International Journals

International Journals

DETERMINANTS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: A Cross-National Study Author(s): CHRISTINE ARTHUR and ROGER CLARK Source: International Journal of Sociology of the Family, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Autumn 2009), pp. 147-167 Published by: International Journals Stable URL: Accessed: 25-04-2019 20:07 UTC

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International Journal of Sociology of the Family, Vol 35, No. 2 (Autumn) 2009


A Cross-National Study


Rhode Island College

This paper examines determinants of variation in domestic violence at the national level. Although Levinson (1989) studied domestic violence at the societal level using anthropological data from the Human Relations Area File, most research on domestic violence has been at the individual or household level. This paper examines what determines variation in domestic violence at the national level

using data we gathered from two sources: the United States State Department’s (2005) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and a (1999) Population Reports from Johns Hopkins University. We then tested six theories designed to explain cross-societal variation in domestic violence: a Resource Theory, an Exchange Theory, a Culture of Violence Theory, a Patriarchal Theory, a Modernization Theory and an Economic Dependency Theory. All six theories were supported to some degree by our analysis. However, we did find reason to believe that economic dependency and modernization may be underlying factors for the other determinants we identified.

Domestic violence can involve a wide array of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Until recently, in most parts of the world, a husband a legal right to his

wife’s body. Many countries now provide legal protections against domestic violence, but many do not. Domestic abuse is the leading cause of injury to women even in the world’s most “developed” countries, like the United States (Brush 1990), and it has mostly been studied in the United States and other Western nations as an individual- and family-level problem. But there is international variation in the levels of domestic violence (Heise et al., 1999), and understanding this variation is important for a complete understanding of the phenomenon of domestic violence generally.

What we do first in this paper is review some of the literature that looks at the causes of domestic violence at the individual and family level. We then introduce theories that have been developed to explain domestic violence at the societal level, as well as two societal-level theories of our own. In this paper we test these societal-level theories with unique data sets about nation

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148 International Journal of Sociology of the Family

states. We use these data sets to examine various theories of domestic violence



The literature on domestic violence focuses on individuals and families as

units of analysis. A January, 2008, Google Scholar search, using key words “domestic violence,” yielded 788,000 articles, most of which focused at these levels. (There may have been exceptions to this rule, but there were none on the first twenty, or last twenty, pages of the list).

Systematic reviews of the literature of family violence in The Journal of Marriage and Family by decade also indicate a focus on individuals and the family. Gelles’ (1980) review, in fact, reflected on research of both the sixties and the seventies and stressed that the former tended to see domestic violence

as rare, the result of mental illness and/or poverty, while the latter concentrated

more on measuring the incidence of family violence and factors related to violence in the family. Gelles (1980) also outlined five theories of family violence, one of which, Goode’s (1971) Resource Theory (stressing the use of violence by husbands who want to retain a dominant position when they lack other resources, like education and job prestige), was especially useful for accounting for wife abuse at the family level. Gelles and Conte’s (1990) review of the eighties literature focused more attention on the sexual abuse of children than the earlier review, but also devoted sections to research that had examined

the changing rates of family violence more generally, the effects of violence on children and women and the assessment of intervention strategies, again at the family level.

Johnson and Ferraro’s (2000) review of the nineties literature also focused

on work that dealt with domestic violence at the individual and family levels, though not to the complete exclusion of more macro considerations. Johnson and Ferraro featured a typology of partner violence, distinguishing “intimate terrorism,” violence moved by a wish to exert control over a partner, from “common couple violence” (in which one or both partner lash(es) out at the other), “violent resistance” (in which one partner, usually the woman, fights back against an abusing partner), and “mutual violent control” (in which both husband and wife are controlling and violent). Johnson and Ferraro also suggested that a promising development has been work around violence as a mode of control, not only in heterosexual relationships, but also in same-gender relationships.

Unlike previous decade reviews, however, Johnson and Ferrarro did devote

a small fraction of their review to research that looked at global variation in partner violence, including some attention to work suggesting the considerable

variation in the incidence of partner violence by nation (Heise, 1994) and

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Determinants of Domestic Violence: A Cross-National Study 149

explanations for some of this variation (see, for instance, McWilliams [1998] work on Northern Ireland and, more generally, “societies under stress.”) We will be returning to some of this literature as we develop hypotheses about why this international variation exists.

Research since the last decade review has retained an emphasis on individual-and family-level research, while continuing to bring insights from other societies and hints at what more macro-level studies could look for.

Kacen’s (2006) study of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel suggests, among other things, that patriarchal family structures vary in their intensity from one society

to another and for one sub-society over time. Still, the most serious treatment of cross-cultural variation in domestic violence remains that done by David Levinson (1989).


Levinson in his (1989) Family Violence in Cross-Cultural Perspective, examined domestic violence, using data from The Human Relations Area File. We use Levinson extensively as a source of theories about domestic violence at a societal level. Levinson presents four theories, a Resource Theory, an Exchange Theory, a Culture of Violence Theory, and a Patriarchal Theory, that we believe are testable in a cross-national context and, in fact, will try to test with cross-national data. We will add two more theories of our own, a

Modernization Theory and a Dependency Theory, and will test these two as well. We focus, in our theorizing, on violence perpetrated by husbands upon wives.


Resource theory was first espoused by Goode (in 1971) and suggests that the more resources a husband brings to a relationship, the more power he has, but

the less likely he will actually resort to violence. When, however, a map’s superior power is threatened by a wife’s access to educational or job-related resources, he may resort to violence to re-establish himself as dominant. The implicit view of domestic violence here is consistent with Johnson and Ferraro’s

“intimate terrorism” type of violence, where violence is used to exert consistent

control over a spouse, but the latter is clearly focused at the family-level of analysis.

Levinson uses this approach to understand macro level variation in domestic violence. He argues that resource theory implies that societies where men’s traditional (relative) power is eroded because of women’s increased access to societal resources will involve large-scale status inconsistencies for men. This broad-based experience of status inconsistency, in turn, will be associated with increases in domestic violence generally, Levin posits.

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150 International Journal of Sociology of the Family

While Whaley (2001) does not focus on domestic violence directly, her consideration of the relationship between gender inequality, more generally, and rape suggests reason for doubting a direct and consistent relationship between increasing gender equality and violence. In the short term, it makes sense to Whaley that gender equality might pose a threat to the status quo and result in increased rape rates. But in the long term, she argues, gender equality should improve the social “climate” towards women and reduce rape rates. She tests these hypotheses with panel data from 109 U.S. cities, and does, in fact, find support for a negative long-term relationship between gender equality in income, education, access to high-status occupations and legal status, on the one hand, and rape rates. In any case, Whaley’s work suggests the possibility

that in cross-sectional analyses, where the cumulative effect of increased gender

equality over time is more likely to show up than shorter-term effects, one may expect to find that increased access to resources will be associated with diminished levels of domestic violence.

Levinson’s and Whaley’s versions of Resource Theory, then, suggest two, competing hypotheses:

Levinson-based Resource Theory hypotheses

  • As levels of education, labor force participation and access to political roles for women increase, domestic violence within that nation will increase.

Whaley-based Resource Theory hypothesis:

  • As levels of education, labor force participation and political roles for women increase, domestic violence within that nation will decrease.


Exchange Theory suggests that domestic violence will be particularly high in societies where its benefits to perpetrators are high and particularly low in societies where the costs to perpetrators are low. In many societies costs of violence are low because of inadequate social controls placed on such violence and because an emphasis on male aggressiveness actually encourages it (Levinson 1989; see also Kacen, 2006, for a more recent version). Levinson posits that as the costs of domestic violence rise in a society, the practice of domestic violence will decline. Levinson’s view here grows out of Gelles’ (1983) individual-level theory that people hit and abuse other family members because they can (Levinson 1989:15). At the national level, we deduce the following:

  • Nations that have laws against domestic violence will have lower levels of domestic violence than nations without such laws.

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Determinants of Domestic Violence: A Cross-National Study 151

  • Nations that do have domestic violence laws, but do not enforce them, will have higher rates of domestic violence than nations that have them and do enforce them.


Levinson also examines a Culture of Violence theory, first hypothesized by Wolfgang and Ferracuti in 1967 and, as we observed above, revisited more recently by McWilliams (1998) as a “societies under stress” thesis. This theory suggests that violent societies are more likely than nonviolent societies to permit domestic violence partly because where violence is used for conflict resolution generally, it is likely to be accepted as a means of conflict resolution within

the household as well. McWilliams’ (1998) version stresses that general violence blocks public awareness about issues of domestic violence. From this perspective we derive the hypothesis that:

  • The more recently a nation has been involved in war or internal strife, the higher the levels of domestic violence.


Levinson, borrowing from Martin (1973) and Dobash and Dobash (1979), also presents a Patriarchal Theory on family violence. This theory submits that, throughout history, males have dominated society and women were to be treated as men’s possessions. Patriarchal norms protect men’s ability to control their wives and justify their use of violence to do so. These norms have historical roots that emphasize female subordination. There is variation, however, in the extent to which patriarchal norms remain intact. One should be able to find evidence of their continuing presence in laws and practices that restrict women’s

freedoms in society at large or within the family particularly. We submit, for instance, that two indicators that a society remains patriarchal are that women’s

reproductive rights are inhibited and that great age differences continue exist between husbands and wives. We hypothesize, then, that:

  • Countries where women enjoy greater reproductive rights will have lower rates of domestic violence than other countries.
  • Countries in which the age difference between men and women at marriage is particularly great will have particularly high levels of domestic violence.


We argue that modernization should enhance women’s status and may be a reason behind a decreasing resource difference between men and women in a society (Resource Theory), increasing costs of doing domestic violence (Exchange Theory), as well as an undermining of traditional patriarchal norms

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152 International Journal of Sociology of the Family

(Patriarchal Theory). As Parsons (1960) and Smelser (1966) pointed out, modernization frequently leads to a valuing of universalistic over particularistic norms and achievement over ascription. Hence we expect women (and men) to be freed from traditional gender norms as a country modernizes. To the extent that the freedom is associated with a reduction of

resource differences between men and women, we would expect that, in the long term (Whaley’s version of Resource Theory), there would be a diminution in domestic violence. To the extent that societal norms and laws are changed to reflect universalistic and achievement norms and, consequently, to provide penalties for domestic violence (Gelles, 1983, and Levinson, 1989) and to undermine traditional patriarchal norms (Martin, 1973, and Dobash and Dobash, 1979), we would also expect such a diminution. Modernization has been measured (e.g. Clark, 1990) with simple indicators, like gross domestic product per capita and level of urbanization. Consequently, we would expect that:

  • There will be less domestic violence in countries with greater gross domestic product per capita.
  • There will be less domestic violence in countries with greater urbanization.


We also argue that economic dependency, other things being equal, should diminish women’s relative status and consequently their access to resources and to favorable norms and laws. Economic dependency has frequently been associated with decreases in women’s access to educational, economic and political resources (see Bollen, 1983, Chase-Dunn, 1975, Clark, 1986, Clark, 1991, Clark, Ramsbey and Adler, 1991, Ward 1984, Semyonov and Shenhav, 1988). Dependency theorists do not deny the presence of patriarchal relations in societies before their incorporation into the capitalist world system. But they do suggest that patriarchy is often augmented once capitalism penetrates new areas. Patriarchy is a mechanism through which a balance is maintained between women’s roles as producers and reproducers for capitalist markets in goods and labor. An interest in maintaining this balance exists for capitalist enterprise everywhere, but it is in nations that are dependent upon multinational corporate investment that it is most likely to overwhelm countervailing interests.

It is these nations in which governments, for instance, will make the greatest concessions to corporate requirements for profitable environments, limiting, for instance, unwanted regulations on gender discrimination. Consequently, we hypothesize:

  • The greater the economic dependency of a country, the higher the overall levels of domestic violence within that country.

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Determinants of Domestic Violence: A Cross-National Study 153


Measuring Domestic Violence Level

Measuring the level of domestic violence in any particular country is tricky. Gelles (1980), for instance, shaped his review of the 1970s literature on family violence around innovations in measurement that had permitted the first decent indications of the incidence in family violence in the United States. One of the

problems with doing cross-national research is the inability to be certain that studies of the incidence of domestic violence produce comparable indicators from country to country. We believe that, despite serious data reliability questions about both of the measures we use here, it is better to get some insight, however questionable, than none at all.

From the State Department’s (2005) website we coded descriptions of domestic violence levels by the Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 158 nations. Countries were coded 1, 2 and 3 for low, medium and high levels of domestic violence, respectively. We looked for particular descriptors in the qualitative descriptions of each country to determine

our codings. For example, countries that had descriptions about the domestic violence that included such words as domestic violence was “rare” or “had

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