Introduction and Research Question
Child abuse is a pervasive phenomenon. Still, despite the growing body of statistics, the question of why children suffer from abuse and how to stop the cycle of violence lacks any answer. As of 2005, 3.3 million of children in the U.S. were claimed to suffer from the tragic impacts of abuse (American Humane Association 2012). The most common form of child abuse was parental neglect, followed by physical and sexual abuse (American Humane Association 2012). The impacts of abuse on children are well-known and abundantly documented. Unfortunately, what exactly adult survivors feel in terms of child abuse and neglect remains hidden from the public. Looking inside the survivors’ perceptions of child abuse is essential at least because their responses may hold relevant answers to the most problematic questions. The issue of child abuse is complex, because it is inherently related to the way families and communities treat corporal punishment, violence in families, and family relationships in general. Saying that child abuse experiences have profound impacts on adolescent identity and adult adjustment may not be enough to solve the problem. It is high time the problem of child abuse were reconsidered from within. This being said, the research question of the proposed qualitative study is “How do adult survivors of child abuse perceive the appropriateness of neglect and violence against children in their own families?” In other words, the goal of the proposed study is to see whether childhood experiences of abuse and neglect lead to the subsequent normalization of violent behaviors in adult survivors’ families.
Why the study of child abuse is sociological
Child abuse and family violence are often used as umbrella terms that cover a broad range of meanings and behaviors. These terms lack a single, universal definition. More often than not, they serve as a convenient multidisciplinary justification of the new empirical models and research questions. Still, the concept of child abuse and its study are inherently sociological, because they are directly related to the analysis of social relationships between two or more people and the ways, in which power and meanings shape these relationships (Loseke 2004). Moreover, in the sociological sense, violence and child abuse deserve particular attention, because they contradict the fundamental image of family as a place of solidarity and peace (Loseke 2004). As previously mentioned, violence and abuse are pervasive phenomena, because in the developed world “pushes, shoves, slaps, and spans are routine features of family life” (Loseke 2004, p.37). Much more complicated is the concept of child abuse, because not all forms of child abuse are associated with direct violence and open assaults. Again, the most common form of child abuse is neglect, which further complicates the study of the problem in more detail.
The current state of sociological knowledge about child abuse and abuse, in general, has two basic limitations. On the one hand, sociologists are mainly concerned with the displays of non-legitimate, abnormal violence (Loseke 2004). However, it is difficult to imagine that any form of violence, be it hidden or overt, can be ever regarded as normal. Moreover, sociology professionals who try to distinguish legitimate from non-legitimate violence have different perceptions of what constitutes an immoral or abnormally abusive act (Loseke 2004). As a result, much of what could be learned about child abuse remains severely underexplored. On the other hand, the existing body of knowledge about violence relates mostly to family contexts (Loseke 2004). It has become quite popular to analyze changes in power dynamics within families and their implications for violence. In the meantime, children can be assaulted and abused beyond their family contexts – in schools, streets, etc. Nevertheless, the proposed research will focus on the analysis of child abuse within the family limits, because its basic intent is to trace the normalization of violence (or its absence) in survivors’ families.
Consequences of child abuse
Literature on the consequences of child abuse for adults is abundant. Much has been written and said about the way the incidents of neglect and abuse during childhood impact individuals later in adulthood. Currie and Widom (2010) published the results of their study into the effects of child abuse experiences on adults’ economic well-being. Many consequences of child abuse and maltreatment are associated with changes in economic productivity and well-being later in life (Currie & Widom 2010). For instance, children who were maltreated by their parents report lower intellectual performance and display lower levels of academic achievement and grade retention during adolescence (Currie & Widom 2010). Currie and Widom (2010) discovered that adults with documented history of neglect and abuse had lower levels of employment and education, fewer material assets, and lower earnings. Despite their potential social utility, these results do not tell anything about how adults with the history of child abuse perceive their childhood experiences.
Many sociology professionals are interested in the relationship between child abuse experiences and similar experiences later in life. This is why Milner et al. (2010) explored the way trauma symptoms could mediate the relationship between childhood and adult child abuse risks. The researchers recruited the sample of participants with the self-reported history of child abuse and found a strong direct association between the risks of abuse during childhood and adulthood (Milner et al. 2010). Simultaneously, Barnes, Noll, Putnam and Trickett (2009) analyzed the problem of revictimization among adult survivors of severe childhood abuse. Again, Barnes et al. (2009) found evidence to support the relationship between child abuse and recurrent abuse risks in adulthood. Yet, again, these results do not help explain and understand how adult survivors of child abuse perceive it, and whether at all they can consider it as normal to apply to violence in the relationships with their own children.
Perceptions of child abuse
Despite certain limitations, some researchers still tried to review the problem of child abuse from a subjective, qualitative perspective. Several research attempts were made to look deeper into the essence of child abuse experiences. Maynard and Wiederman (1997) examined how gender and age influenced college students’ perceptions of abusiveness in child-adult relationships. The researchers discovered that age was a crucial factor of individual perceptions of child abuse: all other variables being equal, the relationships involving younger children were rated as more abusive by students (Maynard & Wiederman 1997). These findings suggest that age and gender may impact the way adult survivors of child abuse perceive their relationships with their own children.
These assumptions were further supported by Borstein, Kaplan and Perry (2007), who examined the most common stereotypes about the consequences and circumstances of child abuse. Gender was found to be one of the most critical determinants of child abuse perceptions in adults. For instance, homosexual abuse was considered as more traumatic than heterosexual child-adult relationships (Bornstein et al. 2007). Child abuse was also claimed to be more traumatic, if committed by a parent (Bornstein et al. 2007). However, the study did not involve victims of child abuse and merely intended to measure the prevalence of public stereotypes about child abuse and its consequences. Therefore, its results are of little value, when it comes to the transformation and normalization of childhood experiences. Certainly, public stereotypes can potentially impact individual perceptions of child abuse. “Perceptions of what constitutes child maltreatment are related to public beliefs of what is tolerable in the way parents treat their children” (Gracia & Herrero 2008, p.1058). Nevertheless, the power of individual child abuse experiences cannot be ignored. The study of individual perceptions of child abuse is quite scarce, possibly, due to the sensitive nature of the subject. However, only through a better understanding of child abuse perceptions, researchers will be able to stop the cycle of violence and reduce the risks of abuse later in life.
Design and data collection instruments
The proposed research will rely on qualitative methods and use phenomenological approaches to study the perceptions of child abuse. The choice of phenomenology is justified by the fact that it allows studying the way individuals construct subjective meanings and view various events in their lives (Maykut et al. 1994). Simply stated, it is phenomenology that enables the researcher to reconsider different phenomena in ways they are perceived by the research subjects. Phenomenology is primarily concerned with understanding individual experiences and perspectives (Maykut et al. 1994). It is one of the most powerful approaches to the study of subjective experiences beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom.
The data collection instrument to be used in the proposed study is non-structured interview, which is one of the most prevalent interviewing techniques in sociology research (Marvasti 2003). Non-structured interviews are particularly useful in qualitative studies, but their choice for the proposed phenomenological project is justified by the need to save time and costs. The interview form will include the same set of closed and open-ended questions, which will guide the direction of the conversation with the respondents. Non-structured interviews fit ideally in the purpose and context of the proposed study, where respondents are expected to articulate their perceptions and concerns in the most convenient ways. The sample will include only adults with self-reported history of child abuse. Children will not participate in the study, due to their socially vulnerable status and the ethical sensitivity of the problem. Convenience sampling will be used, and participants will be recruited through the centers and assistance groups providing counseling and social support to the victims of abuse. The use of convenience sampling is the most reasonable and feasible, given the time and resources that are available for this study. All interviews will be conducted anonymously, via telephone or Skype (without video).
Reliability, validity, and ethics
The issues of reliability and validity in qualitative research differ greatly from those in quantitative studies. Qualitative researchers are not as concerned about the validity and reliability issues as their quantitative colleagues. The point of any qualitative study is to explore the phenomena and objects in so much detail that the traditional issues of validity and reliability become less meaningful (Rubin & Babbie 2009). Much more essential are the problems of authenticity, confirmability, dependability, transferability, and trustworthiness. Of the greatest concern is the problem of dependability, or the stability of the primary data across time and contexts (Rubin & Babbie 2009). It is no secret that individual perceptions of child abuse may change considerably with age and under the influence of various social and personal factors (Conger, Burgess & Barrett 1979). Another issue is that of transferability: perceptions of child abuse are directly related to the public norms and perceptions of family relationships and justice (Gracia & Herrero 2008). Consequently, the results of the proposed study may not be applicable in the contexts and cultural environments that differ from the target population.
The ethics of the proposed research needs to be considered. The study of child abuse, especially when it comes to children and adults, has profound ethical ramifications (Veena & Chandra 2007). The most problematic issues include: informed consent, refusal to participate, the benefits of the study for the participants, and the impacts of information disclosure on them (Veena & Chandra 2007). The anonymity and confidentiality of the research participants should also be guaranteed. Disclosing child abuse, even for adults, is a very complex process (Priebe & Svedin 2008). Much of what is happening to children in families remains hidden from the public eye (Priebe & Svedin 2008). Thus, all research participants will have to sign an informed consent form to participate in the study. The fullest information about the purpose of the study, its benefits and potential shortcomings will be communicated to the future participants. All research participants will be able to refuse from participation at any stage of the research project implementation. No personal information will be required, except for the information about participants’ family status. Only the researcher will have access to the primary data provided by the participants. The data will be destroyed, once the results of the study are finalized and presented to the public.
Child abuse is an important sociological topic, since it touches the quality of relations between two or more people and their power dynamics. The question to be answered in the proposed study is “How do adult survivors of child abuse perceive the appropriateness of neglect and violence against children in their own families?” The main idea underlying the proposed study is whether abuse during childhood results in the subsequent normalization of violent attitudes and perceptions in survivors’ families. The lack of information regarding adult perceptions of child abuse experiences justifies the need for the proposed research. The study will be qualitative, incorporating the elements of phenomenology and using non-structured interviews to collect primary data. Given the sensitive nature of the problem, the issues of informed consent, benefits and impacts of information disclosure on the participants, and confidentiality will have to be resolved. The research will last 10 months, and the primary data will be destroyed, once the report is finalized and presented to the audience.