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International Journal of Social Research Methodology

Vol. 13, No. 3, July 2010, 265–275

Counting woman abuse: a cautionary tale of two surveys

Diane Crocker*

Department of Sociology and Criminology, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS, Canada
(Received 8 May 2009; final version received 17 November 2009)
Taylor and Francis

Journal of Social(online)
Research Methodology

This paper describes how the findings of two nationally representative Canadian
surveys on woman abuse were taken up by both academics and the media. It puts
the surveys in the context of debates about feminist epistemology and
measurement. This context does now, however, fully account for the ways in
which the findings were mobilized for apparently different purposes. Using a
governmentality perspective, the paper illustrates the parallels between the way in
which anti-violence policies and the surveys have constituted the problem of
woman abuse in ways that facilitate a particular form of governing gender. The
paper argues that the wider shift to neo-liberal forms of governance must be
considered by feminists who count woman abuse in order to avoid contributing to
this shift. The paper concludes with ways to undertake survey research on woman
Keywords: violence against women; survey research; governmentality

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Canadians witnessed a rise in research, includ-
ing quantitative research, on the nature or prevalence of various forms of violence
against women. Two large, nationally representative, surveys – the Dating Violence
Survey (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1993a, 1993b) and the Violence Against Women
Survey (Johnson, 1995; Johnson & Sacco, 1995) – were major contributors. Both
surveys found high levels of abuse and victimization and both generated a consider-
able amount of political and public controversy. At the time of the release of these
surveys, feminists were still divided on whether quantitative methods could or should
serve the interests of women (Brush, 1990; Gelsthorpe, 1992; Pugh, 1990; Reinharz,
1992a). Given the intellectual context, one might have expected push-back from those
feminist methodologists who opposed the use of statistics and questions about whether
these surveys violated the principles of feminist research. But, what is striking about
these surveys is that resistance to the findings came mainly from an anti-feminist
backlash. As Doob (1995) observed at the time: ‘the findings of high levels of
violence directed at women not only are disturbing for anyone concerned about
violence, but also appear to disturb those who would prefer to believe that violence
against women is not a problem’ (p. 164).
What is also striking is that the critiques raised by feminists ran parallel to those
who would argue that feminists have exaggerated the level of inequity between men


ISSN 1364-5579 print/ISSN 1464-5300 online

© 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2010.482263
266 D. Crocker

and women. Both groups saw the numbers reported by the Dating Violence Survey as
inflated by the use of overly broad definitions and the anti-feminists raised this
concern about the Violence Against Women Survey. Anti-feminist commentators
claimed that broad definitions served the political interests of feminists to prove that
violence against women is a bigger problem than it is perceived. Feminists worried
that broad definitions served to blur the distinction between minor events, which are
quite common, and serious events, which are less common but have dramatic conse-
quences. The surveys prompted a very public discussion about how to define and
measure ‘abuse’ and ‘victimization.’
This paper does not discuss how survey researchers should define abuse or victim-
ization – this has been discussed extensively elsewhere (DeKeseredy, 2000; Mihalic
& Elliott, 1997; Rand, 2005). Nor will it evaluate the relative value or methodological
rigor of either of these studies or how they measured victimization and abuse. Indeed,
I begin this case study with the premise that feminists can and should count. How they
count can and should vary. What I probe in this paper is what the debate about the
surveys reveals about the governmental context in which we produce our statistics and
the implications for counting woman abuse in neo-liberal times.
As Doob (1995) suggests, ‘[c]riticisms of the [Violence Against Women] survey
– couched often in “technical” or methodological language – appear to be motivated
primarily by political and social attitudes, rather than by concerns about the actual
methodology’ (p. 165). Other scholars have noted more generally that the political and
historical context drives what is to be measured and how (Haggerty, 2002; Sprague,
2005). The argument in this paper goes one step further to argue that the governmental
context helps to explain how it could be that both feminists and anti-feminists rejected
the surveys and their findings. This paper uses the debates about the Dating Violence
and the Violence Against Women Surveys to demonstrate how feminist work on
counting woman abuse has inadvertently played into the shift to neo-liberal forms of
governing gender leading to policies that supported, and continue to support this shift.
The debates over these surveys will serve as a case study to illustrate some of the
politics that can arise when feminist researchers quantify one of the manifestations of
our lingering patriarchal social order. The paper concludes with suggestions for how
we can approach quantitative research on woman abuse.

Social and academic context

During the early 1990s, the feminist movement in Canada was at a ‘relatively high
point’ (DeKeseredy, 1996, p. 81) with a burgeoning academic and political interest in
woman abuse (Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, 1993; Dutton, 1986;
Ellis, 1989; Smith, 1994). Canada was not, however, immune to the backlash against
feminism documented by Susan Faludi (1991) in the USA (DeKeseredy, 1999; Levan,
1996). Released in this atmosphere, the Violence Against Women Survey and the
Dating Violence Survey generated a great deal of attention in the media and in
academic publications (Bell & Fox, 1996; DeKeseredy, 1999; Fox, 1993; Gartner,
1993; Gwyn, 1993; Johnson & Sacco, 1995; Kelly, 1994; Sheppard, 1993; Sommer &
Fekete, 1995; Verburg, 1993, 1995; Wente, 1994a, 1994b).
At the same time, academic feminists were wrapped up in lively debates about
research methods. The late 1980s and 1990s saw some groundbreaking work on femi-
nist methodology and epistemological questions (Cancian, 1992; Eichler, 1988, 1997;
Harding, 1987; Ramazanoglu, 1992; Reinharz, 1992b) and whether distinct feminist
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 267

methods actually do exist (Gelsthorpe, 1992; Hammersley, 1992). These debates

generated general agreement on the importance of standpoint feminism, although not
everyone agreed with its primacy. There was more consensus around the idea that
feminist research is, and should be, a political enterprise.
The debates also raised questions about whether feminists should use quantitative
methods. Many feminists at the time rejected the use of quantitative approaches,
equating them with a positivist epistemology and arguing that they do not represent
women’s way of knowing. Others did see the usefulness of statistics, while not deny-
ing the value of more qualitative, experiential or interpretivist forms of research
(Gelsthorpe, 1992; Pugh, 1990; Reinharz, 1992b). In the context of these debates over
methods, Reinharz (1992a) went so far as to argue that the use of surveys had been
critical in the documentation of woman abuse as a major problem.
The Violence Against Women Survey and the Dating Violence Survey were
what could be called the second generation of surveys measuring the extent of
family violence and violence against women. The earliest surveys (Straus, 1979;
Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1981) used the Conflict Tactics Scale to measure
violence and generated considerable controversy, particularly among feminists,
because of the assertion that women perpetrated essentially the same amount of
violence against their husbands as men did against their wives (Straus et al., 1981).
Many feminist researchers felt that the Scale was not valid because it is too narrow,
measuring only violence that occurs in the context of conflict (Straus, 1979, 1996;
Straus & Gelles, 1986).
Debate about this early survey established two camps: feminist researchers and
family violence researchers (Damant, 2005; Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992;
Fine, 1993; Kimmel, 2002; Kurz, 1989; Lenton, 1995). For the purposes of the argu-
ment presented in this paper, what is important to note is how this first survey created,
in part, the criteria with which future surveys would be judged by feminists in
particular, but by the wider academic and journalistic community as well. What
emerged from these debates was the notion that some measures were feminist and
others were not.

The surveys: methods and measures

In 1992, DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993a) undertook Canada’s first nationally represen-
tative survey of post-secondary students aimed at making both an empirical and theo-
retical contribution to the literature on dating violence. A year later, Statistics Canada
conducted Canada’s first large-scale representative survey on violence against women
among the general population of women. Both surveys used randomized methods of
data collection and the data are therefore drawn from representative samples of the
populations of interest. The Dating Violence Survey was conducted by a self-
administered questionnaire distributed to students on 46 university and college
campuses across Canada. The resulting sample included 1835 women and 1307 men.
For the Violence Against Women Survey 19,000 households were contacted by
phone, resulting in interviews with 12,300 adult women from across Canada. Of those
potential respondents actually contacted, 91% agreed to participate in the survey. With
these robust samples, the surveys aimed to document the extent of violence against
women and the effect it has on their lives.
Drawing from the dominant approach in the feminist literature, DeKeseredy and
Kelly (1993a, p. 146) adopted a fairly broad definition of woman abuse as ‘[a]ny
268 D. Crocker

intentional physical, sexual or psychological assault on a female by a male dating

partner.’ They explicitly avoided reference to ‘violence’ or ‘battering’ believing these
to be more narrow terms, eliding the multi-dimensional character of the victimization
of women by men. DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993a) use the terms ‘victimization’ and
‘woman abuse’ interchangeably.
The Violence Against Women Survey also strove to use inclusive definitions of
violence and abuse. As Johnson (1998, p. 34) describes it: ‘the prevalence of
“violence” was estimated by this survey using questions designed from the legal
definition of physical and sexual assault as contained in the Canadian Criminal
Code.’ Violence was measured outside of marriage and by spouses. The survey
measured violence outside of marriage that included sexual attacks, unwanted sexual
touching, physical attack, and threats of attack. Violence by spouses was measured
using a scale of 10 items ranging from threats of physical harm to use of a weapon
and forced sexual activity. The researchers did not include emotional or psychologi-
cal abuse.
The Dating Violence Survey adopted two standardized measures of woman abuse:
The Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus, 1979) and the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES;
Koss & Oros, 1982). The former includes a series of items that measure three ways of
handling interpersonal conflict: reasoning, verbal aggression, and physical violence.
The researchers added two items on psychological abuse and three questions on
motive and context. The SES measures experiences of sexual abuse among university
students capturing the experiences of woman who engaged in sex play or intercourse
when they did not want to for several reasons including a man’s arguments and pres-
sure; a man’s use of his position of authority; a man’s use of threats or physical force.
The items also measure whether a man attempted sexual intercourse using various
means or whether a woman engaged in various forms of sexual activities because she
was drunk or high. The Dating Violence Survey researchers administered the scales
to men and women, asking the women about their experiences with men and asking
men about their behaviors toward women.

The first reports released from the Dating Violence Survey focused on the finding
that 81% of female respondents reported at least one form of physical, sexual, or
psychological abuse and/or victimization. Further:

● 22% of female respondents reported having been victimized by a dating partner

in the year prior to the survey in a dating relationship; 35% reported having been
victimized since having left high school.
● 14% of male respondents reported having been physically abusive in the year
prior to the survey in the context of a dating relationship; 18% reported having
done this since leaving high school.

Later publications reported the level of violence and abuse perpetrated by women
(DeKeseredy, 1999; DeKeseredy, Saunders, Schwartz, & Alvi, 1997). These data
showed 46% of women reported using some form of violence, mostly in self-defense
(DeKeseredy, 1999, p. 1264).
Based on the SES items, DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993a, p. 148) reported that:
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 269

● 28% of women reported having been the victim of some form of sexual abuse
in the year prior to the survey; 45% since leaving high school.
● 11% of males reported having sexually victimized a dating partner in the year
prior; 20% since leaving high school.

As will be discussed later, the global findings on victimization attracted a lot of media
attention but the findings reported on women’s violence or their motives did not
attract any attention that I could find, even though they contradicted some of the
extrapolations of the critics. Similarly, the composite measure of violence reported in
the Violence Against Women Survey attracted media attention and the ire of those
who do not support feminist views about the level of male perpetrated violence against
women. The Violence Against Women Survey (Johnson, 1995) found that just over
half of women had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence and 45%
have been victimized by someone they know. Further:

● 34% of women had experienced some form of physical assault.

● 17% of women had experienced a non-spousal physical assault.
● 29% or women had experienced a spousal assault.
● 39% of women had experienced some form of sexual assault.
● 20% of women had experienced a violent sexual attack by a man who was not
her spouse.
● 8% of women who had ever been married or lived in a common law relationship
reported having been sexually attacked by their spouse.

The Violence Against Women Survey measured several other variables including the
incidence of sexual harassment and various contextual factors including effects of
abuse and violence and the number of women whose partners were controlling,
possessive, and jealous. These findings did not attract media attention either even
though the numbers were quite high. For example, fully 87% of respondents reported
having been sexually harassed and 35% said that their partners or former partners had
tried to control them in various ways (e.g., limiting contact with family or friends)
(Johnson, 1995).

Controversy and complaints

The Dating Violence Survey prompted evaluation by academics, including some
prominent feminist researchers, and generated a considerable amount of disagreement
about the quality and utility of the study. Concerns about measurement were central
in the debates and are of most relevance to the argument being made in this paper.
Rosemary Gartner (1993, p. 315), a well-known feminist scholar, expressed major
concerns about the use of the Conflict Tactics Scales, which she suggests ‘ignore the
meaning of the acts to the persons involved, the sequence of the act in a wider pattern
of interaction, and the context of the acts in a particular relationship.’ From a different
perspective, Reena Sommer (1998, p. 34), an outspoken critic of feminist politics,
argued that the survey ‘pre-cast’ men as victimizers and women as victims and used
‘leading questions that skew research findings.’ Ironically, Sommer is an advocate of
the CTS and argues that it is a better measure of family violence because it measures
the reality of family violence that, in her view, includes a large amount of violence
perpetrated by women.
270 D. Crocker

The Violence Against Women Survey did not generate the same kind of concerns
in the feminist academic community although Reena Sommer and John Fekete did
include it in their sweeping criticisms about how feminists frame the problem of
violence against women (Sommer & Fekete, 1995). Fekete stated that the statistics
from both studies were ‘inflated’ and that they were examples of the ‘biofeminist
moral panic’ perpetuated by feminists. He accused the researchers of aiming to find
large numbers of victimized women in order to promote the feminist political agenda.
Sommer (1998) articulated the potential consequences of this perceived political
agenda: ‘The reliance on an over-extended and flawed conceptual framework limits
studies of family violence to the detriment of advancing knowledge and protection of
all family members exposed to domestic abuse.’ In essence then, these criticisms get
at the heart of the feminist conceptualization of the dynamics of domestic violence.
They also run parallel to the debates about the first use of Conflict Tactics Scales, in
which researchers were identified as either doing feminist or ‘family violence’
research depending on the measures they used.
Ironically, some of the concerns about broad measures expressed by Sommer and
Fekete echoed the concerns of the feminist critics, although the reasons for their objec-
tions are quite different. Gartner (1993) and Fox (1993) both worried that the high
rates of victimization were not credible and were based on definitions so broad as to
include the most trivial of incidents along with the most serious. Gartner (1993)
argued that DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993a) used language based on ‘[t]heir assump-
tion … that any one of the items from either instrument is a valid measure of “abuse”
and that each also measure an instance of “assault” and “victimization”’ (Gartner,
1993, p. 315). Unlike Fekete and Sommer, who saw this as a way of obscuring the real
problem of family violence (which in their view involves a lot of female instigated
violence), Fox and Gartner worried that disbelief about the large number would feed
into the backlash against feminist ideals. Gartner (1993) argued that the Dating
Violence Survey would be ‘distracting and detracting from the search for understand-
ing, explanation, and prevention of violence against women’ (p. 218) and that
‘defining abuse as broadly as do DeKeseredy and Kelly trivializes the very serious and
life-threatening forms of abuse that many women suffer’ (Gartner 1993, p. 319). Fox
(1993, p. 322) agreed that ‘[a]s feminist researchers and educators, working in an
environment that is still generally hostile to our analyses, and indifferent to women’s
particular concerns, it is crucial that we make strong arguments involving claims we
can support.’ Katharine Kelly (1994, p. 83), co-investigator on the Dating Violence
Survey, also seemed to agree in her description of how:

… the bulk of the media attention was to the combined total abuse figures and the
psychological abuse items. Important findings, such as the 2 percent of women who were
raped by dates in the past year, were lost or trivialized in the ensuing debate.

Debates in the popular media suggested that Gartner, Kelly, and Fox were right. While
there were balanced stories, describing the findings of both surveys and including the
rates of each type of violent and/or abuse incidents, much of the editorial attention
was, at best, concerned about whether the statistics represented the reality of violence
against women or, at worst, were fully dismissive of the findings. Some columnists in
The Globe and Mail echoed the concerns expressed by the feminist academics. On the
Dating Violence Survey, for example, Gwyn (1993) suggested that ‘the topic is a seri-
ous one. It was trivialized by the survey itself.’ (p. B3) In another column, Sheppard
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 271

(1993) argued that ‘… to broaden the nature of abuse as the authors have done … is
to trivialize the real problems and make it much more difficult for public institutions
to deal with them.’ (p. A25) Not everyone writing in The Globe and Mail agreed.
Columnist Margaret Wente (1994a, p. A2) argued that the measure of abuse in the
Violence Against Women Survey ‘cast a wide net indeed’ and that the survey ‘classi-
fies domestic encounters as violence that most people would not.’ She includes threats
and throwing things. Wente simply did not believe that women suffer the amount of
violence and abuse suggesting that the survey results are perpetuating a ‘moral panic’
Writers in Alberta Report also focused on the breadth of the definitions of violence
and abuse in both surveys. Fuller (1993, p. 42) called the data from the Dating
Violence Survey a blatant misrepresentation produced by ‘propagandists for the femi-
nist view’ and Verburg (1993) focused on the fact that the Violence Against Women
Survey did not include interviews with men about their victimization. Interestingly
then, the media were reflecting the views being expressed in academic debates with
some using the survey to undermine the reality of violence against women and others
using the survey findings to dismiss the problem of violence against women
altogether. At the same time, they did not cite any data that countered the findings of
either survey in question.

Political and governmental context

Criticisms about the Dating Violence and Violence Against Women Surveys arose in
the shadows of epistemological debates about methods and political debates about
measures. What the critics at the time did not recognize was that these statistics had
also been produced during the shift toward neo-liberal forms of governance. While the
critics no doubt understood the socially constructed nature of the data, they did not
anticipate the constitutive aspect of these statistics and how they are ‘a vital instru-
ment in the day-to-day practices of governance’ (Haggerty, 2002, p. 98). In what
follows, I sketch some relevant points from the governmentality literature and
describe the types of anti-violence policies that were developed in Canada during the
1990s. These final pieces of context help support the central thesis of this paper.
Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, governmentality theorists have docu-
mented the emergence of neo-liberal forms of governance in the late twentieth century
(Dean, 2007; Dupont & Pearce, 2001; Harvey, 2007). This shift has been character-
ized by the simultaneous withdrawal of the welfare state and expansion of the regula-
tory state through extra-state institutions. The turn to neo-liberal governance has also
been characterized by the conceptualization of citizens as active participants in their
own governance. They are responsible for choices that govern their lives but the scope
of these choices is actually controlled by the state (Haggerty, 2001). The type of social
policy that emerges under neo-liberalism promotes the responsiblization of the citizen
to make the right choice but at the same time limits the range of choices that are
Another relevant aspect of the governmentality literature arises out of discussions
of statistics and the classifications that produce them. Neo-liberal governing is
achieved, at least in part, by particular forms of knowledge about the population to be
governed (Haggerty, 2001). Counting performs a ‘constitutive role of official classifi-
cations in producing the objects of governmental knowledge, which in turn, shape
popular understandings of the world and themselves … classifications establish the
272 D. Crocker

objects toward which governmental strategies are directed’ (Haggerty, 2001, p. 38).
This plays out in policies that draw on counts and statistics to help constitute the social
problem needing to be governed. In this way, statistics both enable and constrain
policy development in particular ways.
Some feminist writers have recently begun to address the interplay between femi-
nist politics and neo-liberalism. More specifically, they are looking into the effect of
this current mode of governance on how feminist issues are being addressed in social
policy (Brush, 2003; Bumiller, 2008; Dobrowolsky, 2009). Bumiller (2008) has
argued that neo-liberalism has appropriated the feminist movement against sexual
violence, drawing on various images of violence in popular, legal, and professional
culture to make her point. Along the same lines, the case studies presented in this
paper lead me to argue that the statistics produced by the Violence Against Women
and Dating Violence Surveys have came to shape or at least reinforce emerging forms
of governing gender in neo-liberal times.
This point can be illustrated by the parallels in how the policies and the statistics
constitute the problem of woman abuse in very similar ways. Both the Dating Violence
and Violence Against Women Surveys measured violence as incidents in isolation
from context or effects. Commentators have noted that anti-woman abuse policies have
similarly developed to respond to what Lisa Brush (1990) has called ‘violent acts’
rather than ‘injurious outcomes’ (Bacchi, 1999) and that this is evidence of the state’s
lack of interest in getting at the underlying inequities that allow woman abuse to
happen (Bumiller, 2008; Collier, 2009; Jackson, 2008). This lack of interest is further
evidenced by the virtually exclusive focus on using the criminal justice system to deal
with woman abuse. A thorough review of policies from across Canada listed very few
policies that were not somehow administered through the criminal justice system (The
Ad Hoc Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group Reviewing Spousal Abuse
Policies and Legislation, 2003). The effect of the constitution of woman abuse as an
injurious act, to be dealt with in the criminal justice system, has been the narrowing
of choices for woman who experience violence or abuse. It appears that the only
reasonable choice for these women, or the only way that they can resist violence, is
‘exit’ (Paterson, 2009). This narrowing of the ways in which women can resist violence
is certainly in line with the neo-liberal approach to governance in so far as it makes
women responsible to do something but only provides them with one thing to do. In
light of these observations, I would argue that survey researchers need not continue to
count the amount of woman abuse. Rather we should turn our attention to measuring
the consequences of abuse and the various ways that women use to resist it. With these
kinds of data we could develop policies to better deal with the effects of violence and
to support women in the diversity of ways that they choose to resist it.

The problems arising out of the Dating Violence and Violence Against Women
Surveys were not failures of method, epistemology, methodology, or measurement.
Rather, in retrospect, and drawing from the emerging body of governmentality theory,
I would argue that when feminists count we need to consider the constitutive role of
our statistics and the policies that emerge from them. Classification is not important
just because our categories need to be a good representation of the real, lived phenom-
enon. It is also important because the process of classification comes to constitute the
very problem being classified. This process takes place within particular governmental
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 273

rationalities which feminists should now start considering in any efforts to further
quantify gender issues.
The governmentality literature opens doors to understanding the way in which the
state mobilizes statistical knowledges to achieve particular goals of governance and
how statistics are one of the ‘discursive mechanisms’ that map the domain to be
governed (Haggerty, 2002, p. 98). Further, this literature ‘stresses the need to under-
stand the constitutive role of official classifications in producing the objects of
governmental knowledge’ (Haggerty, 2001, p. 39). In the past we needed to heed the
advice of Currie and MacLean (1993, p. 6) who argued that survey researchers need
to pay careful attention to ‘how their data are to be analyzed, and to what kind of use
the findings should be directed.’ This paper has demonstrated that we need to also
consider our place in the web of governmental power.

I would like to thank Amanda Nelund for her research and editorial assistance on this paper. I
also owe great thanks to two anonymous reviewers as well as the editors of this special edition,
Christina Hughes and Rachel Cohen, for their helpful feedback on an earlier draft.

Notes on contributor
Diane Crocker is an Associate Professor in the Deportment of Sociology and Criminology at
Saint Mary’s University where she teaches in the areas of statistics, research methods and
feminist criminology.

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