During the course of this essay it will become clear that the definition of a social problem, how it is constructed, understood and ultimately acted upon, depends on many factors. The degree to which it is conceptualised as a private problem, to be dealt with primarily by, or within ‘the family’, or a public issue, subject to intervention by agencies of the state, tends to be dependant on prevailing dominant discourses, which in turn are determined by the current political environment, professional and expert knowledge and contradictory common sense notions.

Despite a widely held belief that a division exists between the private world of the family and the public world of the state, the extent to which this dichotomy holds true founders somewhat when consideration is given to the role of ‘the family’ in explanations of various social problems. The following analyses of domestic violence and poverty illustrate the different ways in which this supposedly private institution is often constructed as both the cause of, and the solution to social problems.

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Indeed, both are subject to competing explanations, which in turn shape suggested solutions, and it is through the examination of these that the underlying assumptions about the role of ‘the family’ in social problems will become apparent. The official definition of domestic violence, formulated by the Home Office and used by all police forces across England and Wales since 1999, states that it is: ‘… any violence between current or former partners in an intimate relationship, wherever and whenever the violence occurs. The violence may include physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse. ‘ (Home Office, 1997).

This definition however merely describes the behaviour that constitutes domestic violence, and there is no reference, either explicit or implicit, as to the cause of such behaviour. It is to this aspect that we now turn. Domestic violence has long been perceived to be a private ‘family matter’, the discourse of privacy from which this view is constructed serving to define it as the result of ‘abnormal’ behaviour. The theories that focus on this type of explanation include psychodynamic theory, which sees violence as rooted in individual pathology, and systems theory, which works with interactional models of the family.

Informing the psychodynamic theory on domestic violence is the pathological discourse, which claims that the causes of violence lie in ‘abnormal’ individuals and/or couples. The assumption upon which this perspective is based claims that there are fundamental differences between men who use violence and those who do not, and women who suffer from abuse and those who do not. In turn, these differences are seen to originate in both the perpetrators’ and the victims’ families of origin. Within psychodynamic theory it is generally believed that violent men have childhoods characterized by rejection and insecurity (Dobash and Dobash, 1992).

According to Dinnerstein (1976) such insecurity stems from the deprivation of basic needs, such as dependency and attachment, and the mother, as primary caretaker, is often feared for her power to either provide or withhold these. Thus, when adults, violent men tend to displace their anger and fear onto their partners. Another claim within this theory is that violent men have themselves grown up in violent families, and as such may view this type of behaviour as ‘normal’ and acceptable.

Research into this ‘cycle of deprivation’ (see for example, Walker, 1984), whilst to some extent corroborating this theory, is inconclusive, since there are significant numbers of men, who having experienced violence during childhood, do not display this behaviour in adulthood. Nevertheless, this type of explanation is often used in order to justify violence against women. As for the victims of domestic violence, psychodynamic theory views their situation as a consequence of ‘abnormal’ childhoods also, claiming that their upbringing esults in a number of personality traits, which may cause them to become victims of domestic violence. However, research by Dobash and Dobash (1992) found that different theorists had listed many contradictory traits that were seen to provoke violence, and concluded that a woman is likely to be hit whatever it is that she says or does. Despite such findings, the prevalence of such studies into female behaviour has served to reinforce the belief of female provocation in common sense understandings of domestic violence.

Interactional models of the family stress that both partners collude in the violence to some degree. Borrowing from psychodynamic theory, it is assumed that both partners ‘choose’ their partners in order to resolve conflicts created in their original families. It can therefore be seen that this model sees violence as intergenerational, established and perpetuated by familial pathology. A further aspect of this model, based on systems theory, is that patterns of violent behaviour, whilst meeting the needs of both partners, can be seen as self-maintaining (Dobash and Dobash, 1992).

In this cyclical model of violence, power is seen to pass to both partners in turn, with men using their physical power during the violent stages of the cycle, whilst women hold the moral power when men show remorse for their behaviour. Implicit in all of these explanations is the assumption that there are ‘natural’ differences between men and women. Whereas women are defined as passive and to some degree controlling, the discourse of male impulsivity sees men as being unable to control their behaviour, and that their aggression is an instinctual response to feelings of fear and frustration.

However, this discourse, along with the explanations of domestic violence that it informs, has been challenged by feminist theory. The feminist critique of these explanations claims that defining violent behaviour as pathological serves to exonerate the abusers, as does the discourse of male impulsivity. Although domestic violence is deemed to be a criminal offence, until recently, the belief that this type of behaviour should be seen as a private matter also permeated the agencies of the state, such as the police and the judiciary, with negative consequences for the victims of violence.

Indeed, the definition of domestic violence as a ‘private’ matter is itself seen to be the product of male discourses, serving to maintain male dominance in a patriarchal society. Feminist theory claims that far from being a problem rooted in ‘abnormal’ individuals and families, the cause of domestic violence is to be found at the social-structural level, and is ‘… simply one manifestation of male domination which has existed historically and cross-culturally’ (Yllo, 1983, p. 277).

Thus, domestic violence is seen as intentional and instrumental behaviour; a ‘normal’ albeit extreme reflection of wider gender inequalities inherent in the social structure. According to this perspective, heterosexual relationships are themselves shaped by a patriarchal discourse, which dictates that women are subordinate to men. Within a patriarchal society, men’s dominance is maintained through ideological, physical and material power, and it is the latter that often ensures that women stay in abusive relationships (see for example, CRAWC, 1984).

Since the approaches described above are based on different assumptions, the approaches used to deal with the problem focus on different types of intervention. The ‘private’, pathological model leads to attempts to alter the behaviour of the ‘abnormal’ individual or couple. Through therapy and counselling, the individual or couple are taught alternative ways of responding to each other, developing strategies aimed at breaking the cycle of violence.

However, there is a danger that this type of intervention tends to ‘blame the victim’ to some degree, and ignores her need for protection. Indeed, a study by Burton et al. 1998) found that the drop-out rate for such programmes tends to be over half. It was suggested that one of the reasons for this may be that the perpetrators did not believe their behaviour to be a problem. Feminists further point out that by treating violence as a relational problem, this approach obscures, and helps maintain, structural patriarchy. By perceiving violence against women to be just one of a range of behaviours that exemplifies cultural male dominance, feminists have campaigned for the protection of victims to be a matter of priority. The Women’s Aid movement, among others, has been particularly influential in this respect.

Campaigns to raise awareness about the nature and prevalence of such behaviour have challenged male ideology and the resultant gender inequalities, and such campaigning has culminated in a range of measures that both protects and empowers the victims, whilst punishing the perpetrator. Recognising that the main reason for women staying in abusive relationships was due to their having nowhere else to go, Women’s Aid and the Refuge movement have been instrumental in the establishment of ‘safe houses’ and alternative accommodation, enabling battered women to escape abuse, thus addressing the material inequalities between men and women.

In December 2002, the New Labour government, as part of their commitment to reducing social exclusion, announced a new scheme that saw the implementation of a new national helpline, coupled with the development of more refuge space for victims of male violence (Guardian, 11. 12. 02). The current legal framework, informed by such feminist campaigns, involves measures by both the civil law and the criminal justice system to address this problem. Protection against domestic violence has been enhanced through provisions under the Family Law Act, 1996 and the Protection from Harassment Act, 1996.

Together with these, a Home Office Circular issued in 1990, stipulated new requirements for police practice, which has led to both a gradual institutional change in the way domestic violence is perceived and the establishment of specialist Domestic Violence Units. These measures go some way to challenging the assumptions underlying the ‘private’ model of the family. There indeed seems to be more awareness throughout society that traditional views of the causes of domestic violence oversimplify, and to ome extent, reinforce the problem, and although traces of this explanation remain in common sense understandings, many do not now readily accept this explanation.

The redefinition of domestic violence as a public issue, rather than a private problem, can be contrasted against the way in which poverty has been conceptualised. Throughout the post-war period, poverty in the UK has been seen to be a product of the economic structure created by capitalism; however, more recent discourses have attempted to redefine it as the combined effect of a misguided welfare system, individual choice and pathological families.

Indeed, there are some who would deny that real poverty exists in the UK. This of course depends on what is believed to be the true measurement of poverty – absolute or relative. The former defines poverty as the level at which the minimum levels of food, clothing and shelter cannot be met, whereas the latter defines poverty in terms of the general living standards of a particular society. People in relative poverty may have their physical needs catered for, but through lack of resources they may be excluded from activities and advantages that are considered normal in their society.

Relative poverty is generally taken to be the fairest measurement of material and social inequality, and though there a number of ways it can be calculated, the current measurement used by the British government defines poverty (or ‘low income’ to use its own terminology) as at or below 60% of median income. Using this measurement, there were 12. 9 million people (23% of the population) in poverty in the UK in 2000/01(New Policy Institute, 2003). Although it is clear that deprivation is prevalent in the UK, there is much argument as to the cause of poverty.

Structural explanations see poverty as an inevitable by-product of a capitalist economic system. According to this approach, the increase in poverty throughout the 1980s and 1990s is believed to be the result of economic restructuring. The rapid decline in the manufacturing industry in the 1980s led to high levels of male unemployment, whilst at the same time increasing numbers of women were participating in the labour market, albeit in the low-paid, casualized service sector.

Marxists claimed that this restructuring led to the creation of a dual labour market, in which the poor were concentrated in the ‘casualized periphery’ (Cochrane, 1993). Since the causes of poverty are seen to be structural, solutions to poverty are thus seen to be the responsibility of the state, through the use of redistributive economic policies, designed to address material inequalities inherent in a capitalist system.

Indeed, it was this principle of welfare provision that was at the heart of the social democratic consensus upon which the modern welfare state was founded. However, since the late 1970s a new political climate, informed by New Right ideology, has overturned this consensus, and explanations on the causes of poverty have centred on the discourse of a ‘dependency culture’, created by the welfare system. This argument, associated with the U. S. ommentator Charles Murray, suggests that levels of benefit payments have actively discouraged the ‘undeserving’ poor from participating in the labour market, thus creating a pathological ‘underclass’, anti-social and unwilling to work. Murray (1990) sees the breakdown of ‘the family’, and particularly the growth in illegitimacy as a key factor in the emergence of an ‘underclass’, since without a positive male role model, that is a good father, husband and provider, boys will not be adequately socialized.

This then leads to a cycle of deprivation from which lone mothers and disaffected men, dependent on welfare, are either unwilling or unable to escape. These discourses led to a range of policies being implemented by successive Conservative administrations throughout the 1980s. The level of benefit paid to the unemployed was reduced in order to discourage welfare dependency. Also social security payments for young adults were either paid at a lower level or cut entirely, a move aimed at trying to make families more responsible for the welfare of their members.

In practice, these measures merely served to increase poverty and heighten feelings of insecurity. The ‘culture of dependency’ remains a prominent feature of both common sense understandings and political discourse under the New Labour government, and continues to shape welfare policy. Currently, the levels of income support are less than 20% of average earnings, whereas means tested benefits for those in low-paid work have risen with the implementation of the Working Tax Credit (New Policy Institute, 2003).

The ‘Welfare to Work’ programme, which also saw the introduction of various ‘New Deals’, is according to Stepney et al. (1999) an attempt to coerce the poor into taking any type of paid employment, with the New Deal for Lone Parents attracting much criticism for devaluing the caring work undertaken in the home. Despite their different ideological starting points, both the structural explanations of poverty and those that blame the welfare system and ‘problem’ families, have been criticised for their representation of the poor as a homogenous ‘class’.

It has been argued that this representation obscures the significant differences in the causes, and extent of poverty between different groups, such as the disabled, the young, the elderly and ethnic minorities. Also by using households and families as the main unit with which to measure poverty, feminists argue that there is an underlying assumption of female dependency within families; a dependency which is believed to protect them from the impact of poverty (Millar and Glendinning, 1987).

However, there is strong evidence that women are more likely to suffer from poverty, even when they are in households not defined as poor, and that they experience poverty more acutely, than men (ibid). Also, with rising numbers of lone parents, usually women, together with an increase in single female households, many of whom are elderly, it has been argued that this assumption serves to disguise the ‘feminization’ of poverty (Cochrane, 1993). Another factor hidden in aggregate statistics is that of ethnic diversity.

Stone (1983) argues that there are significant experiential differences between white families, African Caribbean households and Asian families, with the latter two categories being over-represented in poverty statistics. They are more likely to be unemployed, or if in paid work they tend to be concentrated in the low-paid, casualized service sector (Sarre, 1989). According to Gordon (1991) average earnings of African Caribbean and Asian men are around one fifth those of white men. Thus there is strong evidence for what Cochrane (1993) terms the ‘racialization of poverty’.

In conclusion, and given the arguments put forward with regard to poverty, along with those for domestic violence, how useful is ‘ the family’ to an understanding of the explanations of, and solutions to, social problems? Discourses about ‘the family’ tend to assume the model of the traditional male breadwinner model. However, the diversity of family forms outlined above, such as lone parent families and the increase in single person households, along with high levels of male unemployment, are increasingly undermining this model of ‘the family’.

Nevertheless, it is still used as the standard against which all other family forms are measured. Indeed, the ‘underclass’ debate makes explicit this supposed ‘norm’ in defining all other types as ‘deviant’ and as such, a threat to mainstream society. However, there is evidence that those defined as belonging to some sort of ‘underclass’ share the same aspirations in terms of material security, and believe in the work ethic as a means to achieve those goals (Stepney et al. 999). Thus to claim that they are in some way ‘abnormal’ merely serves to stigmatise them, whilst denying the substantial negative effects of such labelling. Comparisons can be made with familial explanations of domestic violence. Feminists have argued that men who abuse their partners are not ‘pathological’ individuals; they are merely products of a patriarchal society characterized by masculine ideals of dominance, strength and superiority.

Indeed, Goldner et al (1990) argue that couples in violent relationships internalize in extremis the gender premises upon which the traditional family is based. Given these points, it would seem that ‘the family’ in whatever form, is impacted by, and often reflects, the power inequalities inherent in a white, patriarchal social structure. It would thus make more sense for policy makers to examine the flaws in this particular system when looking for explanations of social problems, rather than to blame and punish individual families.

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