COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

Representations of intimate male violence
in the US and Poland

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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66j-en_vio ... Violence


European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


Representations of intimate male violence
in the US and Poland


Renate C.A. Klein, University of Maine (USA)
Anna Kwiatkowska, University of Bialystok (Poland)


I. Introduction: Gender and Culture in Representations of Men’s Violence  


In this presentation we report on research pertinent to gendered representations of men’s violence in intimate relationships. The findings come from a study on the role of gender and culture in representations of violence and non-violence in heterosexual relationships. This research is still ongoing and our conclusions can only be tentative. In light of the seminar’s thematic emphasis and international scope we focus on selected findings regarding men’s intimate violence and raise several issues relevant to trans-cultural research.  


We are using the term “representations” to refer to the meaning women and men construct around men’s violence. Representations of men’s violence reflect beliefs about gender, and about gendered violence, some of which may be similar across different societies, while others may be rather specific to particular societies. For example, Kwiatkowska (1998) examined how cultural beliefs in Poland infuse Polish women and men’s representations of violence in intimate relationships.  


We use the term culture broadly, recognising that groups characterised by systems of “shared beliefs, values, symbols, and performance styles” (Jones & Gerard, 1967) usually are more diverse than they seem from the outside, and that categorising people into different cultures overemphasises coherence and homogeneity, while minimising particularity and contradiction (Abu-Lughod, 1991). Nevertheless, there are features such as different languages that set groups of individuals apart, even when those features themselves are heterogeneous and subject to change. Our references to Polish and U.S. culture may serve as proxies to denote out participants’ different linguistic backgrounds, but otherwise do not adequately describe our samples nor do justice to each country’s cultural diversity. By intra-cultural research we mean studies that do not question culture, whereas by trans-cultural research we refer to studies that employ culture as an analytic concept as well as a group variable (Hanmer & Hearn, 1999).  


Many authors have analysed individual and interpersonal outcomes of men’s violence in order to understand the meaning of such violence in the experience of both the victim and the perpetrator, as well as for the quality of their relationship. Analyses of male violence that draw on the experiences of battered women or on feminist critiques of gender relations in a patriarchal society emphasise that the purpose of men’s violence lies in establishing and maintaining power and control over a female partner or in punishing her for challenging male authority and privilege (Dobash & Dobash, 1984; Ptacek, 1997; Hearn, 1998). In contrast, women who use violence against a male partner do so more often out of self-defence, and to prevent or end their husbands’ or boyfriends emotional or physical attacks (Cascardi & Vivian, 1995; Dobash & Dobash, 1994; Saunders, 1986).  


Of completely different academic ancestry and largely ignoring the role of gender, notions of aggression as instrumental activity or more recent notions of coercion as goal-directed behaviour emphasise the expected outcomes of violence as central motivational features that help understand the purpose and meaning of violent acts (Riggs & Caulfield, 1997; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). While the debate about the meaning and underlying motives of gender violence is still ongoing (Johnson, 1995), representations of outcome, purpose or consequence seem important for understanding how women and men construct meaning around intimate violence.



II. Studying Gendered Representations of Men’s Intimate Violence  


In our present research, we analyse the outcomes that respondents spontaneously generate for specific acts of intimate violence. We asked women and men in the U.S. and Poland to generate outcomes for a series of acts that were attributed to either a man or a woman and were situated in the context of intimate heterosexual relationships. The acts were presented as open-ended prompts[1]. After each prompt, an open space is provided in which participants respond to the prompt.



 “What might a man get out of THROWING INSULTS AND DIGS?”  


Respondents generated the outcomes in their own words. These words provide glimpses into respondents’ personal “lexica” (Marecek, Fine & Kidder, 1997; Morawski, 1997) of concepts and ideas associated with men’s violence that are at the centre of the present analysis and that we use to identify and delineate gendered and culture-specific notions of men’s violence. Using a blend of interpretative and content coding approaches (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998; Strauss & Corbin, 1997; Weber, 1990), we aim to preserve nuances in respondents’ choice of words and develop analyses that treat gender and culture as analytic categories as well as intergroup variables.


As this study is still in progress, and moving into relatively uncharted territory, we do not wish to make general claims about what “women” and “men” in their respective countries think about “men’s violence”. It is much too early to draw such conclusions because the samples are small and selective, the method is still in its infancy, and the underlying theory is sketchy at best. Alternatively, the time may never come to draw general conclusions because the meaning of violence may be so context dependent that it becomes increasingly difficult to formulate conclusions that do justice to real-life contextual complexity. Instead, we shall use a few examples from this study to illustrate layers of gendered and cultural meanings around men’s intimate violence and their implications for trans-cultural research in this field.  



III. Gender and Culture in Representations of Men’s Violence: Selected Observations  


Three Observations


Tables 1 to 3 present examples of outcomes that U.S. and Polish women and men generated for men’s violence followed by our brief commentary. The sample items are “throwing insults and digs”, “twisting partner’s arm or hair”, and “choking partner”. Each paragraph line in a cell refers to outcomes generated by one respondent (e.g., the upper left cell of Table 1 contains data from six U.S. men).  






In these examples, all four groups generated power and dominance outcomes for men’s intimate violence. The men in the U.S. sample emerge from among the four groups as those who are most direct and decisive in constructing the meaning of men’s violence in reference to gaining control over a female partner, and interpreting violent acts as threats meant to intimidate, and power moves aimed at gaining the upper hand.  

Notions of multiple, hierarchically ordered power relations were invoked by some of the Polish women who generated outcomes for men’s violence where the violent offender would meet his match, if not in his partner then in another male occupying a more powerful social position such as a police officer or judge.  


Table 1 What would a man get out of “throwing insults and digs”?  


U.S. Respondents

Polish Respondents


Feel superior and in control


Able to put her in her place


Feel more powerful or that he has the upper hand


Submission; getting his partner to be quiet


Satisfaction; power; some amount of control; yelled at; hit; weaken his spouse; vent; more frustrated; ashamed; laughed at; loss of respect from partner


Sense of control over his partner; way of keeping her quiet and belittling her; way of staying “one up’ on his partner Nothing


Relationship may worsen; chaos may occur


Nothing; situation becomes embarrassing; this is very stupid


Feeling of dominance




He gets nothing


Loss of trust; problems with renewing contact






Boost to his opinion of himself; feeling of power over his partner; insults and digs in return


Release of tension; feeling power over partner; feeling of control; getting back at her for past wrongs




Feel superior by putting her down


Feel that he was even with his partner; that she deserved it because she did something to upset him so he wants her to be upset also

Lack of respect for him


Nothing good


Nothing; reluctance from woman


Rejection by his partner; new controversy; new conflict


Proving his superiority and rightness


Nothing; it would be against him and never forgotten


Nothing; may lose respect from woman




Loss of trust



b. Revenge versus Nothing Good


U.S. women invoked notions of revenge that were infrequent if not absent in the accounts of the other three groups. Unfortunately, the idea that men are violent because they are avenging their partners’ previous behaviour inadvertently feeds into the controversial notion of “mutual combat”, the scholarly debate of which is lively in the U.S., but that is perhaps more widespread in popular U.S. discourse as well. What is most telling in this example is that U.S. women rather than men invoked notions of revenge, while the men focused on power and dominance.  

Obviously, Polish respondents more frequently than U.S. respondents stated that “nothing good” would come of the use of violence, which suggests different ideas about the instrumentality of violence, but may also reflect U.S. respondents’ greater readiness to “comply” with questionnaire instructions. Nuances in representations of instrumentality also are suggested by the reference to “false” power by one of the Polish men, a qualifier of “power” that we have not yet found in the responses of U.S. participants.  



Table 2 What would a man get out of “twisting his partner’s arm or hair”?  


U.S. Respondents

Polish Respondents


He gets his way; gets arrested (probably not); hit; yelled at; thought of as a terrible person; listened to


Would show his partner who has ultimate strength and control


May get the woman to stop a behaviour he feels she has no right to show


Dominance over this partner; subdue her


Feeling of being in control


Sense of control over her and the situation they are in

Nothing; only the mentally ill act in such a way






Sense of dominance and control


End of relationship


False power over his partner


Physical/psychological supremacy over her; selfish satisfaction from winning


Nothing good


Sadistic; it’s no good Women

Sense of control; teaching a lesson; keep from getting attacked


Control; power; return of past hurts; ability to inflict pain; macho thing


Control over her, physically and emotionally


Her fear


Some control over her; a powerful feeling

Anger of his partner; break-up of relationship


Encounter with police


Loss of relationship and respect


Sense of power and dominance


Showing that he is always a winner, if not by intelligence or diplomacy, then by force




Woman’s fear  

Risk of police, or partner leaving him


Partner may lose respect for him



Table 3 What would a man get out of “choking his partner?”


U.S. Respondents

Polish Respondents


May feel in control and powerful, taking her power and control away


Make his partner fear him


Relief of pent up anger


Release of stress or rage; satisfaction of physical control and domination


Agreement; lose control; injury to partner; hurt her; make her agree; scare her; get hit back; yelled at; lose respect from her


This is an ultimate violent threat

Strangling her to death and nothing good as a consequence


Nothing; only his partner will fear and obey him


Criminal trial


Sense of dominance and control


If first offence, then punishment on parole






Nothing good





Control; make her life dependent on his action


Power; control; release; obedient wife


Release of anger; control through partner’s fear  

Fear and submission


Might feel strong, powerful, in control; he wants her to be scared, and if she is then she knows he means business

Anger of partner; break-up of relationship


Trail in court; meeting someone more powerful


I can’t imagine such a situation  

Obedience; his superiority


He may regret this later




She will leave him


Partner’s hate  

Nothing; may lose his partner



c. Release of Tension versus Loss


The notion of violent acts as means to release tension is more widespread in the U.S. sample than in the Polish sample, whereas both Polish men and women far more often than U.S. respondents invoked notions of loss as a consequence of men’s violence, such as loss of respect, loss of partner, or loss of relationship.  


Outcome as Distributed Experience


Finally, a different aspect of these representations concerns the ways in which respondents conceptualise the distribution of experiences that follow violent acts. While in some cases respondents listed outcomes with no further qualifier such as “fear”, or “humiliation”, in other cases respondents mentioned “her fear”, or “his superiority” suggesting gendered patterns of bearing a particular experience. For example, a man might be seen as generating fear in his partner through an act of violence, while she is seen as bearing that fear. For violent acts with multiple outcomes the perpetrator may experience one the outcomes (e.g., feelings of superiority) while his partner is seen as experiencing the other (e.g., feelings of inferiority).  



IV.       Implications for Trans-cultural Research


Trans-cultural research raises many practical problems. Yet, on some level trans-cultural research seems to differ from intra-cultural research primarily in that it highlights problems that are present, but not equally salient, in all research such as problems of context, meaning, and the relationship between researchers and participants.


Gender and Culture as Analytic Categories or Variables


When the focus shifts from intra-cultural to cross-cultural research gender is often “forgotten” or implicitly discounted as secondary to culture, and comparative research becomes “un-gendered”, possibly because much, if not most, cross-cultural research treats culture and gender as variables and assigns higher priority to the variable “culture” (Berry, Poortinga & Pandey, 1997; van de Vijver & Leung, 1997). Instead, gender and culture are central analytic categories as well as experiential realities that constitute each other and are difficult to separate. Nevertheless, for certain purposes it may be meaningful to treat gender and culture as variables and examine similarities or differences between women and men in different cultures. Intra-cultural and trans-cultural studies can inspire each other when the analysis of culture draws attention to issues that may be overlooked where the focus is on gender, and the analysis of gender draws attention to issues that may be overlooked where the focus is on culture.  


2. Translation and Culturally Situated Meaning


While translation and back translation often are considered merely steps in the adaptation of questionnaires for cross-cultural analysis, engagement with the different language can serve as an entry point for a more in-depth cultural analysis. For example, when Anna Kwiatkowska translated the questionnaire that we are using in our present research and that (white, and mostly male) U.S. scholars developed for U.S. respondents, she noted that the item “calling partner fat and ugly” in literal Polish translation may have connotations that might render it less insulting than its U.S. counterpart. Rather than being merely a problem of back-translation, this highlights the cultural context of item construction and use, and thus the cultural context of measurement.  


In the contemporary U.S. context the “fat and ugly” item is meant to be an instance of “verbal aggression” or “psychological violence” and draws its insulting and hurtful quality in part from the “local” U.S. obsession with thinness, and with women’s thinness in particular. Due to gendered notions of body image and self-esteem the item is likely to reach a deeper level of shame about one’s own body when launched against a woman than a man. Thus, the item operates in a cultural context where men more easily than women can assume a privileged position of using the “fat and ugly” insult effectively, so to speak. While it is too simplistic to speak of a “U.S. context” as though that was a homogeneous entity, it is worth considering that a white, middle class context is not only where the item originated, but also where it may be most insulting.  


In principle, this type of analysis does not require trans-cultural research, but in practice trans-cultural engagement is apt to encourage such analyses that may be fruitfully combined with empirical techniques such as the analysis of respondent-interviewer interaction and retrospective protocols in survey responding (Sudman, Bradburn & Schwarz, 1996).


3. Identifying and Locating Discourse


Trans-cultural research has the potential to generate more systematic analyses of “discourses” and their location within geographic space and social relations. In our present research, U.S. women frequently used the terms “power and control”, which seems to reflect, and at the same time constitute, what could be considered a prominent contemporary discourse on violence whose origin probably can be traced in part to the community education programmes by the very active, local battered women’s project.  

Similarly, the “nothing good” references among Polish respondents seem to reflect a different discourse in which violence is seen as something that does not results in any positive outcomes (even if the perpetrator uses violence to his advantage). Perhaps even more reflective of discourse are references to the “mentally ill” who use violence.


4. Questioning Measurement


Trans-cultural empirical projects bring to the fore basic questions of measurement, and the conceptualisation of indicators, phenomena and their interrelations. Our study of representations of men’s intimate violence raises questions about the enactments of men’s intimate violence. This, in turn, raises the question of how to measure enactments independent of representations - the indicators most likely are informed by representations (e.g., use of survey items, or interview questions).  


5. Production of Transnational Research


The production of research, and questions of agency and purpose, is infused with the distribution of resources such as tenured positions, project funding, and networking capability. This intricate system of academic privilege can shift in manifold ways when scholars from different “cultures” embark on trans-cultural research. For example, such projects may shift the local balance of power between established, and often male, and marginalised, and often female, colleagues; and collaboration with scholars from “rich” countries may be a double-edged sword, promising interesting research opportunities on the one hand, and intra-departmental suspicion on the other (Goodwin, 1998).  

Last not least: the Internet. Based on our personal experience, the Internet has considerable potential for advancing research among marginalised scholars who have Internet access. The Internet enables and facilitates the exchange of ideas, methods, data, analyses, and manuscripts, and does so to some extent outside established intra-departmental channels of influence. To some extent, the Internet has the potential to redistribute access to information and provide alternative research resources.




V. Bibliography


Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present (pp. 137-162). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Berry, J.W., Poortinga, Y.H. & Pandey, J. (1997). Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cascardi, M. & Vivian, D. (1995). Context for specific episodes of marital violence: Gender and severity of violence differences. Journal of Family Violence, 10, 265-293.

Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (1998, eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dobash, R.E. & Dobash, R.P. (1984). The nature and antecedents of violent events. British Journal of Criminology, 24, 269-288.

Goodwin, R. (1998). Personal relationships and social change: The ‘realpolitik’ of cross-cultural research in transient cultures. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 227-247. Hanmer, J. & Hearn, J. (1999). Gendering research on men’s violence to women. Paper prepared for the Men and Violence Against Women Seminar, Council of Europe, October 7-8, 1999, Strasbourg, France. Hearn, J. (1998). The violences of men. London: Sage.

Johnson, M.P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 283-294.

Jones, E.E. & Gerard, H.B. (1967). Foundations of social psychology. New York: Wiley.

Kurdek, L.A. (1994). Conflict resolution styles in gay, lesbian, heterosexual nonparent, and heterosexual parent couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 705-722.

Kwiatkowska, A. (1998). Gender stereotypes and beliefs about family violence in Poland. In R.C.A. Klein (ed.), Multidisciplinary perspectives on family violence (pp. 129-152). London: Routledge.

Marecek, J., Fine, M. & Kidder, L. (1997). Working between worlds: Qualitative methods and social psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 53, 631-644.

Morawski, J. (1997). The science behind feminist research methods. Journal of Social Issues, 53, 667-681.

Ptacek, J. (1997). The tactics and strategies of men who batter. In A.P. Cardarelli (ed.), Violence between intimate partners (pp. 104-123). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Riggs, D.S. & Caulfield, M.B. (1997). Expected consequences of male violence against their female dating partners. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 12, 229-240.

Saunders, D.G. (1986). When battered women use violence: Husband abuse or self-defense? Violence and Victims, 1, 47-60.

Schwarz, N. & Sudman, S. (1996). Answering questions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Straus, M.A., Hamby, S.L., Boney-McCoy, S. & Sugarman, D.B. (1996). The Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS2). Journal of Family Issues, 17, 283-316.

Strauss, A.L. & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (2nd. ed.) Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sudman, S., Bradburn, N.M. & Schwarz, N. (1996). Thinking about answers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tedeschi, J.T. & Felson, R.B. (1994). Violence, aggression, and coercive actions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

van de Vijver & Leung (1997). Methods and data analysis for cross-cultural research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weber, R.P. (1990). Basic content analysis (2nd. ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


[1] The examples of violent acts are taken literally from the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy & Sugarman, 1996) and the Conflict Resolution Inventory (Kurdek, 1994) because part of our research concerns cognitive processes in survey responding and the role of gendered representations of violence in respondents’ answers to typical survey items.



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