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Cultural Anthropology And Spouse Abuse

G. M. Erchak
Published 1984 · Sociology

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by GERALD M. ERCHAK Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 12866, U.S.A. 7 XII 83 Although spouse abuse is a major and constant concern in the United States, cultural anthropologists have had little to say on the topic. This is particularly surprising in light of the large numbers of female anthropologists and the recent upsurge of research on women's issues. In this brief note I would like to suggest some directions for anthropological research on spouse abuse. The lack of usable information on family violence in other cultures, particularly preindustrial cultures, is one of the most obvious lacunae in the research data on spouse abuse. Such knowledge would be especially important to the culturally pluralistic societies of North America, where policies are too often created by middle-class social and government workers with highly ethnocentric ideas regarding morals, the nature of family life, residential patterns, and so on. Social and cultural anthropologists are the researchers whom one would expect to collect field data on the subject, but they have remained largely silent. This apparent lack of interest does seem to be dissipating in the area of child abuse, thanks largely to the efforts of Jill Korbin and her associates (see, e.g., Korbin 1977, 1980, 1981; also see Erchak 1981), but very little research has been published on violence against wives in preindustrial societies. The topic has of course not been completely ignored, appearing randomly in anecdotal ethnographic descriptions (e. g., Bohannan 1960, Chagnon 1983, Fernea 1969). These scattered bits make the need for systematic investigation all the more obvious. One reason for this lack of research might be simply that husband-wife violence is not a traditional subject of ethnographic investigation. Another might be that anthropologists tend to "accentuate the positive" in reports on "their" peoples, playing down characteristics which could be interpreted as negative; this approach no doubt facilitates both acquiring entry visas for restudies and future acceptance by the community under study. Furthermore, many fieldworkers "fall in love" with the people they are studying and so might turn a blind eye to unpleasant attributes. The most significant reason for the lack of data from small-scale preindustrial communities, however, might very well be the most obvious: that very little violence exists among family members in such communities. I shall return to this point shortly. My own professional interest in family violence began in 1970 in West Africa. My wife and I spent a year (1970-71) living in a rural Liberian village while I was investigating children and their families with a special focus on early childhood.2 The people were the Kpelle, a people then relatively unknown in the literature but now rather well described (interested readers might consult, e.g., Gibbs 1965, Erchak 1977, or Bledsoe 1980). Suffice it to say that they are upland rice cultivators who (ideally) live patrilocally and reckon descent patrilineally and whose lives are dominated by quasi-religious secret societies. During the first two months of our residence we were obliged to rent a room in a three-room mud hut reserved primarily for temporary residents, usually travellers or client laborers paying off a debt to a (comparatively) well-off town elder. In one room was a 26-year-old man of a type more often seen in Monrovia or the fast-paced "road towns" along the main red-dirt highway: sixth-grade education, proud of his ethnicity but bored by tradition, flashy, arrogant, hard-drinking, and womanizing. While he was engaging in this latter activity, his wife, from a town some 70 miles away, arrived unexpectedly soon, although he had apparently sent for her. She had been staying with him for a couple of days when I was awakened one night at about one o'clock by a terrific racket. I peered out the door to see her lying in the hall naked; he was on top of her, pounding her head on the cement floor and punching her face; there was quite a bit of blood on the floor. I called to him, distracting him; she leaped up, grabbed a bedsheet, and ran screaming through the village, eventually finding sanctuary in the house of one of the most respected old medicine-women in town. He, however, pursued her, butting the door to the old medicine-woman's room down with his head and injuring the old woman in the process. Then some men grabbed him and no further violence took place. I should state quite clearly that this young man was very drunk at the time. I remember wondering, "Is it always going to be so violent?" The answer turned out to be no. There was even a law in the village prohibiting physical fighting between adults, including domestic quarrels between spouses. Unlike some American communities, this community did not believe that a man had a right to beat his wife. While we heard many shouting matches, we saw only one other case that very nearly involved actual violence; both parties were being physically restrained by kin and neighbors-it was not a situation in which the woman was in any sense intimidated by the man. Community interference was successful and, in this case, preventive. During this incident, again, both parties were rather obviously intoxicated. So, in a year's residence in a community of about two hundred with a surrounding population of several hundred more, we neither witnessed nor heard of more than that one case of spouse abuse, and this despite the fact that my project necessitated focusing on family interaction. Both incidents were deviant, since both involved drinking. The case in which actual battering took place involved a very disturbed "marginal" man whom I once saw grab and violently twist the breast of a woman he was flirting with. I asked him why he had done it when it had obviously hurt her. His smiling reply: "I don't know, I just like to hurt women." This man was certainly not a typical Kpelle family man. I concluded then, and affirm now, that spouse abuse is not a serious social problem in rural, relatively traditional Kpelle villages. The two case studies discussed highlight rather than dispute this assertion. While research has not established a direct link between child and spouse abuse, patterns of domestic violence in general, carefully described, may contribute to the understanding of specific types of violence. Consistently, neither was child abuse a problem among these Kpelle villagers. I am forced to confine my statements to severe physical abuse; the ethnocentrism in psychological, social work, and sociological statements on child abuse makes cross-cultural comparison virtually hopeless in the value-laden areas of neglect, child discipline, and so-called emotional abuse (see Korbin 1977 on the ethnocentrism problem). For example, Kpelle mothers frequently threaten and ridicule their 1-to-6-year-olds; praise is very rare, and explanations for orders or discipline are never offered. Terror and cicatrization are employed in the initiation of boys and labidectomy and clitoridectomy in the initiation of girls into, respectively, the men's (Poro) and women's (Sande) secret societies; the children range in age from about 7 to 16 during initiation. How would Western child-protective workers deal with all of this? On the other hand, and quite contrary to American punitive style, corporal punishment other than light taps is very rarely used by Kpelle parents on children younger than 7, the age-group most frequently abused in the United States. Severe 1 ? 1984 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, all rights reserved 0011-3204/84/2503-0005$1.00. 2 Fieldwork in Liberia was conducted in 1970-71 and was made possible by a Fulbright Research-Lecture Grant.
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