Conversational silence, coercion, equality: the role of language in influencing who gets identified as abused

Soc Sci Med. 2006 May;62(9):2258-66. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.10.022. Epub 2005 Nov 14.


Various methods of ascertaining self-reported exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) in health care and research settings have been evaluated to identify women who interpret themselves as abused for clinical and research intervention. However, few interpretive frameworks have been proposed to explain factors that may influence the success of this ascertainment process, including the contribution of language in facilitating women's interpretations of situations as abusive across social, cultural and historical contexts. This omission is substantial, given that IPV is context-specific, involving interaction between individuals of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and their sociocultural environment. In the first part of this paper, we outline hermeneutics, one interpretive theoretical tradition to describe approaches to interpreting IPV. Hermeneutics is a linguistic philosophy that focuses on questions of how people understand spoken language, written text, and themselves through language across sociocultural environments. Hermeneutics acknowledges conditions and situations that facilitate opportunities for broad shared understanding and vocabularies about violence between communities, professionals and abused women, which in turn may reduce harm to women and negotiate action women may want to take in response to situations they interpret as abusive. In the second and third parts of the paper, we compare and contrast the strengths and limitations of three common approaches for asking women about IPV in health care and research settings, and outline a multi-dimensional IPV ascertainment tool that incorporates the three asking approaches to facilitate professionals bringing broad definitions of and vocabularies about abuse to encounters with women. This paper provides health care researchers, clinicians and policy makers with a framework for understanding the potential influence of language on women's interpretations of IPV, including the role of community and professional conversational silence, coercion and equality in influencing women's interpretations. We look at the influence of language about intimate partner violence in the United States on women's interpretations of abuse, although the basic constructs presented here could be applied in other countries and settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Coercion*
  • Communication
  • Comprehension*
  • Domestic Violence*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Role*
  • United States