Sociological consideration of violence within domestic settings, or between family members, has been largely ignored until relatively recently.
There seems to be a number of possible explanations for this oversight:
Domestic violence was simply not defined as a problem area. Violence was not defined in such a way that it was seen as a cause for concern. The control of women, by men, was accepted as the way things were, and was accepted as such. Both patriarchal and the Jewish/Christian theological tradition supported male dominance of women. Simply put, what we presently call domestic violence was in the past seen as an unremarkable aspect of conjugal relationships.
Until recently most sociologists were male and middle class. Perhaps such researchers were more easily duped by the idealized myth of the family. They could not identify the gap between ideology and reality. Now research into the causes and extent of domestic violence is spearheaded by female sociologists.
The predominant explanation of domestic violence is difficult for many people to come to terms with. The prime sociological explanation, in keeping with such explanations generally, avoids the personal and the biological, and places the blame firmly on male sexuality and male socialization. Men, all men, are therefore seen as potentially violent.
The family is seen as part of the private sphere and thus not open to state intervention.
Violence includes both physical and mental assault. One attempt to define violence against wives is that of Marsden (1978):
'A battered wife is a wife or cohabitee who has suffered persistent or serious physical assault at the hands of her partner'.
To this we need to add that for many women it is the mental battering that is worse.
The full extent of domestic violence is unknown. So, much violence of all types goes unreported. The best sources tend to be police records but these are notoriously unreliable, especially in the case of private crimes. However, there does seem to be agreement between a number of different sources which suggest that assault of wives by their husbands is by far the most common form of family violence.
Dobash and Dobash found that violence between unrelated males was the most common form of violence. The second most common is wife assault. However, the Dobash's concluded that merely 2% of such assaults are reported to the police.
One indicator of the extent of wife abuse is the dramatic proliferation of refuges over the past 25 years. The first refuge was set up in Chiswick in 1971, by 1981 there were 200 such refuges. The fact that they are often overcrowded suggests that the women who go to them represent the tip of an iceberg. The Select Committee on Violence in Marriage (1975) recommended one family place per 10,000 of the population should be the initial target for refuge places, so provision is still very poor.
It should be noted that the growth in the number of refuges does not in itself indicate a greater level of violence now than in the past. It could be that what we are witnessing is a much-increased intolerance of such behaviour by women.
It is difficult to uncover the extent of violence in family life generally because what evidence there is usually comes from wives who have sought refuge or reported their partners to the police. It has been suggested that it is more likely to be middle class violence that goes unreported.
The only large study to have investigated violence in the general population was carried out in the USA by Strauss, Gelles and Stienmetz (1980). They concluded that:
'Overall, every other house in America is the scene of family violence at least once a year'.
The focus on domestic violence should not blind us to the fact that such violence is part of a larger pattern of male violence against women. Research by Hanmer and Saunders (1984) and Radford (1987) has found that women's behaviour is very much restricted by fear of men, both in the domestic sphere and in public. Hanmer (1983) in a study of community violence to women showed that 59% of the women interviewed had experienced violent or threatening behaviour during the previous year, 21% of these at home. Halson (1989) argues that her research among 14 year-old girls in a co-educational school confirms that sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence commonly experienced by young women both in school and outside.
Violence then encompasses more than actual physical assault and includes all behaviours designed to control and intimidate women carried out by men. The extent of this control becomes evident once we include sexual harassment, obscene telephone calls, flashing, verbal abuse and graffiti.