Domestic violence I – Definitional issues

Charles Simkins writes that measurement of domestic violence is fraught with difficulties

Domestic violence I – Definitional issues

29 June 2017

This is the first brief in a series of three. It deals with definitional issues. The second brief will be an annotated bibliography of international comparative data on domestic violence, and the third will look specifically at the situation in South Africa

They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

Philip Larkin:  This Be the Verse


Domestic violence occurs in the home and affects one or more people living there. These criteria delimit the term, but they are far from sufficient to deal with the definitional issues.  What counts as violence is crucial, and what is experienced as such. So is the question of the relationship between domestic violence and related concepts, especially violence against women, intimate partner violence and child abuse.  

The World Health Organization defines violence as:

the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development, or deprivation.

That definition is a useful starting point for discussion.

1. It is uncontroversial that threatened or actual actions which result in injury or death are violent, but the scope of ‘psychological harm, mal-development and deprivation’ is more difficult to define. Psychological harm can be regarded as one or more of the following: being left alone, humiliation, intimidation, causing distress, verbal abuse, bullying, blaming, constant criticism, controlling, depriving contact with others.  But if it is, few people would get through their marriages without inflicting it. [1] Vulnerability, temperament and the repetition of behaviour all modulate the relationship between actions and psychological harm.

The inclusion of mal-development and deprivation allow neglect to form a component of child abuse, in a way it does not affect most adults.  But not all: the disabled and the old can suffer from neglect.  

2. Domestic violence is not limited to threats or acts by residents of a home against each other.  It can also be originated by others, especially intruders.  Home robbery [2], physical and sexual assault in a home all count as domestic violence.   

3. Domestic violence against women is a subset of violence against women, and it is not the only form of domestic violence.

Rape, sexual harassment, mob violencesexual slavery and forced prostitution, forced sterilizationforced abortion, violence by authorities, stoningflogging, abduction and  trafficking in women can all occur outside the home.

Moreover, domestic violence against men is not negligible, though it is much less studied than domestic violence against women.  Feminism takes the view that violence against women partly constructs power differences between men and women, and that this violence is in turn sustained by unequal power.   On this view, domestic violence between adults is inherently gender asymmetric.  However, a careful meta-analysis of 82 studies, mostly from younger couples in the United States, carried out by Archer [3] found that women were slightly more likely than men to use one or more act of physical aggression and to use such acts more frequently. Men were more likely to inflict an injury, and overall, 62% of those injured by a partner were women.  Archer found that scattered reports from elsewhere suggested that men's physical aggression toward their partners may be much greater, and women's may be greatly curtailed, where traditions inhibiting men from hitting women are absent and where patriarchal values are foremost.

4. Intimate partner violence studies add further complexity to our understanding of domestic violence.  Johnson [4] has proposed a fourfold classification of intimate partner violence.  In intimate terrorism the individual is violent and controlling; the partner is not.  In violent resistance the individual is violent but not controlling; the partner is the violent and controlling one.  In situational couple violence, although the individual is violent, neither the individual nor the partner is violent and controlling.  In mutual violent control both the individual and the partner are violent and controlling.  He found that, in heterosexual relationships, intimate terrorism is perpetrated almost exclusively by men, while violent resistance is found almost exclusively among women. The other two types are gender-symmetric.  These distinctions were not made in the Archer study, and they represent a move beyond it.  Situational couple violence is most common and often results from loss of self-control in heated arguments.

5. In addition to physical, psychological/emotional and sexual abuse, child abuse may arise from neglect or negligent treatment or exploitation.  It is not sufficient that others refrain from certain types of behaviour.  Others also have a duty to provide a supportive and developmental environment for children.  As in the case of adults, psychological and emotional abuse may be given such a wide definition that few children would escape it while growing up.  And attitudes towards corporal punishment vary across cultures and across time.  Particular characteristics of child abuse are the high level of vulnerability of children and the damaging long term effects which include depression, poor relationships and ill-health.

6. The measurement of domestic violence is fraught with difficulties.  Five difficulties are of particular importance.  First, there is a distinction between behaviour and the cognitive appraisal of behaviour.  For any list of behaviours in a survey measuring domestic violence, there will be respondents who report incidents but do not regarded them as violent.  Secondly, an assumption has to be made about the relationship between conflict and violence.  The widely used Conflict Tactics Scale assumes that conflict is inevitable and harm occurs only when coercion is used in resolving it.  Thirdly, willingness to report domestic violence to authorities such as the police, or even to interviewers, is affected by norms of social desirability.  Guilt or shame inhibits disclosure.  Fourthly, interview procedure is important.  The gold standard for valid data on violence against women, for instance, is a stand-alone specialized survey, with specialized training of female interviewers to collect data in a private space, in a non-judgmental manner, in the absence of male partners, and interviewing only one woman per household, to prevent knowledge about the survey content being shared.  Finally, international comparisons are made difficult by great diversity in the scope of domestic violence reported and in the techniques of data collection.

Charles Simkins, Head of Research, HSF, 29 June 2017

Women beating man with a broom, India, 1875


[1] Take the marriage of D H Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen, for example.  It involved physical violence (though he was frail and unable to do much damage), the throwing of china, extensive verbal abuse and infidelities on both sides, especially hers.  So savage were the fights that friends thought the marriage would collapse.  It didn’t.  The outbreaks of hostility seem to have reinforced the relationship rather than destroying it.  

[2] Home robbery occurs when one or more people are at home against whom threatened or actual use of force is used.   Burglary involves the entrance in to a structure when an individual is not permitted to be with the intent to commit a crime.  

[3] John Archer, Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: a meta-analytical review, Psychological Bulletin, 126(5), 2000

[4] MP Johnson, Conflict and control: gender symmetry and asymmetry, Violence Against Women, 12(11), 2006