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Family Abuse and Crime

Theoretical Models Of Family Violence

The first people to identify a problem often shape how others will perceive it (Nelson, p. 13). Child abuse and neglect, the first form of family violence to receive scholarly and public attention, was identified by the medical profession in the early 1960s. The initial conceptualizations portrayed abuse and violence between intimates as a rare event, typically caused by the psychopathology of the offender. The perception of the abuser, or violent offender, as suffering from some form of psychopathology has persisted, in part because the first conceptualization of family violence was the guiding framework for the work that followed. The psychopathological or psychiatric conceptualization has also persisted because the tragic picture of a defenseless child, woman, or grandparent subjected to abuse and neglect arouses the strongest emotions in clinicians and others who see and/or treat the problem of intimate violence. There frequently seems to be no rational explanation for harming a loved one, especially one who appears to be helpless and defenseless.

Family violence has been approached from three general theoretical levels of analysis: (1) the intra-individual level of analysis, or the psychiatric model; (2) the social-psychological level of analysis, and (3) the sociological or socio-cultural level of analysis.

The psychiatric level focuses on the offender's personality characteristics as the chief determinants of violence and abuse of intimates, although some applications focus on the individual personality characteristics of the victims. The psychiatric level includes theoretical approaches that link personality disorders, character disorders, mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, and other intra-individual processes to acts of family violence.

The social-psychological model assumes that violence and abuse can best be understood by careful examination of the external environmental factors that impact on the family, on family organization and structure, and on the everyday interactions between intimates that are precursors to acts of violence. Theoretical approaches that examine family structure, learning, stress, the transmission of violence from one generation to the next, and family interaction patterns fit the social psychological level.

The socio-cultural level provides a macro-level of analysis. Violence is examined in light of socially structured variables such as inequality, patriarchy, or cultural norms and attitudes about violence and family relations.

A number of sociological and psychological theories have been developed to explain family violence. They are outlined below.

Social learning theory. Social learning theory proposes that individuals who experienced violence are more likely to use violence in the home than those who have experienced little or no violence. The theory's central proposition is that children who either experience violence themselves or who witness violence between their parents are more likely to use violence when they grow up. The family is the institution and social group where people learn the roles of husband and wife, parent and child. The home is the prime location where people learn how to deal with various stresses, crises, and frustrations. In many instances, the home is also the site where a person first experiences violence. Not only do people learn violent behavior, but also they learn how to justify being violent. For example, hearing a father say "this will hurt me more than it will hurt you," or a mother say, "you have been bad, so you deserve to be spanked," contribute to how children learn to justify violent behavior.

Exchange theory Exchange theory proposes that domestic violence and child abuse are governed by the principle of costs and benefits. Abuse is used when the rewards are greater than the costs. The private nature of the family, the reluctance of social institutions and agencies to intervene—in spite of mandatory child abuse reporting laws or mandatory arrest laws for spouse abuse—and the low risk of other interventions reduce the costs of abuse and violence. The cultural approval of violence as both expressive and instrumental behavior raises the potential rewards for violence. The most significant reward is social control, or power.

Feminist theory. Feminist theorists see violence toward women as a unique phenomenon that has been obscured and overshadowed by what they refer to as a "narrow" focus on domestic or family violence. The central thesis is that economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal (male dominated) social order and family structure. Patriarchy is seen as leading to the subordination of women and causes the historical pattern of systematic violence directed against women.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFamily Abuse and Crime - Risk And Protective Factors, Social And Demographic Risk Factors, Situational And Environmental Factors, Research On Victims