If it wasn’t for those pesky feminists…

This report argues that domestic abuse is a shocking and disturbingly prevalent hallmark of social breakdown – yet it exists inside every community.”

This sentence opens the executive summary of the Centre for Social Justice’s report on domestic abuse Beyond Violence, published, coincidentally, the day after my last post criticizing two previous CSJ publications for assuming that a correlation between two phenomena indicated a causal link between them. I was curious about the new report’s take on correlations and causality.

Correlations and causality

Beyond Violence, co-authored by a clinical psychologist and a policy expert, provides an overview of the legal, sociological and psychological aspects of domestic abuse from a public policy perspective. It recognizes the complex nature of domestic relationships and abuse and that perpetrators, as well as victims, need understanding and help. However, there’s an implicit assumption running through the paper, as in the CSJ’s papers about marriage and child development, that if A and B are positively correlated and A happens before B, then A must cause B.

That isn’t necessarily the case, of course. A and B might each have a different, independent cause, or both be caused by C – or the causes might be more complex. Take mental health for example. There’s no doubt that domestic abuse can cause mental health problems – for both victims and perpetrators. But mental health problems – in victims or perpetrators – can also be causal factors in abuse. Similarly, marriages might tend to result in stable relationships, or it might be that couples in stable relationships tend to get married. The social problems associated with poor attachment in infancy might not be caused by poor attachment; poor attachment and the associated social problems might have independent causes. What is certain is that interventions that make incorrect assumptions about causes run the risk of being ineffective.

Some other aspects of this report caught my eye and gave me cause for concern.

Domestic abuse and the law

The report deals at some length with the legislation relevant to domestic abuse and points out that

“…fundamentally the law and legal system were not designed with domestic abuse in mind and they still both misapply understandings of other sorts of crime to it.” (p.15).

In response, it recommends that a new crime of coercive control is recognized

“…whereby a prosecution can be brought on the basis of a ‘course of conduct’ in which a person has acted strategically to control, isolate, intimidate and/or degrade their victim.” (p.19)

and the report bemoans

the high standard of proof required before there is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.” (p.15)

It’s quite likely that the law relating to domestic abuse might need to be changed; however, I have reservations about the direction in which this line of argument is moving. UK law puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff. This means that there’s a greater risk of criminals getting away with it than of innocent people being wrongly convicted. There are good reasons for that. It’s more difficult to prove that someone didn’t commit a crime than that they did, wrongful conviction causes long-term damage and reduces respect for the law, and if the burden of proof were on the defendant the courts would be full of vexatious litigants. UK law also requires evidence to show beyond reasonable doubt that someone committed a crime. A ‘high standard of proof’ is required for good reason. I couldn’t find any evidence that the report had tackled the thorny question of what sort of evidence would be required to prove that a course of conduct involving coercive control had taken place.

Involvement of public sector services

Understandably, the CSJ wants to prevent domestic abuse before it starts. In order to do so, it recommends a ‘skill-based module’ in schools ‘backed up by a supportive school culture and learning across other subjects’ (p.17).

It also recommends the involvement of health visitors, Sure Start Centres and GP surgeries and makes recommendations for the criteria used to commission interventions in domestic abuse cases. It’s clear that the authors envisage reallocating existing funding but since education, health and social care services are currently struggling to cope with a) demand b) reduced budgets and c) structural changes, these recommendations are likely to go on the ‘to do later’ list.

Payment by results

The report recommends several interventions funded by the creation of payment-by-results commissioning frameworks, including using social impact bonds for ‘domestic abuse services’(p.17). The report doesn’t explain what a social impact bond is, nor could I find any indication of what results would trigger payments. According to Wikipedia a social impact bond depends on

“…specified social outcomes being achieved and therefore in terms of investment risk Social Impact Bonds are more similar to that of a structured product or an equity investment.”

Social impact bonds have also been mooted in the USA and Australia, although there doesn’t appear to be any evidence yet for their efficacy. The idea is that the savings resulting from interventions pay for the interventions themselves. Of course until the interventions result in savings, there’s no money to pay to the agencies doing the intervening. That’s where the ‘investment’ of the social bond comes in. If my experience is anything to go by, this model would result in agencies focusing on meeting required outcomes, rather than on outcomes of maximum benefit to the client. It also assumes that the savings to the exchequer would be greater than the money needed to fund the agencies. But savings wouldn’t go back to the taxpayer – at least not during the life of the social impact bond – they would go to private investors. So much for limiting public sector borrowing.

Feminism

The authors are critical of what they describe as a ‘power, control and patriarchy’ model of domestic abuse (pp.15, 52ff) originating in feminist thinking (feminists get 24 mentions in this report). They are careful to acknowledge the part played by feminists in putting domestic abuse firmly on the political agenda. They also acknowledge that the model is oversimplified in government policy and in practice. But when they say;

However, as movements move from the margins to the mainstream, they need to confront and adapt to the nuances and complexities of the problems they are aiming to address. This has not happened in the domestic abuse field; the ‘patriarchy, power and control’ analysis remains more or less intact despite its incompatibility with emerging findings about domestic abuse” (p.54).

The implication is that the feminist model of domestic abuse is itself simplistic, lacks nuance and doesn’t recognize the complexities of the problem, despite Janice Haaken – ‘psychologist, feminist, activist and film-maker’ – being quoted as saying of domestic abuse;

‘There is something quite vital – and respectful – in acknowledging this complexity, and the challenges we face in bringing about a more humane world’” (p.23).

I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist – I’ve always questioned the assumptions implicit in feminist thinking – and I’m quite sure many feminists do subscribe to a simplistic model of domestic abuse framed only in terms of power, control and patriarchy. But most of the feminist writers I’ve read (mainly academics) have been clear about their framework, explicit about their assumptions, and have understood the complexity of the phenomena they are dealing with. Their emphasis has been on power, control and patriarchy because of the extent to which such issues are taken for granted.

My experience with ‘marginal movements’ suggests that it’s when ideas rather than movements move to the mainstream that mainstream agencies such as governments and policy-makers adopt simplistic versions of the ideas that lack nuance and don’t recognize the complexities involved.

Underlying assumptions

What troubled me most about this report was something that wasn’t made explicit – its underlying assumptions. Let’s go back to the sentence that opens the executive summary. “This report argues that domestic abuse is a shocking and disturbingly prevalent hallmark of social breakdown – yet it exists inside every community.”

An accusation often leveled at researchers is that their writing is too dense and full of jargon, rendering it inaccessible to the average reader. There’s no reason why researchers’ writing should be impenetrable, but there are reasons for it being like it is. One is the space constraints of academic journals – authors often have to work within strict word limits and therefore use technical terminology for brevity. Another reason is that scientific research is about the objective evaluation of evidence. No one can be truly objective, of course, which is why, over the centuries, scientists have developed a toolbox of research methods that go a long way toward mitigating the effects of the errors and biases inherent in human thinking. A good academic paper will be grounded in evidence – authors will avoid personal opinion and emotive language because these could bias the conclusions of readers – or of the authors themselves.

Beyond Violence isn’t an academic journal paper, so it doesn’t have to conform to the same level of rigour. However, opening a report with personal opinion and emotive language makes it clear what the authors want readers to think. Some people, unfamiliar with domestic abuse or the full range of human behaviour might find the statistics on the prevalence of domestic abuse ‘shocking and disturbing’. Others, more familiar with both, might mutter about no one knowing about what goes on behind closed doors. The report refers to domestic abuse as a ‘hallmark of social breakdown’, but I couldn’t find any evidence to support this assertion. There have been times of social breakdown in English history; the Viking invasions, the wars of the roses, the civil war, the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the depression spring to mind. It’s quite likely that domestic abuse escalated during those periods, but they were characterized by far more obvious ‘hallmarks’ than domestic abuse.

Also, the authors of the report emphasise the fact that domestic abuse has only achieved widespread recognition as a social problem in the last few decades. The implication, coupled with historical evidence, is that the prevalence of domestic abuse is probably lower now than at any other time during our history. So what ‘social breakdown’ does it indicate? In the report’s Foreword, the CSJ’s Managing Director, Christian Guy, links ‘disadvantage’ to ‘family breakdown’.

In all of our work with community-based organisations fighting poverty on the frontline, we are reminded of the close association between family breakdown and other drivers of disadvantage – particularly drug and alcohol addiction, welfare dependency, educational failure and serious personal debt.” (p.4)

The causal chain underpinning the CSJ’s view of social problems appears to look something like this;

individual behaviour
leads to
family breakdown
leads to
social problems/social breakdown

The CSJ appears to imagine that if all couples got married, engaged appropriately with their children and acted responsibly (and if the pesky feminists stopped propagating simplistic ideas) social problems would melt away. Certainly the behaviour of a small number of individuals can cause a disproportionate number of social problems, but the fact that individual behaviour results in those problems is a different issue from what causes the individual behaviour in the first place. Individuals are often severely constrained as to what they can do about their genes, physiological make-up, health problems, disabilities, learning difficulties, education, income, housing and family responsibilities. They can’t change national or international economic and social conditions, nor the quality of education, health or social care that’s available to them. That doesn’t absolve individuals of moral or legal responsibility for their own actions. What it does mean that locating the root cause of individual behaviour in individuals only is short-sighted and that interventions aimed at changing individual behaviour without addressing the complex causes of that behaviour are likely to fail.

Decades of research have shown that the causes of individual behaviour are complex. In order to change the behaviours that cause social problems, it’s necessary first to tease out the causes and then to address them all. Simultaneously. A rigorous review of several research literatures, some very careful planning and a great deal of joined-up working will be required. The task isn’t an impossible one, but it’s challenging. It might be a while before social impact bond investors get their money back. Taxpayers might need to wait a bit longer.

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