Research Spotlight: Once an abuser, always an abuser?

artist-dolls-fighting.jpgPreliminary anthropology research in French Polynesia seems to confirm what psychology and sociology researchers have observed about domestic violence in general: There are two different types. One kind endures and escalates, while the other gradually fades away after a few years.

The findings are those of SMU’s Victoria Lockwood, who for three decades has studied the lives of women on the chain of South Pacific islands that includes the tropical paradise of Tahiti.

Few anthropologists study domestic violence. What Lockwood has found initially confirms the existence of “battering,” which is long-lived, versus “situational couple violence,” which is short-lived.

“If we don’t acknowledge there are two different kinds of domestic violence, then we’ll never understand what the causes are,” says Lockwood, associate professor of anthropology in SMU’s Dedman College. “The causes are very different, so if we wish to devise policies or social programs, we need to be doing two different things to address the issues.”

For 28 years, Lockwood has studied the impact of modernization and globalization on the women of Tahiti and its tiny rural neighbors, Tubuai and Rurutu. Her research took a turn, however, when the women began disclosing that arguments with their husbands at times resulted in physical violence.

Now she is investigating the prevalence, causes, meanings and consequences of domestic violence on its victims on the islands. The research is funded by a three-year, $128,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The islands are a fairly gender-egalitarian society, she says. Domestic violence is no more common there than anywhere else. The women expressed distress to Lockwood that their husbands hit them, but said the assaults gradually stop after the early years of marriage. That’s not the stereotype of domestic violence, Lockwood notes, citing the widely held belief that one incident of abuse indicates more to come.

“The word on the street, at least in American society, is that domestic violence doesn’t go away. ‘Once an abuser, always an abuser,’ and the abuse escalates over time,” Lockwood says. “But that wasn’t the case in Tahiti. And that’s what got me interested in looking at the issue in Tahitian society.”

Read more at the SMU Research blog