considerable fuzziness in the relationship between victim and witness, suggestive of a continuum from the victim as witness to the witness as victim. Moreover, when these two concepts are put in such a relationship with each other, it is possible to observe how transgressive capacity takes its toll on people, how to make sense of the issues that concern them, and how best to respond to those concerns. This article considers the questions posed by the relationship between being a victim and being a witness, paying particular attention to who is and who is not considered to have a legitimate claim to victim status, and the role of ever-present media coverage in contributing to such claims and/or even creating them.

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