The findings are part of a larger study funded by a $500,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation that will be published by Beacon next year. The study was conducted by Lois Weis, professor of education at UB, and Michelle Fine, professor of social psychology in the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
The researchers defined "serious domestic violence" as battering intended to cause serious physical injury. Ninety-two percent of white female respondents said that such domestic violence was directed against them, their mothers and/or sisters, either in their birth households or in later relationships. By comparison, 62 percent of black female subjects reported similar levels of violence in their lives.
Weis called the results "extremely disturbing. This does not mean that 92 percent of all white working-class women are or have been victims of serious domestic violence," she said. "It does, however, suggest a far more serious problem in this population than has otherwise been acknowledged."
The Weis-Fine study was designed as a major qualitative analysis documenting the lives of white, black and Latino poor and working-class families during the Bush and Reagan administrations (1980-92), a period of significant changes in government social policies affecting this population group.
It involved in-depth interviews with 154 men and women from Buffalo and Jersey City, N.J. Each respondent was interviewed in-depth for from three to five hours. Weis said she hopes the study will lead to further research and perhaps to policy changes.
"Domestic violence is not a phenomenon found only in poor and working-class homes," she added. "It's found widely in very privileged homes as well.
"We know from the past 15 years of research in this field that when an individual has been the victim of family abuse in childhood, the chance of her being abused in another relationship-even of repeating the experience over and over again with boyfriends, husbands and lovers-is very high.
"In this case, we uncovered evidence of deep generational domestic abuse in fairly stable white families," she noted.
Weis said that "when asked about their lives in general, the vast majority of white respondents poured out stories of lives saturated with serious domestic violence. We weren't looking for it. It was not a major part of our study. We certainly did not expect as pervasive a problem as was reported.
"Some women said they grew up in homes in which serious abuse was part of the fabric of their daily lives," she noted. "They described regular beatings of themselves, their mothers and sisters by other family members. Some spoke of being seriously abused in adult male-female relationships as well. Others described the violent, abusive relationships of one or more sisters."
Despite their histories, Weis said not one of the respondents reported any violence in her current relationship. She cautioned, however, that this does not mean that the women are now established in placid households. "Some women choose not to talk about domestic abuse until they've left the environment," said Weis. "For others, the very powerful unconscious defense mechanism of denial is operating. Denial is frequent and strong in most domestic abuse cases."
Weis said the results were especially surprising because the subjects in the study were not selected because the researchers believed them to be the worst off in their communities. "The...subjects were all members of relatively stable families and were involved in church, school or community organizations and activities," she said. She said that they found that the 31 black women respondents were much more open about the violence they saw and experienced.
"The white women in the study, on the other hand," she said, "were very secretive." Weis speculated that such secretiveness serves to protect the popular image of family life in the white community.