The many shades of violence

November 20, 1998

Public perceptions of what causes violence are being challenged by a new study, writes Elizabeth A. Stanko.

Can we really know whether crime and violence are decreasing or increasing? The publication of the British Crime Survey, Criminal Statistics for England and Wales (1998), and the coverage of another report comparing crime in the United States with crime in England and Wales gave journalists a field day for speculation. One journalist, in breaking the story about the US/England and Wales comparisons, suggested that the myth that England and Wales are safe had been "shattered". But the portrayal of violence in the news was homogeneous - all violence was treated alike. There was no sensitivity to the contexts within which violence takes place. Astonishing really, for the Stephen Lawrence inquiry demonstrated how the context within which violence is understood is crucial to organisational decision-making, public perceptions and private grief.

The Economic and Social Research Council's new violence research programme, funded for five years, aims to enhance our understanding of various forms of violence to the person. The views of offenders, victims, policy-makers, frontline professionals and members of the general public are included in the research, which concentrates on violence's impact and meaning.

Twenty projects are under way. They include examination of contemporary issues, such as violence in Northern Ireland, the first prevalence study of violence in pregnancy, the first study of parents, discipline and children, the study of physical and sexual abuse within residential homes, homicide, racist offending, violence in prisons, girls' violence, domestic violence, bullying and racism in schools, violence against professionals working in the community, a study of bystander intervention, historical studies of violence, violence against street prostitutes, and use of violence by door staff.

Together, these offer a creative engagement with different theoretical perspectives in the study of violence.

Located throughout the United Kingdom, project teams will examine the impact of social divisions founded in gender, sexuality, ethnicity, neighbourhood and age difference. The project will examine social tolerance of violence. It will challenge the thinking that treats violence as natural or inevitable because it is experienced frequently by particular groups. It will look at the situational and environmental contexts of "doing" violence, will interrogate the notion that violence is learned and is transmitted from parent to child and will consider how social policy can learn from the experiences of those suffering violence and those who commit violence.

The project is interdisciplinary. Historians, sociologists, educationists, social psychologists, geographers, social policy analysts, women's studies, medical professionals, and urban studies specialists make up the project teams. So far, methodological debate has been lively, particularly about how project teams define violence.

To coincide with the launch, we published a review of what we know about violence in the UK. Taking Stock: What We Know about Violence weaves together data from government statistics, new analyses of British Crime Surveys, independent research and monitoring information from statutory and voluntary agencies.

The widespread perception of violence as random acts by a stranger is not based on fact. Victims of violence are more likely than not to know the person who committed violence against them and/or the reason they were attacked. Indeed, this report challenges the portrayal of violence found in many of the newspaper articles of the previous week.

It highlights the fact that the vast majority of rape complaints reported to the police in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland involve people who know one another; that a 1997 Home Office study found perpetrators of racial harassment could be of all ages, and often acted together as groups of friends or families; that between 1990 and 1997 there were 7 deaths in police custody in England and Wales, equivalent to 3.2 per 100,000 arrests for notifiable offences. This suggests that we have information about violence, but little systematic knowledge.

So the common theme of the 20 projects is to challenge thinking about the nature and meaning of violence. But to do so it must explore the meanings of violence from different approaches.

Taking Stock demonstrates that responding to violence cannot be left to the criminal justice system, least of all to the police. Most violence is never reported to official agencies. Research suggests, for instance, that women use their GPs as much as they use police in situations of domestic violence. Violence is mediated at work, during leisure, in schools and on the street.

So the project must engage with policy-makers and professionals in a wide range of fields. Data about differential impact of violence is crucial, for it helps to form targeted and effective social policy. Advancing a better understanding of violence must be based on sound information. There must be a commitment to gather such data and analyse them carefully - not only for the projects, but also as an example to many other agencies and government bodies.

Elizabeth A. Stanko is director of the ESRC violence research programme, Brunel University.

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