Sociology of Domestic Violence Research Paper

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The issue of ‘domestic violence’ is an important area of public, political, and academic concern that goes to the heart of the institution of the family and marriage and of gender relations between men and women. It encompasses public and private life as well as social, political, and economic institutions. At the social level, it involves ideological beliefs and institutional policies and practices. At the individual level, it involves personal attitudes and prejudices as well as individual behavior and conventions of daily life.

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The area is characterized by a history of recent, rapid, social change in institutional policy and practice and is steeped in controversy. There have been political, ideological, and academic controversies about the term itself, the definition of the phenomenon, the nature of the problem, research methods used in its study, findings about the nature and occurrence of the problem, and about the focus and effectiveness of social and legal interventions. Since its rediscovery in Britain and the USA in the early 1970s, virtually every aspect of this issue has been the subject of development and the object of debate not only within the academic community but also across a wide spectrum of society as the media, community activists, academic researchers, and policy makers have taken different positions and entered into sustained and sometimes heated debates. The lively nature of this very important social issue warrants further examination of each of the issues touched upon within this characterization which, by virtue of its it brevity, can only introduce each topic and provide a broad view of it.

1. Definition

The terms wife beating, battered wives, wife abuse, woman abuse, spouse abuse, partner violence, family violence, and domestic violence have all been used to describe this phenomenon and have themselves been the topic of debate and controversy. Two main issues have been at stake: (a) the terms reflect different conceptions of intimate relationships between men and women, with some terms reflecting the idea of formal marriage while others encompass long-term intimate relationship without the formal sanction of marriage; and (b) the terms reflect different conceptions of the phenomenon, as male violence, mutual violence, or female violence. Both of these general issues were the subject of considerable debate when the problem was rediscovered, described, and named. While the term ‘wife abuse’ contained a clear imagery of men’s violence against a woman partner, it also contained notions of formal marriage as a necessary condition of concern and attention. By contrast, the term ‘domestic violence’ included the notion of state and nonstate sanctioned relationships but lost the conception of gender asymmetry in the perpetration of the violence. For reasons of popular usage rather than resolution of these debates, the term ‘domestic violence’ became the term in common usage throughout most of the world.

2. History

Very ancient customs, beliefs, and laws dating back to the early Roman empire and many of the first conventions of marriage, allowed a husband to kill his wife for infidelity and serious challenges to male authority, these ‘rights’ were slowly eroded over time through the development of Canon law and the gradual alteration of legal systems in Europe and Britain to punishments allowing chastisement that did not kill or maim. In 1765, Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England noted that conventional cultural beliefs and common legal practices endorsed a man’s right to use ‘moderate’ chastisement against his wife. Blackstone’s Commentaries codified this patriarchal right and thus confirmed a husband’s authority over his wife for a considerable period of time. Such ideals and legal views crossed the Atlantic with some of the pioneers who brought familiar social attitudes and legal systems to the newly forming nations of North America. While there were some departures from this position it, nonetheless, constituted the normative position in many European and North American cultures across a fairly long period of time. Indeed, contemporary evidence from a wide range of societies, reveals strong cultural beliefs expressing such ideals, often endorsed by legal practices which illustrate direct support for ‘wife-beating’ or at best weak reactions to its victims and perpetrators.

In European and North American societies, the history of challenges to and changes in social and institutional responses to the problem, is punctuated by three historical periods in which domestic violence was discovered anew and obtained widespread recognition as a social problem. Recognition eventually resulted in changes in the laws regulating the institution of marriage and the family as well as developments in the responses of agencies of the state, particularly law and law enforcement, but also in economic, political, and social institutions.

In the 1870s, 1910s, and 1970s, the problem of ‘wife beating’ was discovered by women in Britain and North America who were engaged in more general campaigns for changes in women’s marital, economic, political, and/or social status. Over this time period, wider campaigns about changes within the family and marriage (such as, the ability of women to own their own property, or to obtain a divorce for excessive cruelty—1870s), about changes in the political status of women (the right to vote—early 1900s), about changes in the economic status of women (equal pay and equal opportunities within the job market— 1970s) and changes in social relations between men and women in general each spawned an interest in the specific issue of physical violence against women within the home, usually by intimate, male partners husbands within the context of marriage. At each of these junctures, radical community groups (usually though not always feminist) were formed, there were public protests, public recognition was increased, the agencies of the state were challenged and responded with public hearings, legislation, and various new policies and practices. After the first two periods of recognition and public response, the issue was soon forgotten and was marked by a return to an older, established status quo in which men maintained social, political, and economic authority over women throughout society and particularly within the institution of family and marriage where this right could be exercised legally and morally through the use of violence against women wives for various real or perceived violations of male authority.

The third period of challenge began in the 1970s, again in Britain and the USA and, rather than being forgotten after a brief period of interest, has instead continued to expand and develop throughout much of the world. Public awareness of the issue and community and state responses to it are now global, resulting in violence against women being defined by the United Nations as an issue of human rights and social justice. At present, many, although certainly not all, societies have experienced challenges to the complacency and social and institutional tolerance that once prevailed and in many countries new laws and institutional practices have been initiated.

3. The Nature Of The Problem, Research Methods, And Findings

Controversies about the nature of the problem itself have been intense and are intertwined in other controversies about research methods and resulting findings. The debates regarding these issues were apparent at the onset of the rediscovery process and have altered little since, although the amount and type of research grew at a tremendous rate in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Debates about the phenomenon itself center on whether the violence is asymmetrical in nature (men as the most usual perpetrators, with women the usual victims) or symmetrical (women and men as equally violent toward one another). Debates about research methods have focused on whether one method should supersede all others in producing the ‘best’ or indeed the only findings of value in answering the question of ‘who is violent to whom.’ One camp has claimed variously that only surveys based on national probability samples produce valid and reliable findings. Research using this approach has focused on questions of the prevalence of this form of violence in the population and on the relative levels of violence of men and women. Others defend the use of a wide variety of research strategies which include historical studies showing continuities and changes in patriarchal beliefs and institutional practices over time and ethnographic studies with an intensive focus upon cultural practices as well as the more traditional sociological approaches of victim surveys, criminal statistics, intensive interview studies, studies of strategic sites, and evaluations of new interventions. Proponents of the broad based sociological and contextual approaches claim that such studies address more pressing and relevant questions about the problem such as ‘what is the exact nature of the violence,’ ‘how are victims and offenders processed by agencies of the state,’ and ‘what works at stopping violence.’ Such investigations also attempt to examine in detail the contextual dynamics of violent episodes and violent relationships as well as the meaning and consequences of being a victim and/or perpetrator.

Survey research, particularly in the US, has relied primarily on a single measurement tool that only attempts to assess violent acts with little or no concern for the intentions, meanings, and consequences associated with these acts. The resulting findings of these assessments appear to demonstrate symmetry in the perpetration of domestic violence, with women equally or more violent than their male partners. A corollary of the claims of symmetry in domestic violence is that theoretical accounts will be gender neutral, based on the conclusion that gender is not related to differential rates of violence within intimate relationships. Other surveys and more intensive research methods, not based on these purely act-based measurements, whether used in the US or elsewhere, show asymmetry in domestic violence, with men the most likely perpetrators and women the most likely victims. Predictably, these contradictory findings have resulted in considerable controversy with claims and counterclaims regarding the validity and reliability of this single type of measurement and scepticism regarding the veracity of findings produced by this type of research.

Over time, controversy about the simple question of ‘symmetry–asymmetry’—who perpetrates the majority of violent acts (men or women)—has become more complex with the addition of further research questions regarding who is most likely to be responding in self-defense, to be harmed, to live in fear, and to experience other consequences of violence as well as additional research efforts to differentiate violent acts from acts of verbal aggression or mere conflicts between partners.

Despite the controversies in the area of domestic violence, there is a growing body of evidence-based literature that identifies strong and consistent patterns across cultures and historical periods. Most researchers and policy makers now agree that the problem of domestic violence is primarily one of men’s violence against women in state as well as nonstate sanctioned relationships. Evidence suggests that serious, malevolent violence is perpetrated largely by men and often results in serious injuries. Survey research in several countries indicates that at least a quarter of all women who have lived in marital and marital-like relationships with men report at least one incident of violence and a considerable proportion of these women report repeated violence. It is now clear that men’s violence also includes acts of sexual aggression and rape; research indicates that a fair proportion of women experience forced sexual relations and rape by intimate male partners, and women who experience physical assaults are also likely to experience sexual violence. Homicide statistics further suggest that women are most at risk of lethal violence from male partners; research in Britain and North America reveals that every year 40 to 50 percent of all women who are killed, are killed by intimate partners and expartners. By contrast, very few men are killed by their women partners. Men’s violence directed at women in the domestic setting also is linked intrinsically to other techniques and strategies of intimidation and control, such as threatening violence and restricting and/or closely monitoring women’s activities.

Intensive and extensive research has identified the risk factors associated with lethal and nonlethal violence against women in the home. Although this violence occurs at all levels of society, higher rates are apparent among the economically and educationally disadvantaged. Young women and those living in nonstate sanctioned relationships are more at risk than older and married women. Situational risks include high levels of conflict, jealousy, sexual proprietariness among male partners, and alcohol abuse. Risk of serious nonlethal and lethal violence is also associated with separation and women’s attempts to leave violent relationships. In the 1970s investigations of policy and institutional practices revealed considerable failure on the part of legal and social agencies to provide support and protection for victims and children and a considerable reluctance to deal with male perpetrators. More recent research has charted the changes in policy and practices and revealed that some developments have resulted in decreased risks of violence and important benefits to women and children.

4. Theoretical Accounts

Theoretical explanations of domestic violence predictably have included a plethora of competing, at times contradictory, accounts, ranging from the sociocultural to the individualistic. Sociological, usually feminist, explanatory frameworks stress the historical and contemporary existence of male violence across almost all societies and locate its perpetration within patriarchal ideals and practices, emphasizing male power and control. In these accounts, violence is seen as functional, a resource used in men’s attempts to enforce and maintain their domination and control, with conflicts associated with male jealousy, household labor, and economic resources constituting the contexts of violent events. Other sociologically-based gender-neutral accounts emphasize power but note that this social attribute is not skewed toward either gender—men and women possess significant amounts of power—and the symmetrical violence which occurs is an expression of such power. Variants of ‘genderneutral’ explanations of domestic violence emphasize the importance of individual psychology and/or social traits that are deemed to have similar effects on the violence of men and women alike, these include, stress, frustration, socialization into (sub)cultures of violence, poor anger control, and impoverished social skills. Evolutionary psychology has challenged the foundations of these sociocultural explanations.

While evolutionary approaches also stress the functional nature of men’s violence and locate it within patriarchal structures, explanations of this violence emphasize a universally evolved male psyche involving male sexual proprietariness toward women. This evolved psyche leads men to attempt to control women through various means including violence. Other, individualistic accounts have emphasized the pathological personalities of violent men.

An important strand in explanatory approaches is attempts to understand the predicament and actions of women who live with violent men. Sociological accounts have emphasized how male violence includes a range of intimidating and controlling acts as well as concerted actions to isolate women from family and friends. Continuous forms of intimidation and isolation make it very difficult for women to seek help, although it is now clear that most women suffering domestic violence engage in active efforts to deal with the violence. The vast majority seek help from family and friends and some also seek assistance from agencies of the state. Despite these efforts, women find it difficult to leave and sociocultural explanations stress men’s threats of further violence, women’s lack of economic and social support, a moral order emphasizing women’s obligations to maintain family unity, and, until very recently, the inadequate responses of agencies of the state. Other commentators, particularly in North America, have proposed the importance of personality disorders in women as the primary reason that they are unable to leave violent relationships. According to these theoretical accounts women who do not leave violent relationships suffer from masochism, relationship addiction, ‘battered woman’ syndrome, and learned helplessness.

By the 1990s and into the 2000s, the enhanced and refined nature of the research questions, along with an increasing concern to evaluate the relative effectiveness of new innovations further expanded the theoretical questions in this area and, consequently, the relevant research strategies. Future research in the area will continue to concentrate on efforts to explain domestic violence and the predicament of the women who experience it as well as more focused questions about the impact of social and legal interventions on the safety of victims and the violence of men. While much of the earliest research was shaped within sociology, criminology, women’s studies, and law, the global expansion of interest in this social problem has been mirrored by an equal expansion of disciplines contributing to its study. In the future research, disciplines such as psychology, healthcare, and medicine will contribute to advances in knowledge about this significant social problem.


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