As I prepare to get into the thick of things in school, I've been preparing myself in a number of ways. Mostly by taking time to relax before being incredibly busy and overwhelmed, but also by prepping my thinking about research and the problems I have seen by reading the book, "Persuasion and Politics: The Social Psychology of Public Opinion" by Michael A. Milburn. I'm not sure how I heard about the book, and despite its age (published in 1991) I thought it might be interesting to learn more about how political psychologists do research on public opinion and measure people's identification of their values. I think there's a great overlap in domestic violence work and political research. Take this following quote from the introduction:
"...one cannot even begin to understand where political attitudes come from and how they change unless one understands this fundamental truth: Attitudes and behavior are a function of an interactive process between the internal - or what people carry around with them: personality, knowledge, and belief structures - and the external - or what is brought to them from the outside: the influence exerted by other individuals in conversations and through the mass media. Thus there is a dialectical and ongoing interactive process between internal and external forces. Overemphasis or sole emphasis on either the internal or the external forces leads to an incomplete analysis of the dynamics of public opinion (Milburn, 1991, p. 1-2)."
For me, this quote fits perfectly into how good domestic violence intervention work begins. Both internal and external factors need to be discussed and understood both within individuals in the classes, but also from the group process as a whole. To check my biases, and to establish my focus while reading the book, I outlined some fundamental assumptions I have about people who choose abusive and violent behavior in relationships:
- Most are decent and reasonable people in many layers of their lives;
- Most will hide patterns of abusive/violent behavior out of feeling ashamed and having a fear of consequences;
- An accumulation of hurtful behavior influences that individual's values and attitudes;
- When confronted with the reality of hurtful choices and consequences in a humanistic way, individual people who have been abusive/violent may begin to shift their beliefs and patterns of harm.
Milburn discusses that a part of the difficulty of measuring attitudes is that we tend to assume that we can measure someone's attitude on a topic by simply asking. For some people, this may be true, particularly for attitudes on something an individual cares about, or is central to their personality. With many other people, however, attitudes cannot be measured, because they haven't made a verbal statement of them, even in their own minds. In BIP classes, we confront individuals with questions designed to tease out their attitudes, but in most cases these attitudes are generated following a cognitive review of their knowledge, information, and beliefs about a situation. We're asking people who choose abusive behavior to confront their thinking over behavior that may have had little conscious thought beforehand. Little recognition of beliefs, attitude, and patterns that drove that choice to abuse and to be violent.
Think what that means for research on domestic violence. If an individual abuser hasn't consciously considered personal choice and patterns of behavior, asking questions about abusive and violent attitudes aren't going to be particularly enlightening, because they will not have identified themselves in those terms.
I have seen this firsthand over the years. At Emerge, there is a tool called the "Violent and Controlling Behavior Checklist," which is used at program entry and at program completion. I did some brief measurement of number of identified behaviors at both points and the numbers showed approximately double identification of hurtful behavior after completing the program. Several reasons may be attributed to this, but the ones I tend to think of are that first off the list of behavior is really hard to acknowledge. So people are hesitant to check off everything they have done when first starting out. Also, many of the behavior on the checklist don't resonate with people upon entry - that is they don't fully understand them and don't see how they might have done those behavior, even when they consciously understand the terms being used on the form.
Milburn outlines some of the concepts behind measurement of attitudes by distinguishing between the direction of an attitude (positive or negative) and the strength of the attitude (strong or weak). Behind that there are three components of attitudes: cognitive (what a person believes about an object), affective (how the person feels toward the object), and behavioral (how the person expects to behave toward the object). These three components are linearly related to the behavior in which a person engages.
Think of the layering of attitudes in a BIP class session. Attitude toward the class? Probably a mix of negative and positive, strong and weak. Cognitive beliefs about the class might be that it's a waste of time, is all about the money, is helpful, makes you think, and several others. Affective beliefs might include curiosity, frustration, apathy, interest, and a blend of a multitude of other emotional responses based on the topic discussed. Behavioral beliefs (which I have heard participants describe over time) are expectations of just sitting through the class and saying nothing, thoughts that it's going to be a waste of time and the class will lead to a lot of arguing, plans on being compliant and just making the facilitator do what you want them to - and all these things because in our minds we have plans of behavior when facing unknown circumstances. Again, since attitudes are not established until after analyzing and reflecting on beliefs and making verbal statements about them - it takes time to even process attitudes about BIP classes as a whole. In a completely unscientific analysis at Emerge, I and my co-facilitators would estimate that on average, participants would take about 10-18 classes before they got to a point of understanding the point of the classes it to work to improve respect and health in relationships - not to shame, ridicule, or attack people. Yet, if one were to simply assess attitudes by asking questions to participants early on, chances are much of that understanding would be negative and discouraging about the impact BIP has on the participants.
In the "theory of reasoned action" by Fishburn and Ajzen (in 1975 and 1981), beliefs about the consequences of a particular behavior are linked to the value that a person puts on each outcome. When an individual is able to evaluate outcomes of behavior, and understand their beliefs behind those outcomes - they become more able to see their attitudes. However, when an individual believes that other people might approve or disapprove of a behavior, that person may or may not have motivation to comply due to a perceived subjective norm. In essence, since our society doesn't have strong attitudes against non-physical harms and control in relationships, many of those behavior don't get considered. It's when people choose to physically harm their partner that alarms go off. So these two dynamics indicate that for the most part perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence will easily ignore the outcomes of hurtful behavior unless it is extreme. And even then, there are such a pattern of other hurtful and controlling behavior that have built, the extremes don't seem to be about their beliefs - but rather the behavior of others.
Is it any wonder that the most critical point for intervention is at the start of any work?
The next factor to consider in work with people who have chosen abusive and violent behavior is the "state of consciousness fallacy (Bennett 1980)." In essence, many researchers fall prey to thinking groups of people are a fixed entity whose composition remains the same over time and for different issues. Often, researchers will assume that opinions and behavior of abusers are informed (during BIP classes), stable (in their opinions/values), or consistent (same for all abusers). In domestic violence research, I haven't seen many researchers consider that domestic violence offenders are incredibly ill informed about hurtful behavior in relationships (even during/after BIP classes), are very inconsistent in their attitudes and beliefs, and are highly changeable over time in several different ways. Asking questions on a Likert's style 1-5 rating test aren't going to give you outcomes that are particularly useful because of these inconsistencies.
Recently, on the AQUILA listserv, there has been some discussion about use of the term "batterer" and how that can be construed as name calling.The responses have done everything from reflecting on the history of addressing domestic violence, to the power of nuance, to the suggestion of methods to move beyond labeling.
Referencing the "state of consciousness fallacy," I think we're in a weird place on this issue. In general, most of the "public" are incredibly ill-informed about domestic violence, both in understanding victimization issues, but also in understanding perpetrators. Even among the community of professional intervention workers, our opinions are rather unstable between individuals, and in public the stable opinions I would imagine are dehumanizing about both victims/survivors and perpetrators. I can certainly admit that I fluctuate between an opinion of not using that term, but also in acknowledging that it is an accepted and readily used term within research and writing which leads to me using "batterer" or "abuser" (in fact, in this article I have fluctuated between both options several times). In general, opinions of the term are incredibly inconsistent between professionals as well.
The term is complicated, partly due to history, partly due to overall society having very few nuanced opinions about intimate partner violence. Even the term "domestic violence" is problematic the more we find that non-intimate partner domestic violence cases get referred for BIP.
It is going to be important to continue this dialog about terms we use, but it's also going to be critical to consider how attitudes fit into our work, and how many things we take for granted have several problems. If we ignore those problems, we're going to have a hard time moving forward in our work.
I plan on writing more about what I am finding in this book. The next article will focus a bit more on problems in domestic violence research stemming from sampling errors, response rates, question wording, and social factors in public opinion.