A Response to Danis & Lockhart: What Guides Social Work Knowledge about Violence against Women?

By Colarossi, Lisa | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

A Response to Danis & Lockhart: What Guides Social Work Knowledge about Violence against Women?


Colarossi, Lisa, Journal of Social Work Education


I want to thank Fran Danis and Lettie Lockhart for their thoughtful editorial (JSWE, Summer 2003) which questions the disconnect between the battered women's movement and the social work profession regarding knowledge and practices related to domestic violence. They raise critical questions about the direction of social work toward a focus on the individual and away from social context and social justice. This has major implications for social workers' responses to violence against women. I would like to add to their review of the literature regarding social work knowledge and practices in domestic violence by considering how two factors might influence social workers' responses to violence against women: the use of language in the social work discourse and the reluctance to use research to guide social work knowledge and practice. I will explore how these two factors guide social work ideology about violence against women and, in turn, its educational/curricular focus on individual pathology and treatment away from social context, social justice, and community organization as desired modes of intervention.

The Influence of Use of Language on Knowledge and Practice

Defining the Problem

How social workers conceptualize the problem of domestic violence is a critical question that needs further research. Danis and Lockhart (2003) began to answer this question in their study of social workers' identification of domestic violence by measuring their recognition of discrete aspects of abuse between individuals. However, this paper questions whether social workers recognize domestic violence as a larger social problem of violence against women requiring macro-level interventions (e.g., systems change) or, alternately, as a form of uncommon, individual deviance. The former conceptualization has been supported by epidemiological, medical, psychological, and sociological research that has consistently and clearly documented exorbitantly high prevalence rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, homicide, and sexual harassment across all socioeconomic levels and ethnic groups of women (American Medical Association, 1992; Bassett, 1980; U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence, 1984). These rates are multiple times higher for women than for men. For example, approximately 25% of women verses 8% of men reported being sexually or physically assaulted, or both, at some point in their lifetime; of all stalking victims 78% are women and 22% are men (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000); and a recent study found homicide to be the leading cause of mortality during pregnancy (Horon & Cheng, 2001). Furthermore, 90% of all homicides are committed by men, and the majority of physical and sexual assaults and stalking of both males and females are committed by men (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000; U.S. Department of Justice, 2002). When assaults are committed by intimate partners, women suffer injuries at 6 times higher rates than men, require more medical care, and have higher rates of death (Novell, Rosenberg, Saltzman, & Shosky, 1992; Stets & Straus, 1990).

This research supports the characterization of these many forms of violence against women by men as a major public health problem with substantial economic costs, demarcating it by many groups as a human rights problem in the United States and around the world (e.g., Human Rights Watch, UNIFEM, World Health Organization, etc.). Therefore, it is remarkable that social workers have consistently been criticized by activists for the way they label, conceptualize, and respond to forms of violence against women on a micro level (Danis & Lockhart, 2003; Davis, 1987; Kanuha, 1998; Pyles & Postmus, 2004). The adopted lexis conveys this micro-level ideological and theoretical approach and has a tremendous impact on social work responses to a problem; it is also reflective of individual biases and stereotypes (Foucault, 1980; Hawkins, Fook, & Ryan, 2001; Loseke & Cahill, 1984; Pyles & Postmus, 2004).

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