Canadian Journal of Sociology Online July-August 2000

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Ruth M. Mann.
Who Owns Domestic Abuse? The Local Politics of a Social Problem.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000, 322 pp. $Cdn 55.00 cloth (0-8020-4248-1); $Cdn 22.95 paper (0-8020-8091-X).

Sociologists tend to reduce analytic orientations to caricatures. Constructionist analyses of social problems are no exception. Critics sometimes assume that an argument that some social problem is socially constructed means that the analyst somehow doubts that the problem exists, and is arguing that the phenomenon is not real. Fortunately, most sociologists understand that all knowledge--including our ideas about social problems--are produced through social interaction, that the ways we classify and assign meaning to the world are inevitably socially constructed. But constructionist research often tells simplified stories that border on caricature. Most cases studies entitled "The Construction of ____ as a Social Problem" tell a straightforward story: how a previously neglected phenomenon becomes recognized as a social problem thanks to claims made by some combination of activists, media, and experts. Typically, such studies view this process as something that occurs nationwide, throughout the territory covered by Oprah's influence.

In contrast, Ruth M. Mann's Who Owns Domestic Abuse? tells a story that is anything but straightforward. Hers is a local case study, an account of how the problem of domestic abuse (a.k.a. wife abuse, battered women, family violence, etc.) was given shape in a Southern Ontario community she calls the Township. On the surface, it ought to be a simple story. People in the Township knew about the problem (presumably at least partly through exposure to the national media), they agreed it was serious, and they wanted to do something about it. This is, of course, the point where most constructionist case studies end, but Mann reveals that it is just the beginning of a fascinating story.

The people in the Township who were concerned about domestic abuse--including victims, politicians, activists, therapists, police, and others--may have agreed that domestic abuse was a social problem, but they defined the problem in competing ways. Their debates focused on four issues that were variously seen as central or peripheral to domestic abuse: (1) Gender--Was domestic abuse something that male perpetrators committed against females victims, or were both women and men violently abusive? (2) Substance abuse--Were alcohol and drug problems a cause of domestic abuse, or were they unrelated? (3) Intergenerational processes--Did their experiences with childhood abuse somehow lead perpetrators and victims into domestic abuse, or were those experiences irrelevant? and (4) Community characteristics--Was the Township's relatively poor and less educated population at special risk of domestic abuse, or was the problem ubiquitous?

Mann argues that disagreements over these issues made the Township's efforts to address the problem contentious. On one side were individuals who viewed the problem through a feminist lens: they called the problem "domestic abuse" and they argued that its roots lay in patriarchal domination; for them, claims about violent females, the role of alcohol, intergenerational abuse histories, and any special disadvantages the Township may have had were red herrings that threatened to obscure the sexist nature of domestic abuse. On the other side were those who spoke of "family violence," who saw battered women as part of a larger constellation of troubles that included sometimes violent women, substance abuse, intergenerational abuse, poverty, and so on. But my description of two sides is too simple; Mann's interviews reveal that many people in the Township held complex, sometimes inconsistent views. Feminists, for example, argued that victims' views had to be respected, but they found themselves confronted with--and trying to change the views of--victims who favored family violence constructions of the problem. The result was a continuing struggle over ownership, over whose definitions would characterize the problem and shape social policies. Mann traces a series of intense debates over small issues that loomed large as symbols of ownership: Where should the women's shelter be located? What sort of housekeeping rules ought to govern the shelter? and so on. Her interviews capture people trying to understand the interpersonal-- what's wrong and what ought to be done--in terms of broader constructions.

Who Owns Domestic Abuse? started as a dissertation, and it retains many of the trappings. There are lengthy, rather self-conscious passages locating the research within the social problems literature, and the 200 pages of text are accompanied by eight appendices, fifteen densely-packed tables (totalling 36 pages), and over 40 pages of notes and references. The data in the tables (drawn from surveys of Township residents) seem rich, but they are largely ignored in the text (which instead draws heavily on quotes from interviews with a range of key figures in the local debate). Still, this must have been an impressive dissertation: Mann compiled a massive amount of information about the construction of one local social problem, and her data offer the foundation for a remarkably subtle analysis.

Joel Best
University of Delaware
July 2000
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