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COE - Strasbourg, 7-8 October 1999

Comparing methodologies used to study 
violence against women

Ms Sylvia WALBY, University of Leeds, United Kingdom


Surveys constitute an essential element in the methodology of researching violence against women.  They are essential in providing information about the prevalence, incidence and patterning of violence against women.  They have weaknesses, obviously, not least in the restricted range of terms which are used to describe the violence and its impact, and cannot be the only method.  But they are an essential component of a research programme on violence against women.

This paper will analyse four generations of national surveys of violence against women as they have developed over the last 20 years.  The purpose of this analysis is to further the development of the best methodology for future surveys.  Thus the paper will be critical even of the Statistics Canada survey, which is widely regarded as the state of the art, in order to develop a methodology more appropriate for a European context, and one which has learnt the lessons from recent research.

The goal is to develop a survey instrument for the comparative analysis of violence against women in Europe.

Four generations of national surveys of violence against women and domestic violence

National crime surveys were initially developed in order to measure the crime against people that was not reported to the police and not processed by the courts.  There have been four generations of surveys, each usually revealing a higher rate of domestic violence and violence against women than the previous generation.

Four Generations of Surveys

Country/Agency Title           Year

First generation
US Bureau of Justice          US National Crime Victimization Survey         annual
UK Home Office British Crime Survey           biannual
Australian Bureau of Statistics        Crime and Safety annual

Second generation
US Bureau of Justice          US National Crime Victimization Survey         from 1992
UK Home Office:                 British Crime Survey           1996

Third generation
US Straus and Gelles          US National Family Violence Survey              1975
US Straus and Gelles          US National Family Violence Resurvey          1985
Netherlands - Romkens      National survey of wife abuse          1986

Fourth generation
Canada - Statistics Canada               Violence Against Women Survey   1993
Australian Bureau of Statistics        Women's Safety  1996
Iceland, Ministry of Justice              Violence Against Women in Iceland              1996
US, Tjaden            National Violence Against Women Survey   1996
Finland, Statistics Finland Men's Violence Against Women     1997

1              Generic national crime survey
Generic crime surveys are now carried out in many countries (for example, UK British Crime Survey, the US National Crime Victimization Survey, the Australian National Crime and Safety Survey).

2              Revised crime surveys with special attention to violence against women
The second generation of crime survey revised the wording of its enquiries, so as to try to ensure that more assaults against women would be reported to the survey's interviewers, and contained more detailed questions on areas of concern (Bachman and Taylor, 1994).

3              Dedicated domestic violence surveys
                The third generation surveys were dedicated exclusively to the issue of domestic violence.  This freed the interview from the constraining context of a crime survey and gave time for detailed questioning and probing on domestic violence alone.  There were two main examples of this survey in the US, the 1975 and 1985 US National Family Violence Surveys (Straus and Gelles, 1990); and one in the Netherlands (Romkens, 1997).

4              Violence against women surveys
The fourth and most recent generation of surveys have considered the range of violence against women in specialised surveys which are dedicated to this issue. They investigate the range of violence against women including rape and other forms of sexual assault, stalking and other forms of harassment. This wave of surveys originated in Canada in the Statistics Canada Violence Against Women Survey (Johnson, 1996; Johnson and Sacco, 1995; Statistics Canada, 1993), and has proved a model for surveys in several other countries, with varying degrees of modification, including Australia, Finland, Iceland, and the US, and is under development in Sweden.

However, there are limitations even with the most recent generation of survey. 

Small and Local surveys

In addition to these national surveys there are a number of studies which are smaller in scope or use less sophisticated sampling methods (e.g. Russell, 1982; Hall, 1985; Hanmer and Saunders, 1984; Mooney, 1994; Painter, 1991), which have been important in developing innovative ways of asking relevant questions about the nature of violence against women.

State of the art methodology

The issues to consider in the determination of the state of the art methodology include:

the context of the survey - whether it is within a generic crime survey or dedicated to the issue;
confidential interviewing;
the training and matching of the characteristics of the interviewer and interviewee;
sampling frame;
mode of enquiry (postal/face-to-face/telephone);
operationalising the definitions;
situating the event in relation to others.

Generic or dedicated survey?

Questioning about violence against women which is part of a general crime survey produces low estimates.  This is partly because:

this restricts the amount of the time which can be spent in asking nuanced questions about the nature of the violence and its ramifications;

the methodology prioritises the needs of the general survey rather than that which is necessary to make victims of violence sufficiently at ease to disclose personal and potentially distressing events;

a survey which is framed by the concept of 'crime' is likely to under-record those acts of violence whose legality may be considered by respondents as ambiguous.

Dedicated surveys have uncovered higher rates of violence than generic ones.  This can be seen by comparing two generations of surveys in Australia.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics Women's Safety Survey, which was dedicated to the issue of violence against women, found more than three times as much physical assault against women as did the generic Australian Crime and Safety Survey, 5.9% as compared with 1.8% of women reported physical violence in the previous 12 month period (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1994, 1996: 3). 


The presence of a violent partner/husband in the room where the woman is being interviewed may be expected to reduce the reporting of violence.  The fourth generation dedicated surveys, such as Statistics Canada, usually go to some trouble to ensure that the respondent is alone at the time of the interview, but this is not the case for the generic crime surveys.

For instance, in 35% of cases of women answering the British Crime Survey special module on domestic violence there was someone else present in the room.  When the partner of women aged 30-59 was involved in the completion of the questionnaire the rate of reporting of life-time domestic violence dropped to less than half the rate reported when no one else was present, that is 10% instead of 23%.

Dedicated surveys, such as that of Statistics Canada, spent extra time selecting and training the interviewers.  The use of female interviewers is especially important in relation to disclosure of sexual abuse which can be especially sensitive. Sorenson et al (1987) found that those interviewed about sexual assault were 1.27 times more likely to reveal a sexual assault if they were interviewed by a woman than by a man.

Sampling Frame

All the surveys considered here suffer from limitations of the sampling frame.  The limitation is a result of the use of sampling frames which include only those living permanently in a domestic residence.  This excludes those in temporary accommodation or in hostels or who are homeless.  This matters because this group potentially includes those women who have fled to refuges, to temporary residence with friends and kin, to emergency bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation, or who are homeless.  It is precisely women who are in the immediate aftermath of a domestic assault who are more likely than the average woman to be living in such temporary accommodation.  This methodological issue can have major implications for theoretical understanding if the most abused and most recently abused group of women are significantly under-represented in the national surveys.  Samples based on women who have gone to refuges and shelters have consistently shown much higher rates of frequency of abuse than those from national surveys (Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Okun, 1986; Straus, 1990).  This is a very significant omission for the measurement of domestic violence in the last 12 months, although it may have less impact on the life-time rate of domestic violence since some women may now be living in settled violence free homes.  This means that the 12 month rate is likely to underestimate those who are subject to the most severe and frequent domestic violence.

The different profiles of the abused population derived from sample surveys and from surveys of refuge samples have given rise to much debate, leading some to suggest that there do indeed exist two quite distinct patterns of violence, one 'common couple violence' where there is low level mutual combat, the other 'patriarchal terrorism' where men terrorise their battered wives (Johnson, 1995).  However, this perceived bifurcation may well be non-existent, and be merely a methodological artefact of the undercounting of the most abused women in the sample surveys as a consequence of their lesser likelihood to be living at their permanent home.  A more adequate sampling frame would help to test this thesis.

Thus all existing surveys, even Statistics Canada, may well be an undercount as a result of the restriction of their sampling frame to permanent residents in domestic residences.  There are ways of supplementing the sampling frame to include these populations, but it has not yet been done in these surveys.

Mode of enquiry: postal, phone, face-to-face, self-completion

Surveys have been carried out using: postal questionnaires, telephone, face-to-face interviewing, and by self-completion on a computer. There is an unresolved debate as to whether face-to-face interviewing is better because it can build up more rapport, or whether the confidentiality engendered by strategies such as self-completion by computer or by questionnaire increases the likelihood of divulging sensitive information. 

However, perhaps of greater significance are the implications of each of these for the sampling frame and the response rate.

Postal questionnaires usually have the lowest response rate of all methods, so are usually considered inappropriate for those surveys where this is important.  However, Statistics Finland used a postal questionnaire and obtained a surprisingly high response rate of 70% (Heiskanaen and Piipsa, 1998).  This might be explained in terms of the unique features of Nordic society.

Statistics Canada used the telephone to make contact with respondents.  They suggest that since almost all Canadians have a phone, this gives good coverage.  However, this may well be country specific, since not all countries have such wide phone coverage.  Telephone ownership rates in private households in Britain are not as high as in Canada, and are particularly low among poor female heads of households who are likely to include disproportionate numbers of women who have fled a violent home.  General Household Survey results on phone ownership show that in 1994 about 91% of households had a private telephone (compared with 96-98% in the US and Canada).  In 1989, when the household rate of phone ownership was around 87% overall, dramatically lower rates were found in households which were renting their home and had no car.  Within this group the rate was only 38% among those where the household reference person was aged 16-29, 55% where the HRP was aged 30-59 and 71% where the HRP was aged 60 or over (Thomas, 1991).  Thus the use of phones is probably inappropriate in the UK since the poorest are most vulnerable are likely to be most excluded.  Further, the technical information for random digit dialling is not as available in the UK as in North America.

While the different methods may have implications for the survey, we do not know what differences might result.  Probably of greater importance is the response rate, and it appears that the method of enquiry might have country specific implications here, especially since few European countries match the near universal Canadian pattern of telephone use.

Operationalising the definitions of the violence

Perhaps the most difficult and most contentious issue in surveys in this area is the operationalisation of the definition of violence.  The issue is especially problematic because there is no commonly available unstigmatised vocabulary, let alone one which maps easily onto legal categories of crime. 

There has been very considerable controversy over the terms and concepts used to capture domestic violence in the various generations of surveys.  There are three main terms here: 'violence', 'force', and 'conflict tactics'.  'Conflict tactics' was used by Straus in the third generation US Family Violence Surveys; 'violence' in Statistics Canada and its followers; 'force' by the BCS.  Straus developed an elaborate scale, the Conflict Tactics Scale, which listed a series of methods of dealing with conflict ranging from verbal reasoning to serious violence.  The scale has been widely used in recognition of its usefulness in distinguishing between different kinds and levels of violence.  However, it has been widely criticised because of its focus on the act rather than the impact of the act; and because data on acts makes little sense outside of an understanding of its meaning and context (Brush, 1990; Dobash, et al, 1992; Smith, 1994). 

The Straus survey found, controversially, that men were as likely to be the victim of domestic violence as were women; a finding replicated by the BCS.  However, this statistic can be misleading because the impact of this violence on women is much greater than that on men (e.g. Dobash et al 1992); men are much more likely to injure women than vice versa (Schwartz, 1987); women are much more likely to be frightened and stay frightened than men (Mirrlees-Black, 1999); and women who hit men are likely to be responding in self-defence or retaliation rather than initiating violence (Saunders, 1988; Nazroo, 1995).

Since this controversy, subsequent surveys have routinely included questions on the impact of the violence and on the context of meaning in which it took place, even while they have continued to use part of Straus' ranking scale of violence.  Such scales have the advantage of allowing the opportunity for respondents to be asked many times whether there have been varying degrees of violence, removing the need for a one-off 'gate' or 'screening' question which might contain a word that the respondent does not wish to identify with.  

Statistics Canada introduces the questions on domestic violence as questions about violence, rather than about tactics used in domestic conflict.  The survey itself is introduced as being about women's safety and the questions on domestic violence follow a series of questions about the possible controlling nature of a partner's behaviour. This is considered a more suitable framing for the questions.

However, despite the well rehearsed problems with Straus' survey, it is worth noting that more domestic violence against women in a 12 month period was reported in the Straus survey using the conflict tactics scale and a lead in-via the notion of conflict resolution in families than was found by Statistics Canada, using the concept of violence and a framing in terms of women's safety. 

The use of the term 'violence' is problematic because it is a stigmatised word which some respondents may not wish to embrace.  Mooney (1994) in her North London study found a reluctance to name actions as domestic violence.  While 92% of her respondents were prepared to label as domestic violence physical violence that results in actual bodily harm such as bruising, black eyes and broken bones, only 76% were prepared to so label physical violence of the form of grabbing, pushing and shaking, and only 68% when it referred only to threatened force.  This also varied by age - among women aged 55-64 only 60% were prepared to name as domestic violence that which resulted in actual bodily harm, and 51% that which involved grabbing, pushing and shaking.

The issue of definition for sexual attack is, if anything, even more contentious than that for domestic violence.  Most of the terms for the more severe forms of violence are highly stigmatised and even when people appear prepared to accept behavioural descriptions as fitting what happened to them they are reluctant to embrace such terms, especially that of rape.  The legal issue in most countries is whether women gave or did not give their consent to various forms of sexual contact.  In practice, many other moral and social issues emerge to interfere with such a judgment.

Koss (1988) found that only 25% of a group of US undergraduates described themselves as raped even though they described being subjected to actions which fitted such a concept.  In the UK, Painter (1991) found that only 60% of married women who were forced to have sex through the use of violence were prepared to say they were raped at the time; of those who were forced to have sex by threat of violence the figure dropped to 51% at the time; while among those who had clearly indicated that they did not consent, but against whom violence was not used, only 43% were prepared to label it as rape at the time.

This is perhaps not surprising given the popular imagery of rape as represented in the newspapers, where it typically involves strangers, madmen, multiple attacks and reckless women, some of whom brought it on themselves (Soothill and Walby, 1991).  It would be hard for a woman who has been raped to identify with the images presented to her in popular culture as representing rape.

In this context of lack of social agreement on the terms to use as shorthand for diverse forms of violence, the advice is that surveys must describe the specific forms of behaviour, and not rely upon shorthand (Koss, 1993; Smith, 1994).  Shorthands simply do not communicate that which survey designers intend.  The procedure is then to utilise multiple probes, not single questions; a series of descriptions of acts rather than a single screening question leading to detailed questions only for those who pass through this gate.

There are different kinds of sexual assault which require a range of terms to describe them.  The fourth generation of survey makes an attempt to separate the different kinds of assault.  Statistics Canada and its successors introduce questions around sexual harassment; sexual threats and attacks by strangers, dates and others; sexual assault in marriage.  However, there are places where further improvement could take place.  The questions are a little vague, for instance, it is not possible to identify a sub-category of coerced intercourse or rape; the degrees of force or the nature of the pressure utilised are not particularly clearly distinguished.  The nuances of rape in marriage are unlikely to be obtained by a single question located after the most extreme forms of physical violence.  Stalking is not included in Statistics Canada, but modifications of this survey, such as that in Australia, do usefully distinguish stalking as a separate category.  The questions about injuries need to be modified so that rape victims are not asked whether or not they have any injuries, but rather a more appropriate list of harms is included. 

We need an enhanced listing of categories through which to collect data on sexual assault for the next generation of surveys.

The location of the violent incident among others

Most crime surveys are oriented to discrete events, but domestic violence and sexual violence within a partnership is more frequently characterised by a series of events rather than a one-off event. For instance, the Straus survey is also inherently limited since it only enquires about domestic violence which has taken place over the last 12 months.

However, even the fourth generation surveys are insufficiently developed in this regard.  It is hard to ascertain from Statistics Canada surveys for how long domestic violence has occurred and with what frequency, even though there are some questions on this matter. A question as to when the first event was and when the most recent, and a frequency count in which the top is 'more than ten' is not sufficient to capture adequately the typical history of domestic violence which is uncovered in some of the refuge based samples.

Indeed, if there is to be any analysis of desistance of domestic violence, then there needs to be data on the starting and stopping of a series of events.  This is not yet collected, even in the Statistics Canada led series of surveys.  The same applies to sexual violence, which may also be part of a pattern of repeats, especially if it is from a known man or partner. 

Explaining Violence

There are a number of theories which enhanced survey data could help to assess.  They include questions as to the nature, if any, of links with poverty and social exclusion; with gender inequality; the possible efficacy of the criminal justice system; the impact of other social agencies.  In order to do this, data on correlates of violence would need to be collected more extensively.  This would include the following:

Separate data on the income and socio-economic position of the man and woman in a household, not only that of the 'head of household' or household as a whole in order to assess different possible causal pathways linking poverty and social exclusion to domestic violence.  While for the purposes of the BCS as a generic crime survey primarily interested in property theft, treating the household as a single economic unit makes some sense, it is most unhelpful when it comes to analysing intra-household power and violence.  We need to be able to separately analyse any correlation between the possible economic stressing of a perpetrator from that of the economic dependency and entrapment of a victim.  Are poor households at greater risk of domestic violence because men do not have the economic resources to perform masculinity to their satisfaction, or because women lack the economic resources and social networks to leave?  To what extent is the US finding on the protective effect of women's income (Farmer and Tiefenthaler, 1997) replicable in the UK?  To what extent would increases in women's employment and other changes in women's position in society (Walby, 1997) reduce domestic violence, as is argued in Iceland (Gislason, 1997)? To what extent is the US finding that marital equality protects against domestic violence even in conflictual situations (Coleman and Straus, 1986) replicable in the UK?

What produces desistance (cf. Farrall and Bowling, 1999)?  Is the intervention of a range of outside agencies as central to desistance in the UK as in the US (Horton and Johnson, 1993) or is the range of support services and the nature of the criminal justice system too different to support such an analysis?  Is desistance due to the integration of deviant men back into the mainstream of society, or to their exclusion from the home?

There are many theories which could be explored if reliable data on the distribution of violence against women were known (cf. Walby and Myhill, 1999; Walby and Myhill, 2000).

Future Surveys

Surveys have proved an indispensable tool for the analysis of violence against women and domestic violence, despite the hesitation of some (Brush, 1990).  There have been wave after wave of new survey designs in recent years.  We now need the next generation, building on the innovations of those which have gone before.

The fourth generation of surveys, as led by Statistics Canada, provide a much improved vehicle for the collection of data on the range of violence against women.  The improvements by, for instance, Australia in the inclusion of explicit questions on stalking constitute a further welcome development.

However, even this generation of surveys can be still further developed in several ways.  First, the sampling frame needs to be enhanced so as to include the marginalised population who do not currently occupy permanent domestic residences, especially since this is likely to include disproportionate numbers of women who have fled violent homes to seek sanctuary in a refuge, with friends or relatives, or in hostel or homeless accommodation.  Second, there needs to be development of a longer and broader standard list for recording more of the different types of sexual attack in recognition of the complexities and variations in experience and definitions here and the addition of further probes in relation to these.  Third, a more systematic and comprehensive way of recording the various impacts of violence, especially that of sexual violence, so as to capture the range of these in meaningful ways.  Fourth, a better way of recording series of events over time, so as to capture their escalation and, perhaps, their desistance, and to do so in tandem with other social information so as to begin to provide an evidential basis for understanding desistance.  Fifth, the collection of disagregated socio-economic data on women and the perpetrator, so that the woman is not hidden in the household, and so that theories as to the role of poverty and social exclusion for both victim and perpetrator can each be addressed.  Sixth, it should be asked whether the man has a criminal history, so as to help assess whether theories of criminal career are relevant in this area.

* * *

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Contents - SEMINAR : Men and Violence Against Women
COE - Strasbourg, 7-8 October 1999