Blaming the Victim, by William Ryan

Taking a look at a “Brilliant Expose”

Book review by Daniel Fuller

Blaming the victim, by William Ryan, is an often cited book in health promotion. The exposure and detailed explanation of the victim blaming ideology, in part, frames a critique of individual psychological approaches and the need to for population based prevention. Ryan suggests that there are two dominant views of social problems and solutions, exceptionalism and universalism. Exceptionalism is viewed as “private, voluntary, remedial, special, local and exclusive. The problems are unusual, unique, they are exceptions to the rule, they occur as a result of individual defect, accident or unfortunate circumstance and must be remedied by means that are particular and as it were, tailored to the individual.” Universalism views social problems as “public, legislated, promotive or preventive, general, national and inclusive.” Social problems are a function of the social arrangements of the community or society. Such problems are both predictable and preventable through public action. “They are not unique to the individual, and the fact that they encompass individual persons does not imply that those persons are defective or abnormal.”

Once the basic tenants of the victim blaming ideology have been established the book devotes subsequent chapters to explore the victim blaming ideology and it’s impact on a variety of social problems. These problems include education, slums, riots, family structure and many more. Ryan’s logic and thoughtful voice clearly explain the folly of the “current” ideology, and in each case, highly relevant solutions are proposed. It is important to note that the “current” ideology is 1960’s United States of America. I read the revised edition and Ryan states in the introduction that the book was a product of it’s time and that times had changed. This may be true but I think it is relevant to revisit this important text in health promotion. The following quotation illustrates my point: “On the general problem of health care a private enterprise solution would be to extend Medicare so as to cover the total population, and to include preventive services, inoculations, periodic checkups, etc. A public action solution would be to institute a publicly run National Health Service (what we shudder about when we say ‘socialized medicine’).” The book was written starting in 1966 and published in 1971, and in my view remains relevant today.

The relevance of the book is based on Ryan’s understanding of social problems and his ability to clearly explain, tear apart and rebuild an argument. This is an important reminder for researchers who are often caught in a race for publications. The work of researchers is to think, and Ryan does this exceptionally well.

Overall, the logical arguments, the historical perspective, and continued relevance make this book a must read for all who are interested social change.

Review Published: June 2010

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