The highly personal nature of domestic violence frequently prevents accurate assessment of the phenomenon. However, despite difficulties in ascertaining precise measurement of its occurrence, a plethora of research has been conducted examining correlates of reported domestic assaults. Among the identified correlates of this particular type of violence, which often mirrors the established correlates of crime in general, are gender, race, and social class. Gender remains perhaps the most salient factor influencing both victimization and perpetration, with women as likely victims and men as likely perpetrators. Race and social class remain a closely interwoven social reality and are often discussed concurrently. This research paper documents recent research focusing on the relationship between social class and domestic violence with attention to the related link between race and domestic assault.
Generally, it is argued that domestic violence is not class specific, with victimization occurring in all corners of society. Although victimization can certainly occur anywhere, it is not randomly distributed throughout society. Instead, the extant literature base situates prevalence of domestic assault in lower-class families and communities. Isolated studies have reported higher incidence among middle- and upper-class families (see, for example, Davidson 1978), although the vast majority of empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests a strong, significant relationship between domestic assault and lower socioeconomic status. Race is also closely linked to victimization for women, with minority groups significantly more likely to experience victimization in terms of physical assault, rape, and stalking. However, racial and ethnic differences tend to disappear after controlling for socioeconomic status (i.e., class).
As noted above, it is difficult to separate race and class realities in sociological research. Consequently, the bulk of research simultaneously reports findings pertaining to the intersection of the two. For example, results from a 1989 study examining the incidence of marital violence within the black community found that social class was among the most salient predictors of domestic assault (Lockhart and White 1989). Using a sample of 155 married or cohabiting black women living in a major southeastern metropolitan city in the United States, the authors found that lower-class women experienced both more general conflicts and more conflicts leading to violence in their relationships than did their middle- and upper-class counterparts. Greater incidence of violence wherein men were victims was related to interaction between class and the extent of discord present in the relationship. Interestingly, the proportion of women who engaged in physical violence, as well as its frequency, was equal to or exceeded that used by the men against them. Relationship discord was also found to be a significant predictor of domestic violence, even after controlling for social class.
Rennison and Planty (2003) analyzed the relationship between race of victim and intimate partner violence utilizing data from the National Crime Victimization Survey. Although univariate analyses typically indicate a significant relationship between race and domestic violence (as was the case in this study), further multivariate assessment revealed that racial differences disappeared after controlling for annual household income. Findings from this research again illustrate the importance of class in understanding the relationship between race and victimization.
Several studies have chosen to investigate the effects of socioeconomic characteristics along with other mitigating individual and environmental features, including substance abuse, mental illness, and community disorganization. Field and Caetano (2004), for instance, investigated ethnic differences in domestic violence as they related to socioeconomic status and alcohol use. Findings indicated that although ethnic minorities reported higher rates of domestic violence, differences were reduced after controlling for social class and alcohol use. Black couples, however, were found to be at greater risk of domestic violence as compared with whites and Hispanics even after controlling for risk factors. Not surprisingly, alcohol use tends to exacerbate conflictual situations, which may then lead to increased violence.
Environmental or structural variables have long been associated with higher incidence of virtually all types of crime and delinquency (Bursik 1988; Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Shaw and McKay 1942), and domestic violence is no exception. In a multilevel examination of partner violence, Van Wyk, Benson, and Fox (2003) attempted to identify the neighborhood-, partner-, and individual-level factors that were associated with domestic assault. Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households and the U.S. Census, their findings suggest that neighborhood effects interact with partner- and individual-level characteristics to explain male-to-female violence. Additionally, couples experiencing dissatisfaction with their finances and those with relatively short unions were more likely to experience violence regardless of neighborhood. Another macro-level study examining the relationship between social disorganization and domestic violence rates similarly found that neighborhoods with greater resource deprivation had significantly higher rates of violence between intimates (Miles-Doan 1998).
More recently, Benson, Wooldredge, and Thistlethwaite (2004) investigated racial differences related to participation in domestic violence. Several significant findings were generated, including the importance of community in predicting violence between intimates. Specifically, rates of domestic violence for both blacks and whites varied consistently by community type, and the correlation between race and violence was significantly reduced or disappeared altogether when ecological contexts were controlled. Additionally, individual-level risk factors appeared to operate similarly for both races.
Although most empirical evidence identifies class as an important predictor of domestic violence, these results are not without caveat. The true nature and extent of crime in contemporary society is unknown, and domestic violence is among the most underreported crimes. Hence, determinations about the scope of domestic violence remain questionable. Given the tendency to underreport this particular crime, researchers also remain unsure about the validity of the data they do have. Specifically, it is possible that the reporting of domestic violence itself varies by social class, presenting an inaccurate picture of the relationship between victimization and socioeconomic status. Only through continued research incorporating mixedmethodological approaches can the actual status of domestic violence be ascertained.
- Benson, M., J. Wooldredge, and A. Thistlethwaite. ‘‘The Correlation between Race and Domestic Violence Is Confounded with Community Context.’’ Social Problems 51 (2004): 326–342.
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- Field, C., and R. Caetano. ‘‘Ethnic Differences in Intimate Partner Violence in the US General Population: The Role of Alcohol Use and Socioeconomic Status.’’ Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 5, no. 4 (2004): 303–317.
- Lockhart, L., and B. W. White. ‘‘Understanding Marital Violence in the Black Community.’’ Journal of Interpersonal Violence 4, no. 4 (1989): 421–436.
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- Rennison, C., and M. Planty. ‘‘Nonlethal Intimate Partner Violence: Examining Race, Gender, and Income Patterns.’’ Violence and Victims 18, no. 4 (2003): 433–443.
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- Van Wyk, J., M. Benson, and G. Fox. ‘‘Detangling Individual-, Partner-, and Community-Level Correlates of Partner Violence.’’ Crime and Delinquency 49, no. 3 (2003): 412–438.