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Understanding bystander responses to incidents of domestic violence against women perpetrated by their male partners

Nikolova, Evelina (2011) Understanding bystander responses to incidents of domestic violence against women perpetrated by their male partners. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Domestic violence is a prevalent social problem even in communities where it is widely recognised as unacceptable. This thesis uses psychological methods to explore the broader social context of domestic violence and, in particular, the possible role of witnesses of incidents of domestic violence in sustaining or reducing domestic violence. A key focus is the reticence of bystanders to notify authorities about a domestic violence incident. In particular, the thesis examines the psychological processes involved in triggering reticent behaviour even amongst people who are opposed to domestic violence.

I approach this issue by considering these circumstances as an instance of a principle-implementation gap. Consistent with the principle-implementation gap tradition, I argue that there is a principle-implementation gap between people’s widespread endorsement of the unacceptability of domestic violence in principle and lower willingness to contact authorities when they become aware of an incident of domestic violence. The empirical goal of this thesis is to identify some of the conditions under which the anti-domestic-violence principles might not be implemented, and to explain the psychological processes that contribute to, or hinder, their implementation.

The thesis describes a set of seven empirical studies that are divided into three chapters that address, firstly, responses to actual incidents of domestic violence among professionals and an online support group (Chapter 3) and, secondly, responses to hypothetical incidents of domestic violence in general community (Chapter 4) and student (Chapters 5) samples.

In chapter 3, I present two qualitative studies that analyse the responses of trained and dedicated communities with expertise in dealing with domestic violence. These two studies show a consistent pattern of advice regarding the termination of the relationship and limited discussion of the need to treat the violence as a reportable, criminal matter, but not because they did not consider domestic violence a crime or because they failed to recognise the signs of violence. The results therefore suggest (in line with the idea of a principle-implementation gap) that although domestic violence is widely perceived to be a crime, there is a discontinuity between recognising the legal status of the act and responses to it, even amongst sympathetic communities.

The next two chapters focus on understanding the discontinuity through a set of five quantitative studies. The starting point of this investigation was to address reasons for this apparent discontinuity between anti-domestic-violence beliefs and behaviour. Chapter 4 indicates that in the context of the strong opposition to violence, more than half of the participants who encountered domestic violence did not reported it to the police (Study 4.1 and 4.2). The results in Study 4.2, in particular, showed that greater concern toward the consequences of the response related to actions, but only for the participants who knew a woman experiencing violence prior to the survey. This suggests that there are different mechanisms involved in taking a decision to intervene for people with prior knowledge of domestic violence incidents than for those without such knowledge.

In Chapter 5, three studies examined the magnitude of the anti-domestic-violence principle-implementation gap in the presence of other conflicting principles. Participants showed resistance to reporting a hypothetical incident of domestic violence to the authorities even when they were provided with a response reinforcing their anti-domestic-violence principles. Key results showed that expressing greater concern for countervailing principles (such as ‘I should not interfere in people’s private life’) was linked to considering an alternative to reporting strategy to address an incident of domestic violence. In Studies 2 and 3, a relevant source (professionals or women experiencing violence) provided participants with clear advice and guidance on how to respond. I expected that this advice would reduce the influence of the countervailing principles and facilitate the anti-domestic-violence response. Although the provision of advice did not affect participants’ willingness to take anti-domestic-violence actions, there was evidence that the advice generated complex cross-cutting effects on the way the countervailing concerns related to the anti-domestic-violence response.

Overall, the results presented in this thesis suggest that the reticence of bystanders to report domestic violence is not due to ambivalent attitudes towards domestic violence per se, but due to the presence of a raft of strongly held potentially countervailing concerns that can be triggered by local context. If the effect of these countervailing concerns is to sustain domestic violence, then there are clear public policy implications. Expensive public information campaigns to educate the public about the unacceptability of domestic violence are unlikely to be valuable in communities where such views already prevail. Instead, advocates of domestic violence reduction should either advocate for the routine treatment of domestic violence as reportable unlawful conduct (and address the consequences of this), or they should direct their efforts to understanding and addressing the countervailing concerns of witnesses to domestic violence so that they can take effective action.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Psychology
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): McGarty, Craig and Donaghue, Ngaire
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