Battered Wives: The Home as a Total Institution

Article excerpt

This paper is based on research which examined the lives of Israeli battered women from the phenomenological aspect. Thirty-five unstructured interviews were carried out in a shelter for battered women. The women's accounts suggest that the situation of battered women resembles that of inmates of total institutions, as defined by Goffman (1961). Physical barriers are imposed upon them, and they go through a process of mortification of the self which begins soon after the marriage. Compulsory confinement to the house damages the self and diminishes the ability to cope. Furthermore, it cuts the women off from external sources of physical help and moral support. Increased understanding of this harsh reality would benefit the social agencies engaged in helping battered women.


Public attention was first drawn to the plight of battered women in the early 1970s, starting in England with the pioneering work of Erin Pizzey (1974) and quickly spreading to the U.S.A. The awareness of this problem led to the mass establishment of shelters for battered women. During the years 1971-1981, approximately 150 such shelters were established in England (Tahourdin, 1983), and in the U.S.A. the number rose from 6 in 1976 to 170 only two years later (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980; Tirney, 1982). Among the researchers who paved the way in battered women's research were Gelles (1974,1979), Straus (1977, 1980), and Steinmetz (1977a). During the '70s the research focused on the battered wives, and since 1980 the abusive husbands have also become the subjects of research (Caesar, 1988).

Some of the early, and relatively phenomenology-oriented, books dealing with the battered wife referred to the phenomenon of her prison-like home. However, since the scientific approach has become less descriptive and more concerned with the aggressor, this aspect has been neglected. The present study deals with this specific characteristic of battered wives' lives. It is based on a broader phenomenological research that was carried out by the author in a shelter in Israel, in which the prison-like home was found to dominate these women's existence. Since it resembles what Erving Goffman defined as "total institutions," this term was adopted.

In Israel, public awareness to the phenomenon of wife-beating was first aroused around 1977. At the end of that year the first Israeli shelter was established, and there are currently four such shelters in the country. Official information about the magnitude and characteristics of the phenomenon in Israel is sparse. Little has been written about it and still less has been scientifically examined. It is estimated that, of a total population of four million, there are some 100,000 battered women. Here, as in other countries where such research has been carried out (Finkelhor, 1988; Martin, 1979; Roy, 1977; Walker, 1978), abused women come from every stratum of society, yet in the shelters the majority are from the lower and middle classes, probably due to their limited accessibility to more expensive solutions (Lev-Ari, 1986; Swirski, 1984; Steiner, 1990).


The term "total institution" was introduced into sociological usage by Erving Goffman (1961). It refers to any social institution which places physical barriers (locks, walls, etc.) between those within and the outside world. Goffman specifies five types of total institutions: (1) institutions for treating people who cannot take care of themselves but do not cause damage to others (e.g., old-age homes, orphanages); (2) institutions for the treatment of people who cannot take care of themselves and are liable to cause damage (mental asylums); (3) institutions for incarcerating people for the purpose of protecting society (prisons); (4) institutions designed for a specific purpose (army camps, work camps); and (5) institutions for people who voluntarily withdraw from society (monasteries).

There are a number of features common to all types of total institutions. …