Power and Control in Scholarly Discussion of Domestic Violence

face of a prisoner

Discussion of domestic violence among scholars heavily invested in domestic violence study is an appalling, decades-long spectacle of symbolic violence. Nonetheless, some participants make astonishing efforts to project a facade of normality. Consider, for example, a research brief entitled “Where Do ‘Domestic Violence’ Statistics Come From and Why Do They Vary So Much?” This research brief was issued jointly by the National Healthy Marriage Research Center and the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. The professor-author presented it at a 2009 conference entitled, “Toward a Common Understanding: Domestic Violence Typologies and Implications for Healthy Marriage and Domestic Violence Programs.”

The professor-author ignored grotesque public misunderstanding of domestic violence and focused on scholarly definitional distinctions and typologies. Assuming the position of a disinterested party, the professor-author declared:

Domestic violence advocates and family violence researchers often appear to contradict each other when they describe and report on the extent and nature of intimate partner violence. Although the term “domestic violence” has a very clear specific meaning to advocates working in the domestic violence field, it is used in other ways in other contexts to cover many different types of couple conflict. This paper helps to clarify some of the misunderstandings, errors, and apparent contradictions that derive in part from these differences in language use, in part from not understanding where the statistics come from and what the strengths and limitations of the data are, and in part from wrongly treating “domestic violence” as a single phenomenon.^

Embedded within this verbiage is the claim “the term ‘domestic violence’ has a very clear specific meaning to advocates working in the domestic violence field.” Advocates working in the domestic violence field have a long history of focusing on battered women and ignoring men who are victims of domestic violence. Domestic violence is defined under law in ways that defy common sense. The professor-author is engaged in a struggle for power and control over the use of the phrase “domestic violence”:

I put domestic violence in quotes in the title because the various sources of violence statistics cover multiple types of intimate partner violence, only some of which involve the coercive controlling violence for which battered women’s advocates reserve the term “domestic violence.” The usefulness of various data sources can only be understood if we make some distinctions, and a number of different authors have proposed typologies of intimate partner violence or its perpetrators. All of these typologies have at least some confirmation in empirical work and the striking similarities among them suggest that the field is converging on reality. That reality is about patterns of behavior that go beyond specific violent acts or their consequences, patterns that have to do with issues of power and control.^

Within this verbiage is the suggestion that “the field is converging on reality.” That reality, of course, is power and control. Many persons prefer to believe that the symbolic violence in domestic violence scholarship does not exist, or has stopped. For those who don’t avert their eyes, the reality is clearly otherwise. A leading domestic violence scholar has subsequently issued a thorough scholarly critique of this professor-author’s work. He has responded with a wide-ranging counter-attack.

The professor-author documented the creation of biases in health provider data on causes of injuries. Imposing his definitional typology of domestic violence, he conflated sample characteristics and bias:

The biases of health provider data are more incident-focused, having to do simply with whether a specific incident produces an injury that requires medical attention. They therefore provide a more even mix of the three major types of intimate partner violence. {sic} There are also a growing number of health provider studies that interview all women patients rather than only those who present with injuries, thus including an even better representation of situational couple violence.^

Health provider studies that don’t interview men patients won’t recognize domestic violence against men. Injury statistics can be further manipulated by reclassifying women’s injuries from other causes to domestic violence injuries. Claiming that women’s injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments due to accidental falls were actually misclassified injuries from domestic violence was one way that grotesquely false claims about domestic violence have been supported.

With relatively little effort, an interested person can gain relatively good knowledge about domestic violence. The brief “Where Do ‘Domestic Violence’ Statistics Come From and Why Do They Vary So Much?” is a misleading window into a scholarly disaster. A nationally representative, government-administered survey serving broad public interests has collected data on injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments. Those data provide relatively objective information about the extent and sex distribution of serious domestic violence injuries. One might hope that domestic violence research will reform itself. But that isn’t necessary. Breaking free from abusive power and control in domestic violence research isn’t difficult.

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