Developing a critical theory of child abuse : a discussion of the nature of child abuse as a manifestation of the social order
This thesis is an exploration into the nature and the prevalence of child abuse. It incorporates in this investigation how children understand abuse, and how the child may reject or oppose it. Its origins lie in the experiences and observations I made as a local authority social worker where children were silent, where child abuse was seen as an event, a distinct moment within family life, and with apparently little recognition of its relationship with the social order. Arising from this observation, I consider how the care of children may be a manifestation of the social order. This thesis is therefore also a critique of the present theory and practice of working within the field of childcare. The premise taken here is that in order to understand abuse, there must be an account of the individual's sense of being, as this relates to wider issues of the political economy. Thus this investigation uses the perspective of critical theory, since critical theory can incorporate an analysis of both structure and the experiential. It enables the researcher to shift perspective and to focus on different levels and aspects of being. Therefore, since child abuse is situated within the family, an analysis based on the perspectives of critical theory is used to examine family relationships. This includes an examination of the relationships between parents, as well as of those between them and the child. Three different facets of family life are explored: that of gender construction from the viewpoint of feminist psychoanalysis; the relationship between the social order and interpersonal behaviour from the perspective of Marx and radical feminism; and parental authority, drawing on the work of Laing. Derived from this exploration, the key concepts of patriarchy, alienation and mystification inform the direction of the empirical investigation. The empirical investigation, using firstly autobiographies of childhood and then direct interviews with children, explores further these concepts'. The autobiographies are used as a way of sensitising oneself to the issues for the child, and as a means of categorising experiences for the subsequent interviews with children. From this reading, an alternative understanding of child abuse is developed, one which differs from the narrow definition used by organisations. Hence abuse can be seen as the experience of hurt and pain, either emotional or physical, and which takes place in a relationship based on the parental domination, control and exploitation of the child. This understanding of abuse situates the subjective experience within an interpersonal dynamic of power and subordination. Using this definition in analysing the interviews with children, it was apparent that all children expedrience a form of abuse to some degree. Abuse is not, therefore, the property of a small number of deviant families. Additionally it is argued that children are silenced and rendered powerless within the family by three mechanisms: firstly by the 'privacy control mechanism', secondly by the 'ideology of paternalism', and thirdly by mystification. These can be interpreted as also reinforcing the social order, since this also depends for its maintenance on domination, powerlessness, and mystification of the mechanisms of control. The thesis concludes with a number of proposals for further exploring these concepts in terms of developing sociological theory and social work practice. The report on the death of Jasmine Beckford is subjected to an alternative analysis, and derived from this critique, ways of confronting violence, mystification and privacy are discussed. Finally the thesis stresses the importance of understanding child abuse as a personal as well as a social phenomenon, and that it has ultimately, a political significance.