International study provides culture-by-culture clues to family violence and abuse

November 24, 2004

(Boston) -- What is abuse?

According to the vast body of research presented in the new book, International Perspectives on Family Violence and Abuse (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), the term conjures quite different descriptions from individuals throughout the world.

Edited by Kathleen Malley-Morrison, a professor of psychology at Boston University, the compendium presents evidence that, among participants in the two dozen countries included in the study, a country's history and culture strongly influence what its residents consider to be unacceptable -- and acceptable -- examples of domestic violence and abuse.

The aim of the study -- and the international team of researchers involved in it -- was to collect data on people's perceptions of family violence and abuse in a manner that most closely reflected the day-by-day social and ecologic contexts in which people live.

Malley-Morrison and her team of associates found wide discrepancies between definitions of abuse used by participants from the various countries. For spousal abuse, for example, U.S. participants were on average most likely to cite physical violence as an example of extreme abuse. Among participants in other countries, however, the research team found physical violence toward a spouse to be less commonly cited. Average responses from participants in some countries, for instance, included public humiliation, especially of a husband by a wife, as an example of severe physical aggression. The research team found that in many countries around the world, husband-to-wife violence is considered a part of normal family relations.

Wide disparities in conceptions of child abuse were also shown among the international participants. Responses from U.S. participants indicated that most had conflicted opinions over the point at which parental discipline such as spanking crosses the line into child abuse. Responses from participants in other nations, by contrast, centered on more extreme examples of physical violence, such as causing a child severe physical injury or even killing a child.

Child neglect, however, was rarely mentioned by U.S participants or by participants from other countries, even those participants from countries that contend with large populations of children that live or work on the streets.

For the research effort, the scientists developed a culturally appropriate survey to measure perceptions of abuse in each of the 24 countries included in the study. Each country's survey was designed to eliminate the biases that are necessarily associated with simply transplanting surveys and perspectives developed in the U.S. to other countries. Questions were open-ended, and respondents were able to discuss their definitions of severe, moderate, and mild abuse within different familial relationships -- such as husband-wife, parent-child, or sibling-sibling -- in their native language.

According to Malley-Morrison, the data they collected show that "no country has a 'clean record' when it comes to abuse within the family. Efforts that aim for change in very diverse cultural settings in very different parts of the world are worthy of consideration."

The researchers point out that stemming domestic violence and abuse involves changing people's culturally based attitudes toward the abusive behaviors, which can be exceedingly difficult, especially in societies that view seeking or using outside interventions like social services as a betrayal of family. In suggesting approaches toward change that might be considered, the researchers note that "shaming," a practice already present in some cultures, offers a potentially effective way to punish individual offenders and to deter abusive behaviors on the larger social scale.

The Department of Psychology at Boston University offers programs of research in three general areas: brain, behavior, and cognition; clinical psychology; or human development.

Boston University, the fourth-largest independent university in the nation, has an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges.
Note to Editor: The 24 countries included in this study are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, England, Germany, Greece, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United States. Editors interested in receiving a copy of a chapter describing the findings for a particular country may call 617-358-1240 or send their request to

Boston University

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