The Braid That Binds Us: The Impact of Neoliberalism, Criminalization, and Professionalization on Domestic Violence Work

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Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work

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The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare recently released its Grand Challenges for Social Work. ‘‘Ending gender-based violence’’ (also referenced as domestic violence [DV] or intimate partner violence) constitutes one of two streams for the Grand Challenge #3, Stop Family Violence (Edleson, Lindhorst, & Kanuha, 2015). The authors of the white paper for this challenge map some of the history and current landscape of gender-based violence (GBV) in the United States while also providing some insight into social work’s role in research, practice, and policy in addressing this important issue. We agree with the authors that ending GBV requires interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaborations. We also agree that, as a field, ‘‘social work has not gone far enough’’. Although Edleson, Lindhorst, and Kanuha’s (2015) working paper suggests hope that the United States ‘‘has the resources, tools, and knowledge to move more quickly toward not only healthier nonviolent relationships but also families, neighborhoods, and communities that value safety, empowerment and respect for girls and women’’, little attention is paid to the political and economic conditions that create and shape antiviolence work (research, practice, policy) and how these conditions impact efforts that social workers might/ should/could enact to meet this Grand Challenge.

We hope to expand this conversation and inspire social work’s engagement and capacity for addressing domestic violence (DV) by calling attention to the ways neoliberalism, criminalization, and professionalization are braided together to shape the kind of work made im/possible when it comes to ending DV. In this editorial, we will argue ‘‘the braid’’ of these three forces significantly influences and constrains DV work and research in the United States as demonstrated by Edleson et al.’s (2015) paper. Although we support the need for social work to take a proactive and thoughtful position in addressing DV across our communities, the dominance of positivist paradigms for research and practice at present fails to address the structural and systemic issues we believe are most critical to ending DV. We would, in fact, argue that the analysis and approach mapped by Edleson et al.’s paper is shaped by and contributes to the braid’s ongoing hold on DV work.

To discuss each of these issues—neoliberalism, criminalization, and professionalization—in isolation creates a sense of discreteness and disconnectedness that we believe is inaccurate, as each strand relies on and reinforces the others to constitute the braid. That said, for the purposes of our discussion herein, we briefly highlight some key elements of each ‘‘strand’’ to orient the reader to prominent macro forces shaping the braid. We then move into our discussion, highlighting some of the key impacts of the braid on DV work and implications for future directions. Our reflections here are deeply informed by our diverse social identities, life experiences, and connection to DV research, practice, and activism over many decades. In addition, our ideas rest heavily upon the analyses and work of critical DV scholar Mimi Kim, and INCITE! women, gender nonconforming, and trans people against violence.


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