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Using poverty and domestic violence as examples, critically investigate the different roles that 'the family' plays in explanations of, and solutions to, social problems.

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Introduction

Using poverty and domestic violence as examples, critically investigate the different roles that 'the family' plays in explanations of, and solutions to, social problems, During the course of this essay it will become clear that the definition of a social problem, how it is constructed, understood and ultimately acted upon, depends on many factors. The degree to which it is conceptualised as a private problem, to be dealt with primarily by, or within 'the family', or a public issue, subject to intervention by agencies of the state, tends to be dependant on prevailing dominant discourses, which in turn are determined by the current political environment, professional and expert knowledge and contradictory common sense notions. Despite a widely held belief that a division exists between the private world of the family and the public world of the state, the extent to which this dichotomy holds true founders somewhat when consideration is given to the role of 'the family' in explanations of various social problems. The following analyses of domestic violence and poverty illustrate the different ways in which this supposedly private institution is often constructed as both the cause of, and the solution to social problems. Indeed, both are subject to competing explanations, which in turn shape suggested solutions, and it is through the examination of these that the underlying assumptions about the role of 'the family' in social problems will become apparent. The official definition of domestic violence, formulated by the Home Office and used by all police forces across England and Wales since 1999, states that it is: '...any violence between current or former partners in an intimate relationship, wherever and whenever the violence occurs. The violence may include physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse.' (Home Office, 1997). This definition however merely describes the behaviour that constitutes domestic violence, and there is no reference, either explicit or implicit, as to the cause of such behaviour. ...read more.

Middle

The Women's Aid movement, among others, has been particularly influential in this respect. Campaigns to raise awareness about the nature and prevalence of such behaviour have challenged male ideology and the resultant gender inequalities, and such campaigning has culminated in a range of measures that both protects and empowers the victims, whilst punishing the perpetrator. Recognising that the main reason for women staying in abusive relationships was due to their having nowhere else to go, Women's Aid and the Refuge movement have been instrumental in the establishment of 'safe houses' and alternative accommodation, enabling battered women to escape abuse, thus addressing the material inequalities between men and women. In December 2002, the New Labour government, as part of their commitment to reducing social exclusion, announced a new scheme that saw the implementation of a new national helpline, coupled with the development of more refuge space for victims of male violence (Guardian, 11.12.02). The current legal framework, informed by such feminist campaigns, involves measures by both the civil law and the criminal justice system to address this problem. Protection against domestic violence has been enhanced through provisions under the Family Law Act, 1996 and the Protection from Harassment Act, 1996. Together with these, a Home Office Circular issued in 1990, stipulated new requirements for police practice, which has led to both a gradual institutional change in the way domestic violence is perceived and the establishment of specialist Domestic Violence Units. These measures go some way to challenging the assumptions underlying the 'private' model of the family. There indeed seems to be more awareness throughout society that traditional views of the causes of domestic violence oversimplify, and to some extent, reinforce the problem, and although traces of this explanation remain in common sense understandings, many do not now readily accept this explanation. The redefinition of domestic violence as a public issue, rather than a private problem, can be contrasted against the way in which poverty has been conceptualised. ...read more.

Conclusion

According to Gordon (1991) average earnings of African Caribbean and Asian men are around one fifth those of white men. Thus there is strong evidence for what Cochrane (1993) terms the 'racialization of poverty'. In conclusion, and given the arguments put forward with regard to poverty, along with those for domestic violence, how useful is ' the family' to an understanding of the explanations of, and solutions to, social problems? Discourses about 'the family' tend to assume the model of the traditional male breadwinner model. However, the diversity of family forms outlined above, such as lone parent families and the increase in single person households, along with high levels of male unemployment, are increasingly undermining this model of 'the family'. Nevertheless, it is still used as the standard against which all other family forms are measured. Indeed, the 'underclass' debate makes explicit this supposed 'norm' in defining all other types as 'deviant' and as such, a threat to mainstream society. However, there is evidence that those defined as belonging to some sort of 'underclass' share the same aspirations in terms of material security, and believe in the work ethic as a means to achieve those goals (Stepney et al. 1999). Thus to claim that they are in some way 'abnormal' merely serves to stigmatise them, whilst denying the substantial negative effects of such labelling. Comparisons can be made with familial explanations of domestic violence. Feminists have argued that men who abuse their partners are not 'pathological' individuals; they are merely products of a patriarchal society characterized by masculine ideals of dominance, strength and superiority. Indeed, Goldner et al (1990) argue that couples in violent relationships internalize in extremis the gender premises upon which the traditional family is based. Given these points, it would seem that 'the family' in whatever form, is impacted by, and often reflects, the power inequalities inherent in a white, patriarchal social structure. It would thus make more sense for policy makers to examine the flaws in this particular system when looking for explanations of social problems, rather than to blame and punish individual families. ...read more.

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