Asymmetrical role-taking: comparing battered and nonbattered women.

Author:Forte, James A.

The problem of woman battering persists as a serious (Hoffman, 1992), neglected (Gelles & Straus, 1988), and apparently intractable (Gondolf & Foster, 1991) impediment to harmonious and mutually respectful male-female relationships. Davis (1991) argued that the only way to solve this problem is to "change the social perceptions of its basic nature" (p. 371). This article reconsiders two questions about the basic nature of domestic violence: How can men continue to hurt women despite their apparent pain and distress? Why do some women have only limited coping responses to these situations and thus remain in dangerous life-threatening relationships?

Stets (1988) demonstrated the advantages of using the symbolic interactionist perspective for answering such questions. Intraindividual theories posit that domestic violence is caused by the psychopathology of one of the partners -- for example, the wife's masochism or the husband's misuse of alcohol. These theories ignore the weak explanatory power of individual characteristics. Sociocultural theories explain violence in terms of societal norms or structural strains that support its use. These theories do not explain how such societal features impinge on self-views and on face-to-face interaction. In contrast, according to Stets (1988), the symbolic interactionist approach gives central importance to the dynamics of interaction and the way participants in the interactive situation interpret or define self, other, and the situation. Such an approach allows for the intensive and critical examination of both the perspectives of people involved in the construction of a violent relationship and the way that these perspectives reflect societal, economic, and political forces (Ferraro, 1988).

Franks (1976, 1985, 1989) developed a detailed and integrated interactional framework for understanding the male-female violent encounter. Franks (1989) developed this approach as an improvement on Kemper's (1978) deterministic approach to dominance. Kemper linked gender differences in power to biochemistry, especially as related to testosterone. Central to Franks's interactional model is Mead's (1913) concept of role-taking. Schwalbe (1988) defined role-taking as the ability to imaginarily take the perspective of the other. Role-taking is not role playing (Coutu, 1951). Role-taking involves covertly pretending to be in the other's role to anticipate his or her behavior. Role-taking allows an individual to subtly control and coordinate his or her actions with actions of others. Role playing, in contrast involves overtly enacting behaviors associated with one's own role -- as police officer, for example. Moreover, in some cases, like that of the police officer making an arrest, efficient role-taking -- imaging the feelings of the offender -- could inhibit effective role playing.

Schwalbe (1988) also offered illustrations of the various dimensions of role-taking. Role-taking ability may vary by accuracy, depth, and range. The accurate role-taker can "size up people quickly." Role-taking depth is the ability to fully reconstruct the other's point of view across many life situations. Schwalbe defined role-taking range as the ability to enter the perspectives of a variety of diverse others. Schwalbe argued that people vary in their propensity to enter the perspectives of others. Violent criminals and psychopaths typically have low propensities to role-take. Situations also vary in the extent to which they call forth people's disposition to role-take.

Role-taking can also be conceptualized as an interactional event with both cognitive and affective phases. Affective role-taking, commonly known as empathizing, is considered the "sine qua non for successful social work practice" (Macarov, 1978, p. 90). Humanistically oriented practice models draw from Rogers's (1975) work on empathy and teach social workers to sense "the client's private world as if it were your own" (Keefe, 1976, p. 11). Adherents of psychodynamic approaches to social work also highly value empathy (Bennett, Legon, & Zilberfein, 1989). Raines (1990), for instance, saw it as vicarious introspection essential for understanding the client's mental experience.

Theoretical Overview

Franks (1976, 1985, 1989) used role-taking in the Meadian sense as a multidimensional, situated, and symbol-making ingredient in the interactional process. In oppressive social situations, role-taking is asymmetrical. Franks contended that the more powerful person is unlikely to take the role of the subordinate and is not motivated to attune himself or herself to the other's subjective experience. The less powerful person, on the other hand, frequently uses role-taking and tries hard to accurately understand the partner. Franks also argued that in oppressive situations, adaptive role-taking used by subordinates to cope with their superiors can be transformed into a maladaptive fusion with the aggressor. This fusion diminishes the ability to retain an independent point of view.

According to Franks (1989), there are four key aspects of the model integrating four levels of social reality: (1) oppressive social situations, (2) face-to-face interaction, (3) the intrapsychic deliberations related to self and emotional appraisals, and (4) coping actions.

Oppressive Social Situations

Certain features of social situations are likely to influence the role-taking process. Following Turner (1956), Franks (1989) proposed that three specific contextual conditions are oppressive and increase the likelihood of role-taking-related problems: (1) large status and power differences between people in the situation, (2) structural and personal dependence by one person on the resources provided by the other, and (3) a lack of access to supportive others and to alternative perspectives for use in defining the social situation.

Face-to-Face Interaction

During ideal face-to-face interaction, two people communicate, engage in mutual role-taking, interpret each other's communication accurately, negotiate possible lines of action, and coordinate their actions so that each person can enact a preferred role. However, situational contingencies such as the distribution of power influence this interactional process. The more powerful person with structural sources of status and power can remain "imperceptive" to the needs of the less powerful person (Franks, 1985). Brute force rather than role-taking and open negotiation achieve the dominator's interactional goals.

In contrast, the less powerful person uses role-taking as a defensive strategy. Sensitivity to all aspects of the interpersonal communication, including indications of the other's moods, becomes necessary for survival. The less powerful individual is also often forced to comply with the whims of the powerful person and enact undesirable roles.

Self and Emotional Appraisals

For symbolic interactionists, one's appraisal of self and one's interpretation of inner feelings are pivotal influences on behavior. As discovered by Bettleheim (1943) during his observations of guard-prisoner interaction in Nazi concentration camps, continued participation in asymmetrical role-taking has deleterious consequences on self-concept. The subordinate experiences a weakening of ego boundaries and increased difficulty in resisting the psychological hold that dominators have over their emotional lives. The less powerful person is bereft of information from supportive others necessary to maintain a positive sense of self. Moreover, the reflected appraisals of the disdainful other take on great salience. Frequently, the aggressor's disparaging views are incorporated by the subordinate in private self-reflexive deliberations. Franks (1989) likened this process of losing one's standpoint and adopting the perspective of the other -- even when against one's self-interest -- to a fusion of roles.

In addition, Franks (1989) suggested that role fusion may be associated with self-blame. In blaming himself or herself for relationship troubles, the less powerful individual is also prone to guilt. Bolstered by an ideology justifying oppression, the more powerful person argues that the less powerful person is responsible for all relationship problems. Deprived of "status shields" (Hochschild, 1983) that fend off such situational definitions and vulnerable to "cultural myths" -- "social stereotypes about the 'true nature' of women and men" (Lipman-Blumen, 1984, p. 75) -- that justify oppression, the less powerful person internalizes allocation of blame and attributes relationship difficulties to personal faults. Franks (1989) defined status shields as socially granted interpretations that protect people in certain positions. Status shields can ward off damaging parries from dominators. White-collar criminals are often protected by their status from just punishment, and athletes can use their celebrity to indulge in socially questionable activities without reproach. Yet women who defend themselves and their children are often cast as unstable, vicious, or reprehensible. They lack status shields, and this contributes to their subjugation.

Franks (1989) proposed that perceived deficits in power and the consequences of such deficits may also produce distressful emotions. In general terms, perceived relationship inequities are positively associated with negative affect and negatively associated with positive affect. Specifically, a perceived deficit in power or status produces fear, anxiety, and depression.

Coping Actions

Role-taking with a disdainful other when escape is difficult undermines one's executive and coping capacities. For example, the frequent distressful emotions and diminished self-esteem related to role fusion may affect the subordinate's capacity to take constructive action (Franks, 1989). Theoretically, this concept helps us understand the social behavior of relatively powerless battered women and some of their critical predicaments...

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