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Woman Abuse: Sociological Perspectives.

THE LAST TWO DECADES HAVE WITNESSED A TREMENDOUS GROWTH IN AWARENess and academic study of violence against women. The Women's Movement, in conjunction with scholarly research, has taken woman abuse out from "behind closed doors." As a field of study, woman abuse is one of the fastest growing areas in sociology (with more than a half-dozen journals now focused on domestic violence). It is no longer regarded as an infrequent event perpetrated by a handful of psychopaths. Rather, feminist and sociological analyses have made it increasingly clear that this is a widespread social problem that grows out of the very structure and ideology of society.

Woman Abuse: Sociological Perspectives (1991) by Walter DeKeseredy and Ronald Hinch is a recent and valuable addition to the field. This volume takes up a difficult challenge, which is to provide an integrated overview of woman abuse. The strengths of the book are many. The volume is concise and well organized, with chapters on different forms of woman abuse following a basic outline: definitions, incidence rates, patterns (correlates) of abuse, theories, and policy issues. The discussion of definitions and incidence rates is quite helpful. The authors are particularly good at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of different estimates of incidence. The overviews of patterns and theories are less complete and conclusive, in pan because the issues these sections try to summarize are so vast and complex.

Most important, this volume moves the Canadian experience out from the shadows of U.S.-focused research. For too long, U.S. sociology has assumed that Canada is our northern territory and that there is little of special significance to be gained by more concerted study of Canadian society. DeKeseredy and Hinch have done a good job of summarizing the Canadian research on woman abuse. I imagine that their book will be widely adopted in sociology, women's studies, and criminology courses across Canada because of this empirical base. While I appreciated the chance to learn about woman abuse in Canada, I ended up wishing for more -- specifically, a fuller social analysis of whether woman abuse in Canada differs from its counterpart in the U.S. in any significant way. Perhaps this volume will help generate further work along these lines.

The review of the policy issues related to the different forms of abuse are valuable. The authors identify themselves as "left realists" -- critics of capitalist patriarchy who are nevertheless realistic about social change. Recognizing that "the revolution" is not imminent, they examine a series of policy initiatives designed to "chip away" at the structures and ideologies that they regard as the underpinnings of woman abuse. The authors are quite explicit about their "left-realist" theoretical and political stance. Their honesty in this regard is refreshing because the social sciences are replete with theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches that claim objectivity. In fact, there is no position one can take with regard to social problems (particularly woman abuse) that is not political in some way. For example, a conceptualization of spouse abuse as a family problem that results from a spiraling of mutual negative interactions is quite political in its seeming neutrality. It obscures the issue of gender and the imbalance of power between husbands and wives in our society. A narrow family focus eclipses the importance of women's economic disadvantage, which contributes to their entrapment in a violent marriage. The family focus results in a conceptualization that ultimately blames the victim -- the woman. Politically, such social science serves to maintain the status quo.

Having congratulated DeKeseredy and Hinch on their clear, value-explicit stance, I must question some of the assertions that flow from their position. For example, they baldly state that "woman abuse...is a specific result of capitalist economic conditions interacting with patriarchal social relations" (p. 4). And later: "Rapists' attempts to exert control and dominate women are ... a direct result of the transmission of values derived from both patriarchal and capitalist value structures" (p. 79). I would argue that there is a significant difference between the recognition that capitalist patriarchy substantially contributes to woman abuse and the assertion that woman abuse is a specific or direct result of it. There is now adequate cross-cultural and historical data that show that woman abuse is common in socialist, precapitalist agricultural, and even simpler societies. I think we need to use more caution in our broad assertions. Taking a strong political stance is fine. Allowing that stance to eclipse evidence to the contrary is not.

Let me move on to another issue that grows out of the authors' critique of capitalist patriarchy. A strength of this volume is that because the authors have such a far-reaching theoretical framework, they examine a wide range of woman abuse. Though other feminist writers have connected several forms of woman abuse, to my knowledge this book is the first to include corporate violence against women so prominently. This shift from individual perpetrators to corporate perpetrators is provocative and powerful. It pushes us to broaden the usual parameters of the field.

Although I commend DeKeseredy and Hinch for identifying important forms of corporate violence against women (particularly the dangers posed to women consumers' reproductive and mental health), I find that they go too far. Their deep animosity to capitalist corporations leads them to make indictments that do not logically come under the rubric of woman abuse. Moreover, their critique becomes so sweeping that dangerous corporate practices become blurred with minor hazards and even unavoidable stresses. Their tables, for example, which summarize workplace hazards (pp. 103, 108), include important hazards such as lead exposure, which is clearly dangerous for women's reproductive health and has become the focus of discriminatory policies that limit women's employment opportunities. At the other extreme, "contact with children" is also listed as a hazard for teachers and childcare workers because they can cause "stress, ulcers, hypertension, [and] contagious diseases" (p. 109). This strikes me as a silly example and undermines the authors' case against serious "corporate violence."

The chapter on corporate violence is the most uneven in the volume. The discussion often leaps from topic to topic (for example, from a chicken-butchering assembly line to sexual harassment), leaving the reader struggling to make the connections. Though the chapter makes several valuable individual points, it does not make a coherent case that corporate violence is a gendered phenomenon, which is appropriately understood as a form of woman abuse.

Since Woman Abuse is such an inclusive volume, I was surprised by an important omission. There is no mention of assaults on the street (muggings, purse-snatchings, and even murder). This is the form of violence women most expect. It is important to consider that this expectation is largely created by the media and obscures the preponderance of violence by acquaintances and intimates. This is the typical "fear of crime" that criminologists study. A discussion of the amount of such crime and the threat it poses to women relative to other forms of abuse would have been a useful addition to this otherwise comprehensive volume.

In sum, Woman Abuse: Sociological Perspectives is a solid and valuable addition to a fast-growing field. It is well organized, inclusive, and brings Canadian research into prominence.
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Author:Yllo, Kersti
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:1195
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