Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Patriarchal Terrorism and Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence against Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Patriarchal Terrorism and Common Couple Violence: Two Forms of Violence against Women

Article excerpt

We are all too familiar with stories of women who are finally murdered by husbands who have terrorized them for years. In addition, the authors of the 1985 National Family Violence Survey estimate that over six million women are assaulted by their husbands each year in the United States. But are these really the same phenomenon?

This article argues that there are, in fact, two distinct forms of couple violence taking place in American households. Evidence from large-sample survey research and from data gathered from women's shelters and other public agencies suggests that a large number of families suffer from occasional outbursts of violence from either husbands or wives or both, while a significant number of other families are terrorized by systematic male violence enacted in the service of patriarchal control.


There are two major streams of sociological work on couple violence in families, one that is generally referred to as the family violence perspective, and the other of which may be called the feminist perspective (Kurz, 1989).

Work in the family violence perspective grew out of family scholars' interest in a variety of family conflict issues, and is generally traced to the early work of Straus (1971) and Gelles (1974). They came together in the early 1970s to develop a research agenda based on the use of interviews to elicit information regarding family violence from large random samples of the adult population of the United States, conducting national surveys in 1975 and 1985. Methodologically, work in this tradition has relied primarily on quantitative analysis of responses to survey questions, utilizing the strengths of random sample surveys in the production of estimates of prevalence, and causal analyses that rely on multivariate statistical techniques. Theoretically, the focus has been largely on commonalities among the various forms of family violence, such as the surprising frequency of violence, the instigating role of stress, and public adherence to norms accepting the use of some violence within the family context.

In contrast, research from the feminist perspective began with a narrower focus on the issue of wife beating, developing a literature that focuses on factors specific to violence perpetrated against women by their male partners (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Martin, 1981; Roy, 1976; Walker, 1984). Methodologically, feminist analyses have relied heavily upon data collected from battered women, especially those who have come into contact with law enforcement agencies, hospitals, or shelters. Theoretically, the emphasis has been upon historical traditions of the patriarchal family, contemporary constructions of masculinity and femininity, and structural constraints that make escape difficult for women who are systematically beaten.

I do not wish to give the impression that the differences between these two literatures are absolute, although the often-rancorous debates that have gone on between the two groups of scholars seem at times to suggest that there is absolutely no overlap in methodology or theory (e.g., Dobash & Dobash, 1992, pp. 251-284). The truth is that family violence researchers do acknowledge the role of patriarchy in wife abuse (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980, pp. 242-243), and do make use of qualitative data obtained from battered wives (Gelles, 1974). On the other side, many feminist researchers utilize quantitative data (Yllo & Bograd, 1988) and acknowledge the role of factors other than the patriarchal structure of society in precipitating violence against wives (Martin, 1981). As will be seen in the next section, however, family violence researchers and feminist researchers do clearly disagree on some very important issues, and a case can be made that their differences arise from the fact that they are, to a large extent, analyzing different phenomena.


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