How should we explain domestic and family violence? What sorts of theoretical perspectives are they to help us? Theories are important not only for explaining domestic and family violence but for policy and practical reasons.
To reduce or prevent domestic violence, we need to understand why it happens, and what kind of public policies or practical interventions are effective. Currently, there’s general agreement that there is no one cause of domestic or family violence, and no one theory that explains all of its diversity.
There is a range of theories from psychology, sociology, and feminism that have been developed to explain the different forms and aspects of domestic violence.
Psychological theories of domestic and family violence
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Psychological theories focus on the biography, personality, mental illness/injury, use of drugs, and poor self-control of offenders. There is some evidence of these factors being present in some domestic violence cases, but they don’t account for all cases of domestic violence, or for cases where these factors are absent. Psychological theories usually overlook the social context of violence, the social patterning of violence, and the way that structural factors, such as unemployment, poverty, debt, or inadequate resources affect family life.
Sociological theories of domestic and family violence
There are also several sociological theories of domestic and family violence. These include social learning theory, structural theories of violence, and situational theories of violence.
Social learning theory
Social learning theory emphasizes how violence is learned from others, repeated, and continued if there is positive reinforcement for it. Violence in a person’s family of origin has been consistently correlated with a higher likelihood of violence, or victimization in a person’s own family. However, studies have also found that most people who witness or experience family violence *don’t* go on to perpetrate violence on others.
Structural theories of violence
In contrast, structural theories of violence stress the role of socially generated inequality and disadvantage creating environments where stress, frustration, anger, and violence can easily erupt. There’s evidence that while domestic violence is found across all socioeconomic groups, it tends to be more common in lower socio-economic groups. However, it’s been pointed out that even in these groups, most people are not violent in their intimate relationships.
Situational theories of violence
Situational theories of violence stress the role of situational factors, such as the consumption of alcohol and drugs, contributing to incidents of violence. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2013, for example, 65 percent of men and 51 percent of women who had been physically assaulted by a male, reported that the perpetrator had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While alcohol and drugs can impair people’s judgment and lower their self-control, they don’t necessarily cause violence. Not everyone becomes violent when taking them, and many cases of family violence happen without drugs or alcohol being involved. Once again, this appears to be, at best, a partial explanation of violent behavior.
Feminist theories of domestic and family violence
Feminist theories of domestic and family violence are particularly important in understanding the unequal and gendered nature of this violence. Most perpetrators of family violence are men, for example, and most victims of domestic violence are women. Feminist theories focus on the way that a patriarchal culture can provide men with motives and legitimation for violence against women. They also examine the way that patriarchal social structures give women fewer resources and less power to alter their situations. They look at the way that cultural representations of domestic and family violence have often blamed women for violence inflicted on them, or treated it as a purely private matter, and not a crime.
An example of the influence of patriarchal ideas in a US family comes from Cheryl, a 26-year-old woman, who describes her life with her husband: Feminism has also played an important role in making domestic and family violence a public issue, putting it on the public policy agenda, setting up refuges and services for women, and advocating for women’s rights, law reform, and changes to community attitudes. What appears currently to be an increase in make violence towards women has been attributed precisely to the changes in the power relationships between men and women.
It can be seen as a backlash against women’s empowerment. One observer has said: The challenge facing the future development of sociological theories of domestic and family violence is to go beyond these accounts to explain, why most men are not violent toward women; why women sometimes initiate violence against men; why there is violence within same-sex couples; and how and why family violence is connected with factors such as class, isolation, and cultural background.