The ICV Surveys: Crime-busting In 78 Countries

The ICV Surveys: Crime-busting In 78 Countries


You don’t need a survey to know what kinds of crimes happen in your country and how often. All you need to do is talk to the police. They keep records of every crime that is reported to them, and it’s their job to know anyway.

But what if you wanted to compare crime across countries? You could still talk to the various national police forces. Except that not all crime is reported to cops and different countries record – and sometimes even categorize - crime differently.

Not to worry. You could always check out the International Crime Victimization Survey, better known as the ICVS. It covers about 30 countries, categorizes crime uniformly across all those countries, and has been going on for over twenty years. It could very well be the biggest multi-national survey in the world.

This is the story of that survey.

The Survey That Shed New Light On Crime

Sometime in 1987, a group of European crime analysts formed a group to study their pet subject across borders. The idea was quite simple. Different countries had been studying crime for years and had also long figured that police reports were generally alright but insufficient at giving the full picture of crime in any country. So, in different countries, criminologist had been doing surveys to supplement police records.

But, like their cops, different surveyors in different countries had been using different crime categorizations and survey methods. So now the plan was to agree on a standardized crime survey method and, that way, begin conducting one crime survey across Europe. In the correct professional language, the idea was ‘to fill the gap in adequate recording of offenses by the police for purposes of comparing crime rates in different nations, and to provide a crime index independent of police statistics as an alternative standardized measure.’

From the beginning, the group had one strategic advantage, namely that governments generally tend to be interested in crime, and in this case lots of them were involved in forming the group. That was important because, while it may be possible to get rich from crime, it is nearly impossible to make a living from tracking crime without a government paying your bills.

How the International Crime Victimization Survey Was Conducted

By the end of 1987, the group of analysts, now officially known as the international working group, had developed and pilot-tested a questionnaire in several European countries. The questions were translated into the various European languages, with great care to try and stick to normal, every-day language, for good measure. But it was not until 1989 that the project found its feet when, after it was agreed that each country would cover interview costs within its own borders, the Ministry of Justice of the Netherlands agreed to take upon them the other costs.

And so, that same year, the first International Crime Victimization Survey was conducted in 14 countries, including three outside countries with historical links to the Old World – Australia, Canada, and the USA. In an early sign of the survey’s potential to go global, Japan also conducted a similar survey, with minor question adjustments. Poland and Indonesia also dipped their toes in the project with smaller yet similar surveys in Warsaw and Surabaya, respectively.

A Dutch research survey company, Inter/View, was given the job of coordinating the survey.

In each of the 14 countries, about 2,000 people were interviewed by phone and asked questions about 11 kinds of crime, categorized into two types: crime against households, and personal crimes. Household crimes included the obvious, like burglary and attempted burglary, plus the less obvious such as car, motorcycle, and bicycle theft, which could as well have been personal. Personal crime covered the expected, such as threats, assault, robbery, theft of personal property, and sexual assault.

The survey respondents were also asked about police involvement, victim assistance, their fear of crime, and the usual socio-economic questions.

The Results of the first International Crime Victimization Survey

The results of the first ICVS came out in 1989. They have since been reported widely by, among others, two members of the working group, Patricia Mayhew from the Research and Planning Unit of Britain’s Home Office, and Jan van Dijk, then head of the Crime Prevention Directorate at the Netherland’s Ministry of Justice.

The results turned out to be quite interesting. Here, we cover the survey results of just one topic area, car theft, as an example.

Keeping in mind that respondents were asked about their experience in the previous year, it turned out that the safest place to own a car in 1988 was Switzerland, The Netherlands, West Germany, and Finland, in that order. Apparently, you could have practically parked your car anywhere in Switzerland that year with the key still in the ignition and not lost it, since not a single car was stolen there.

On the other hand, England turned out to be the best country for the car theft business, followed by Italy, Australia, France, and the US, in that order. But, interestingly, if you lost your car in England, US, or Australia, chances are you would get it back. Over three-quarters of cars stolen there were recovered. Not so in Italy, where only 42% of stolen cars were recovered. It was also best not to lose your car in West Germany (56%) or The Netherlands (64%).

Further analysis of the results came up with a few inexplicable gems. Like, overall, the chances of you losing a car depended on the availability of bicycles in your town. The more people around you owned bicycles, the safer your car was. And, no, the car theft industry did not respect the supply side of market logic – car theft was more common in countries where more people already owned cars, not the other way round. There was no obvious explanation to that, but the surveyors figured that maybe it was because places with lots of cars were more tempting to joy-rider thieves just looking for a ride to the other side of town.

Controversy Over the First ICV Survey Results

Unlike most other earth-breaking surveys, there was no controversy over the first ICVS results. But the survey team did acknowledge a few weaknesses in their survey methods.

First was that the sample of 1,500 to 2,000 people per country was low, and therefore almost certainly produced a large sampling error. The response rates also varied too greatly across the different countries, with Finland, Switzerland, and Norway posting an impressive 68-70%, while West Germany, USA, and Spain posted a dismal 30-37%. The overall response rate of 41% was clearly not good.

The survey was also faulted – and on this one the criticism came both from within and outside the team – for being limited in scope. The argument was that the survey looked at the common crimes that faced individual citizens, but ignored the more complex and arguably more devastating crimes that affected whole populations, such as bribery.

The Impact of the Survey

The International Crime Victimization Survey of 1989 was a pacesetter. As major surveys go, it did not venture into an entirely unknown territory, because there were already plenty of surveys on crime in individual countries. But it marked the starting point to what is today the world’s leading standardized survey on crime. It has, in fact, spread out to cover a total of 78 countries over all the years, and has since been repeated about once every four years.

In other words, the ICV survey of 1989 was the beginning of the globalization of research survey on crime.

It also ushered in new knowledge on the study of police performance across nations. It offered, for the first time, universal criteria on which to judge how the police handled a wide range of crimes, and how citizens in various countries rated their police forces.

How useful that new knowledge has been, and specifically how it has been used by the various governments and police forces, is unclear. Still, it is difficult not to conclude that some crimes may have been stopped, and maybe even some lives saved, because of reforms and policy measures that have come directly from the results of this survey.

For that reason, the International Crime Victimization Survey of 1989 deserves its place in our list of the great Surveys That Changed the World.

Do you know of an important survey that you would like us to cover? Feel free to send us your suggestions!

Photo credit: Handcuff Warehouse (thanks, Handcuff Warehouse)


Van Dijk, J.J.M., Mayhew, P. & Killias, M. (1990) Experiences of crime across the world: Key findings from the 1989 International Crime Survey, Deventer: Kluwer Law and Taxation

Van Dijk, J.J.M., Van Kesteren, J., Smit, P., Tilburg University, UNICRI & UNODC (2007) Criminal Victimisation in International Perspective: Key Findings from the 2004-2005 ICVS and EU ICS, The Hague, Ministry of Justice, WODC

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