Academic journal article Social Justice

An Ethnographic Assessment of the Policing of Domestic Violence in Rural Eastern Kentucky

Academic journal article Social Justice

An Ethnographic Assessment of the Policing of Domestic Violence in Rural Eastern Kentucky

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

As Dobash and Dobash (1992) have argued, the last two decades have seen a marked growth in our awareness about domestic violence. They attribute this growth to the battered women's movement and to feminist demands for change. We now have various studies that, by drawing upon the experiences of battered women, capture the nature and extent of interpersonal violence against women (Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Pagelow, 1981; Russell, 1990; Pizzey, 1974; Pahl; 1985, Stanko, 1991).

Studies of rural domestic violence and its policing have not appeared systematically in the research literature of criminology, social science, or gender studies. Indeed, there is no clear-cut definition of "rural." The 1990 U.S. Census estimates the population of rural counties in the United States to be 61,690,238. For the U.S. Census Bureau, rural areas consist of communities of less than 2,500 people. For my purposes, people live in a rural setting if they reside in the countryside or a relatively small town, with a population of less than 5,000. I also understand rural to refer to certain types of communities where people know each other's business, come into more regular contact with each other, and share a larger core of values than is true of people in urban areas.

In this exploratory article, I raise questions about the marginalization of rural women, the violence they experience, and the inadequacy of the police response to that violence. I provide a brief overview of theories of domestic violence and the policing response to that violence. After pointing out certain lacunae in the research literature, I offer several propositions on domestic violence and law enforcement in rural areas. I then discuss how the findings from my ethnographic study of domestic violence and policing in eastern Kentucky can clarify and extend these propositions.

The outcomes of 50 focused interviews form the core supportive material for the propositions. After a discussion of my ethnographic method, I explore what I call "Rural Voices and Theoretical Themes." In this section, I use the ethnographic data to flesh out the propositions into more fully fledged theoretical themes. Having elucidated a number of theoretical themes on domestic violence and policing in rural areas, I summarily examine the implications of these themes for the formulation of social policy.

II. Theories of Domestic Violence and Its Policing

Feminists have theorized male violence within families as part of the wider structure of patriarchy (see Dobash and Dobash, 1979 and 1992; Radford and Russell, 1992; Hanmer and Saunders, 1984; Pahl, 1985; Russell, 1990). Sylvia Walby (1990: 20) uses the term patriarchy to refer to the domination, oppression, and exploitation of women by men. Walby situates male violence within a nexus of relations that includes: (1) the reluctance of the patriarchal state to confront violence against women or provide women with sufficient funds to live independently of violent men, (2) sexuality, (3) the cultural depiction of women as objects of the male gaze, (4) the gendering of the capitalist economy, and (5) the disproportionate share of unpaid work performed by women within the patriarchal household.

Historically, the most common police response has been to treat "domestics" as noncriminal problems, to be "resolved" within the family (Tong, 1984). Stanko (1989) observes that domestic altercations produce arrests that do not elicit much recognition from police officers' peers. However, according to Sherman (1992a), the arrest of batterers increased during the 1980s, as part of a much "broader revolution" in the policing of domestic violence that dates back to the 1970s. The use of mandatory arrest laws increased after the Minneapolis "experiment" in which researchers found that the arrest of batterers correlated with a reduction in recidivism (Sherman and Berk, 1984). A number of other federally funded studies in urban areas (Miami, Milwaukee, Colorado Springs, Omaha, and Charlotte) largely failed to replicate the Minneapolis findings and consequently cast doubt upon the effectiveness of mandatory arrest (see also Sherman, 1992a: 104-109; 1992b). …

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