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Tackling family and domestic violence among refugee communities
Cultural dimensions and domestic and family violence
Elizabeth Lang examines the role individualist cultural paradigms have traditionally played in the conceptualisation of family and domestic violence, including the design of interventions to combat it. She highlights the importance of understanding different collectivist notions of family, power and identity in order to effectively address family domestic violence in refugee communities.
The understanding and experience of family and domestic violence (FDV) is contextualised by the cultural paradigms of individuals and families within and across societies globally. The very definition of FDV is informed by a set of ideas that incorporate an understanding of the ‘family’. This understanding, in western contexts, makes assumptions about what the family looks like and the nature of relationships and dynamics of power within it. There are stark differences between the conceptualisation and experience of ‘family’ in collectivist and individualist cultural dimensions.
Western societies, generally ascribing to individualist cultural paradigms, have historically viewed the family as a unit consisting of individuals brought together by the common bond of marriage and biological links. In the field of social sciences and more specifically anthropology, the family has been the subject of much research. Of particular significance is the notion of the ‘nuclear family’ coined in 1947, which has had a substantial impact on contemporary notions of family in much of the western world. Even though the concept of the nuclear family has been challenged, especially with the acceptance of the ‘extended family’, its influence on the contemporary understanding of the family remains significant. Such conceptions of family are not only narrow but represent a mono-cultural understanding of the family which fails to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of family compositions and structures that exist in many collectivist cultural contexts.
The legacy of the nuclear family has had implications for contemporary understandings of FDV and hence the frameworks used to conceptualise, assess and address it. The dominant frameworks, such as the Duluth power and control wheels, make assumptions of what the family is and hence the nature of dynamics of power that exist within it. They have influenced much of the approaches to FDV used today. However, they present as problematic as they attempt to apply a lens to the problem that is not universal in understanding, nature and experience.
For individuals and groups who come from collectivist cultural backgrounds, more expansive definitions of the family may exist that not only includes ‘immediate’ family members, such as parents and siblings, but includes grandparents, relatives, clan or skin groups among others. The experience of family in this context is much broader and the nature of relationship dynamics may also vary depending on the individual or individuals concerned and the socially defined norms that exist within the specific group. Experience and understanding may also vary greatly from one group to another.
The individualist cultural paradigm may therefore not adequately capture the nuances within relationships which influence dynamics of power and control within relationships. Therefore, the very parameters placed around ‘domestic and family violence’ will naturally disadvantage individuals and groups who do not ascribe to the paradigms which inform the context in which these dominant models were developed.
In contemporary literature on FDV, the notion of power and control is conceptualised from a western individualist lens. This perspective sees the individual as an isolated being whose relationship to others outside of the self is based on, among other things, the understanding of being connected to, but separate from, other individuals around them. Placing a greater emphasis on independence, individual freedoms and autonomy, the individual is seen as existing as a self-sufficient being. This sense of individual autonomy characterises relationships and impacts the nature of dynamics of power and how these concepts are viewed and understood.
Collectivist cultural paradigms place greater emphasis on harmony, cohesion and interconnectedness. As group cohesion is prioritised, relations outside the self are viewed and experienced from a place of mutual connection and encouragement of conformity to the needs and interests of the collective. These expectations characterise how individuals relate to one another and the social norms that influence how people interact with one another.
Notions of safety are also influenced by cultural paradigms among an intersection of other factors. Rather than physical safety being viewed in terms of the physical environment of the family, access to essentials, supports and services, other notions of safety also exist in many contexts. Safety in a collectivist cultural context may go beyond the immediate physical environment to include people’s sense of being, belonging, or lack thereof, be it within a family unit or more broadly within a society. People’s sense of place is also a huge factor that influences how individuals and groups understand the notion of safety.
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