Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Tackling family and domestic violence among refugee communities

Cultural dimensions and domestic and family violence

Elizabeth Lang

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.

Health behaviour in the current pandemic is another example of how notions of safety can vary across cultural contexts. I have observed and have been in discussion with members of my [South Sudanese] community on how people understand the notion of physical or social distancing. I have observed how people understand the notion of maintaining distance as only applicable to people who are not considered ‘family’ (such as the general community) due to the centrality of family on identity. This is because, in a collectivist cultural context, family may not be an extension of but rather a core aspect of a person’s identity.

From a western perspective that favours individual autonomy and freedom, it can be assumed that a collectivist cultural paradigm is disempowering due to the focus on group, rather than individual interests. Such a contrast is seen as strikingly challenging in the context of FDV.

It is important to understand that the collectivist lens is not one that merely focuses on group at the expense of individual rights. It is a way of seeing and being that influences the very perceptions people have about the notion of self, family, expectations within the family, roles, dynamics of power within relationships, violence and abuse within relationships and the expectations about how it ought to be addressed and by whom.

Collectivist cultural paradigms, while sharing similarities, also have significant differences due to the intersections of nationality, geography, ethnicity, language, culture, religion/spirituality and gender, among other factors. Societies that ascribe to collectivist ideals are not homogenous in their make-up, neither are the ways in which FDV may be viewed, understood and addressed. It is important to understand and work with the context of individuals and groups with an appreciation of the fact the dominant western lens may not fully capture the nuances that exist in and characterise interpersonal relationships. The report ‘ Best practice principles for interventions with domestic and family violence perpetrators from refugee backgrounds’ highlighted the importance of understanding and working with the contextual experiences of families, such as respect for diverse family structures, values and strengths. This principle, among others, underscores that it is crucial to appreciate and take into account collectivist notions when engaging with and supporting individuals and families, in order to ensure a strength-based and culturally responsive approach.

Elizabeth Lang is the Founder and CEO of Diversity Focus . Her areas of work include cultural diversity training, research, consulting and coaching. She is also a PhD candidate at Curtin University and her thesis, ‘Conceptualising Domestic and Family Violence in the Frame of Collectivist Cultures’, seeks to broaden the current socio-cultural conception of domestic and family violence.


UWA Public Policy Institute