Seeking knowledge about child abuse has four functions: establishing definitions, agreeing significance and measuring prevalence, discovering causes, and developing ways of preventing or reducing it.
The arrangement of this list is not accidental for it has both a historical and an intellectual logic. In modern times, until something ultimately called child abuse was identified the process of doing something about it could not begin. This may seem obvious but the essential point is that the definition defines the consequences and as we have indicated earlier the recent history of child abuse has been complicated. Child battering, non-accidental injury, physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, system abuse and most recently, ritual abuse, are all terms which have been used both theoretically and empirically by researchers and practitioners in the field.
Cooper and Ball (1987, ch. 1) compare and contrast the modern 'discovery' of child abuse with that of AIDS and suggest that the former has suffered far greater difficulties of definition than the latter and with corresponding problems in treatment. This book contributes to the definition debate, and no doubt complicates it, by adopting a deliberately wide view of the phenomenon. Others may prefer a narrower concept and clearly both views raise problems because they will then determine how significant and prevalent child abuse is. Both terms are important in human life because we may decide to invest time and resources in something which although very uncommon, is so distressing that it seems justified; thus there are extremely rare childhood diseases that we may nevertheless want to tackle with great energy. Alternatively, the sheer scale of a problem will give it a social momentum and perhaps unemployment has now come into this category.