Data Type: Journal Article

Lived realities and the construction of social problems: The case of wife abuse

Loseke, D. R. (1987). Lived realities and the construction of social problems: The case of wife abuse. Symbolic Interaction, 10(2), 229-243.

This article examines the differences between the subjective experiences and the “official” accounts of wife abuse, and the consequences of those differences. The study shows how an “official definition” of wife abuse (i.e. the extreme, intentional, repetitive physical abuse of a wife by her husband that causes psychological harm to the wife), has made actual experiences with wife abuse less recognizable, and has made it difficult for abused wives to have their subjective experiences (which do not always match the official definition of wife abuse) recognized for social services.

The authors employed a grounded theory approach in this study. First, claims appearing in the professional literature were used to locate the “official” definition wife abuse. Then, the actual experiences of abused wives were theoretically compared with the official definition. Finally, data from a shelter for battered women was used to illustrate the consequences of using official definitions in organizations designed to help individuals with social problems. This is especially the case because, as the authors note, the official definition seems to emphasize only extreme violence as abuse. They also point out that that the literature suggests that wife abuse as a relational trouble with a pre-assigned victim and perpetrator. Moreover, the term “wife abuse” makes the event a women’s issue only, perhaps subliminally suggesting that this is a women’s problem and therefore something women should resolve themselves. In this sense, the article demonstrates the importance of examining not only broad official accounts of social problems like domestic violence, but of examining the actual experiences of those social problems sociologically Similarly, it suggests the importance of tending to social problems as subjective experiences.

This article is relevant to research on mental health and identity because it explains how the terminology surrounding a phenomenon has a huge impact on how that phenomenon is perceived by outsiders. Researchers who use the term “wife abuse” instead of “domestic violence,” may limit the scope of the phenomenon only to extreme cases of physical abuse (as opposed to psychological abuse, for example), and also make it a problem to be dealt with by one specific group of people. Such analysis may have implications for the use of careful terminology in therapy, as well.

Categories: Qualitative Methods, Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, Symbolic Interaction
Publication Date: 1987