Masculinity and partner abuse against men

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Chapter Three: Methodology

In this chapter, I outline the theoretical framework that informs the project, and briefly review my reasons for selecting a qualitative methodology. I then introduce the methods employed in the research, with the participants, recruitment and data collection for studies one and two outlined separately, followed by a consideration of potential ethical and quality assurance issues and how these have been addressed.

Theoretical framework

My orientation, and the viewpoint from which I have conducted this research is one of contextualism, and more specifically one approximating ontological realism and epistemological constructivism, as described by Smith and Sparkes (2006). That is, I accept the presence of some ‘truths’ within the physical world, but acknowledge a lack of objective human knowledge about this world, and in particular, knowledge of our social world. In this model, human knowledge and experience is formed by a combination of the events in question and psychological and social processes, and is formed, stored and reproduced within the guiding and constraining influence of the societal contexts in which we live and act. In short, there is truth in events, but not in our definitions, understandings, and discussion of them. Therefore, this research is conducted not as a systematic search for universal and stable truths about the experiences of all young men, but as an exploration of the types of stories and understandings that can follow the experience of abuse, and the social context within which this occurs.
This exploration is qualified with the understanding that what participants present to the researcher is also influenced both by the participants’ expectations and desires for self-presentation, and by the actions of the researcher herself, as well as the subjective experience of the participants (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998). The researcher’s theoretical orientation, worldview and interests shape the research design, the questions asked and topic discussed, the manner in which the discussion proceeds, and the interpretation of these discussions, and as such, the researcher must engage in a process of observation and reflection on what orientation she brings to the research, and how that orientation may affect both the research process, and the interpretive outcome (Hiles & Čermák, 2010). For this reason, I have provided a brief outline of my interests and motivations in this project later in the chapter, in the section entitled ‘reflexivity’.

Qualitative research

Qualitative methodologies are particularly useful when attempting to understand the ways a particular phenomenon is subjectively perceived and understood by those who experience it (Denzin Lincoln, 2000; L. Richards & Morse, 2007). It is also useful for new areas of research, in that while research is never independent of existing knowledge and ideas, qualitative methods do not rely on the derivation of testable hypotheses from prior literature, and are more open to exploring unanticipated responses than are typical quantitative methods (Liamputtong, 2013). They are well suited to a contextualist framework, as they enable the researcher to explore and expand ideas and experiences, and the manner in which these are discussed without aiming to provide a statistical representation of ‘reality’ in the wider population (Ambert, Adler, Adler, & Detzner, 1995; Merriam, 2002).
As outlined in the literature review, qualitative work on abuse against men is particularly lacking in the current literature, and this has been identified as an important avenue to increase our understanding of the issue (Randle & Graham, 2011). Qualitative research also provides the opportunity for a more contextualised understanding of social phenomena (Coyle, 2007). While knowledge of the social contexts of the topic at hand is useful for any form of research, this may be particularly important with issues such as partner abuse, for which both the experience itself and the literature appear to be highly influenced by the social and political context in which they occur.
While there are many different methods for gathering qualitative data, I selected in-depth interviews of the men, and focus groups with other young people as the methods most suited to the research aims, and the reasons for this as well as the procedures involved will be further outlined in the ‘data collection’ sections of each study. As the methods of ensuring quality in qualitative research differ somewhat from those typically employed in quantitative research, I have also outlined some methods of ensuring quality at the conclusion of this chapter.


This study was conducted in two phases, and the participants, recruitment and data collection for each phase will be outlined separately below, followed by a summary of several issues pertinent to both phases of research, including data analysis, measures to ensure ethical standards were met across the research, and a discussion of the methods employed to ensure quality in the research design and analysis.

Study 1 Participants and recruitment.

The participants in the first phase of the research were 9 young men aged 18-27, who had self-identified as experiencing a range of ‘abusive’ behaviours from a female partner in a past relationship. Because the gender of the abusive partner may affect men’s experiences of abuse (C. Brown, 2008), the research was restricted to men in relationships with women. As can be seen in appendix A, the recruitment posters asked men to apply who had been physically attacked, intimidated or controlled, verbally attacked or put-down, pressured or coerced. The posters did not specify that the participant must consider the behaviours abusive, as research has suggested that many people, and particularly men, frequently do not consider such behaviours to be ‘abuse’, despite considering them unacceptable within romantic relationships (Zverina et al., 2011), and it was considered that the word ‘abuse’ on the posters may dissuade some men from applying. Rather, the recruitment aimed to give examples of behaviours that are frequently cited as abusive by researchers, professionals and the general population, with a view to exploring participants’ own definitions and understandings of those experiences.
Recruitment posters were placed at tertiary institutions, counselling services and public noticeboards across the Auckland region to encourage as diverse a sample as possible. As can be seen in appendix A, posters encouraged participants to contact the researcher by phone, text or email if they were interested. Information sheets were sent to each participant via email before they committed to participating, and potential participants were invited to ask questions or request further information both before and at the time of the interview from myself, my supervisor, the head of department, or the university Human Ethics Committee. Participants were each offered a $25 supermarket voucher of their choosing as a koha (gift) for participating, and were offered reimbursement for travel costs relating to the research. Interviews were arranged with participants for a time convenient to them at one of the University of Auckland Campuses. They were offered the chance to request an alternative neutral location if they preferred, but all participants were agreeable to attending the interviews at the University of Auckland.
All participants completed a brief demographics questionnaire after completing the consent form, which can be seen in appendix D. Some participants requested that their demographics not be linked with their story to avoid identification in their small communities, and I have thus decided to summarise their data together here, rather than outline each participants’ demographics individually. The participants were nine young men, who ranged in age from 18 to 27, with an average age of 22. It was decided to include one participant who was outside the original target range of 18-25, as his relationship fell within the age range specified. There were a range of ethnicities represented, with three of the men identifying as Pakeha/ New Zealand European, two as Korean, one as Maori, one as Sri Lankan, one as an Afrikaans South African, and one as British. The majority (seven) were students, including two who also worked, and two were working full-time. One participant declined to complete the ‘income’ question on the demographics form but of the others, the majority (seven) reported they earned less than $19,000 per annum, and one between $40,000 and $59,000. Five were living with flatmates, three with their parents, and one with his spouse. The men described relationships that occurred at between the ages of 17 and 25, of varying lengths. Two of the nine men reported that they were officially cohabiting with their partner at the time of the relationship. The participants had no dependents.
Two potential participants who took part in the interview were excluded from the analysis: during the interview one was discovered to be well outside the age range targeted for the study, and while the other was in the correct age range for the study, he did not meet the criterion of having experienced one or more of the above forms of ‘abusive’ behaviour. He stressed that while he had felt unhappy in the relationship, he felt he had ‘abused himself’ by staying in the relationship when he did not want to, rather than feeling like his partner had behaved in an inappropriate manner. While there is much ambiguity over the definition of partner abuse, and I sought to include all those who felt they met the criteria, the decision that this man did not meet the criteria was taken in consultation with the potential participant, who had started the interview by expressing doubts as to whether his experience matched the study’s focus. Thus, it was decided to exclude these two potential participants from the analysis, in order to retain the focus on young men and abuse.
I had originally intended to include a somewhat larger sample for study one, but due to the small number of eligible volunteers, I decided to finish data collection once data saturation had been reached. It was unclear why recruitment was difficult for the study, and it may have related to the requirement to disclose highly personal and stigmatising information. However, the recruitment of young men for study two was similarly difficult, suggesting that either the population in question (young men) was the reason for the difficulties in recruitment, or the subject matter (partner abuse) was not one that attracted young men in particular to a discussion. While research conducted outside New Zealand suggests that it is relatively common for young people (including young men) to experience abusive behaviours in their relationships (W. L. Johnson et al., 2015), it is also possible that many do not define their experiences as problematic (Follingstad et al., 1991), and thus would be less likely to volunteer for a study of this type. I will further explore the possible effects of this in the final chapter, under ‘study limitations’. However, large numbers of interviews are not needed for such in-depth methods of research (Emerson & Frosh, 2004) and the sample met the criteria for data saturation, suggesting an adequate, if slightly smaller than intended, sample.

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Data collection.

Interviews are a common method of gathering data, are useful for gaining a rich description of participants’ understandings and experiences of a particular issue, and enable analysis that is sensitive to subtleties and contradictions within the data (Esin, 2011). While some interviews are approached with a pre-determined schedule of questions, they are more typically structured according to the flow of conversation and the particular pieces of information that are raised during the course of the interview (Rapley, 2004). They are typically conducted with a small sample size to allow for detailed examination of participant accounts (Emerson & Frosh, 2004; Merriam, 2002). The debate around abuse against men has often lacked the voice of the men whom it affects. In approaching this topic, the interviews were primarily driven by a desire to hear men’s lived experience as they perceive it, and thus an in-depth narrative approach was selected for the initial enquiries in the interviews. However, the research also aimed to answer questions more particularly around help-seeking and the influence of gender, and thus a more targeted approach was adopted for later stages of the interview if participants had not addressed these questions as part of their initial narratives. However, the style of minimal prompting and open questioning was maintained throughout, in order to preserve as much as possible of the participants’ own voices in their data.
After initial introductions had been made, the interviews began with an open prompt to “Tell me about the relationship you had in mind when you answered the advertisement”. Some participants were comfortable beginning their story after this prompt, while others expressed difficulty knowing how to start. More directive questions, such as “Tell me a bit about how the relationship started” were used to facilitate their talk. This exploration was not conducted using a set list of questions, rather the direction of the interview and the wording of questions were influenced by the discussion as it progressed. Where possible, open questions were used to allow participants to tell their story in their own words, with more directive follow-up questions used to explore details of their story, and where participants asked for more guidance.
As can be seen in the interview guide (appendix D), when the men did not specifically discuss the issues of help-seeking, gender or their suggestions for facilitating help-seeking in their initial stories, they were then asked to elaborate on their experiences and thoughts around this using a variety of open prompts, such as “Did you ever think about seeking help?” or “Is there anything you think would help other men who experience something like that?”. However, the majority of the men raised these topics without the prompts, and were thus simply encouraged to give as much information as possible when they raised the topics themselves.
Discussion topics included the young men’s story of their relationship, the emotional, cognitive and behavioural effects of their experiences, their perceptions of their partner and of themselves, whether they had sought help from others and what their experience of that had been, what had influenced their decisions, and the conclusion of the relationship. Other topics discussed included participants’ understanding of partner abuse more generally, their help-seeking options, and the knowledge and views of the general public towards men who experience partner abuse.
The interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes, with an average length of 72 minutes. The interviews were audio-recorded with the permission of the participants, and were transcribed verbatim by a professional transcriber. One participant sent an email with details of his experiences prior to the interview, and he gave his permission for this text to be used alongside the transcription of his interview.

Study 2Participants and recruitment.

The participants in the second phase were 10 young women and 6 young men aged 18-25 who identified themselves as not having experienced abuse in a romantic relationship. The focus group discussions were focused on participants’ beliefs, attitudes and knowledge of partner abuse against young people, and more particularly against young men. They also explored the participants’ ideas about gender as it relates to abuse. Personal experience was not asked about, although some group members offered personal stories as part of the discussion.
As can be seen in appendix A, the recruitment posters invited young people to take part in a focus group discussing ideas about abuse in romantic relationships. The recruitment was the same as for the first phase, with posters placed at the same locations, and the procedures for contact, consent, koha, reimbursement, and the collection of demographic data the same. The focus groups were also conducted at the University of Auckland, with potential participants choosing between group times as best suited them.
One participant declined to complete the demographics form. However, he gave his gender and age at the time of recruitment, and I have thus included this information in the below analysis. Six participants were men and ten were women. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 24, with an average age of 22 years. Of the participants who completed the demographics form, six identified as Pakeha/ New Zealand European, three as Chinese, two as Maori and Pakeha, one as Pakistani, one as American (USA), one as ‘European’, and one who gave her ethnicity as ‘Asian’. Fifteen of the 16 participants who completed the demographics form were students (three of these also working part-time), and one was a home-maker. All participants had an income of less than $19,000 per annum. Five were living with their family of origin, five with flatmates, four with their partner or spouse, and one alone.
While participants were asked to self-identify that they had not experienced abuse before participating, one male participant recounted an experience of controlling behaviours in the focus group, stating that he now felt he identified with the vignette participants were provided with.
Participants were not directly asked about their experiences during the focus groups, and it is uncertain whether others may have similarly identified with the vignette materials. However, personal experiences were seldom discussed by group members, and although some group members may have been cautious about expressing ideas after the one participant disclosed his experience, the group continued to converse freely, and the ideas expressed were not significantly different from those in other groups.

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Data collection.

Focus groups are a useful way of gathering information on attitudes, knowledge and beliefs in participants’ own language (Wilkinson, 1998). They also provide an insight in to collective ideas and group discussion dynamics that are important in understanding ‘societal constructions’ of particular topics (Wilkinson, 1998). Focus groups typically employ open-ended questions to stimulate group discussion (Krueger & Casey, 2009), and a loosely structured approach that does not adhere to a set list of questions allows group participants to refer to aspects of the phenomenon that are important or salient to them, and to provide insight in to how they structure their ideas around a topic (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007).
Discussion aids may help to both stimulate and centre focus group discussion (Mason, 2002; Stewart et al., 2007). Brodani, MacEntee, Bryant and O’Neill (2008) found that their participants commented positively on vignettes as used in this manner. They suggested that this method provided a safe way to open the discussion on an issue they considered sensitive, as it did not focus directly on personal experience, but also facilitated deeper discussion by stimulating the group members’ reflection on aspects of their own experience that corresponded with the vignettes. In the current study, it was also considered that the focus group participants may not conceptualise abuse against men in the manner intended in the study, as it conflicts with the dominant image of partner abuse (Hamel, 2005). The vignettes were thus used to facilitate group members’ understanding of the questions posed around abuse against men. Hennink (2014) suggested that such vignettes be presented to the group, followed by questions around the vignettes such as what advice the group members would give to the characters in the vignettes or how common this type of scenario is in their community.
The participants were divided in to single-sex groups as suggested by Hennink (2014), with two groups of men and three groups of women being conducted. The number of focus groups and focus group participants was decided in accordance with advice from the literature (Liamputtong, 2013) and other researchers, as a manageable group size and number of groups likely to elicit a range of ideas. The decision to make the groups single-sex was taken to encourage free discussion, as focus group members may be less likely to share their ideas where they perceive others in the group to differ significantly from themselves (for instance by gender), particularly when those differences are important to the topic at hand (Hennink, 2014). The focus groups lasted 1.5 hours each, including brief introductions and conclusions. They were audio-recorded, and transcribed by the same transcriber as study 1.
I employed a semi-structured approach to study two that used vignettes as discussion prompts and allowed the discussion to flow naturally, but also ensured that all of the topics pertaining to the research were discussed at some point during the group. Each focus group began with the presentation and discussion of two brief vignettes, derived from study 1 (see appendix D). The discussion about the vignettes was followed by more general discussion of participants’ ideas about partner abuse and available support, young people’s relationships, and gender.
The vignettes portrayed heterosexual couples in which one of the couple was experiencing abuse from their partner. The first vignette depicted a woman who was experiencing emotional/ psychological and physical abuse from a boyfriend, while the second depicted a man experiencing such abuse from a girlfriend. The behaviours described in each vignette were different, and they were selected in consultation with my supervisor to represent a similar severity of abusive behaviour in each vignette, and to be representative of the type of story commonly told in study 1. As can be seen in appendix D, after I presented the first vignette, I encouraged the group members to discuss their interpretations of the situation, the characters and their actions, how each character was likely to feel and act, and possible outcomes of the situation. I then presented the second vignette, and similar discussion topics were covered, along with a discussion about the similarities and differences between the two vignettes.

Table of Contents
Chapter One: Introduction to the Study 
Chapter Two: Literature Review
A very brief history of partner abuse
Masculinity and partner abuse against men
What is partner abuse?
How widespread is partner abuse against men?
The effects of partner abuse on men
Beliefs and attitudes
Seeking help, getting help
Chapter Three: Methodology
Theoretical framework
Qualitative research
Study one
Study two
Data analysis
Ethical considerations
Quality in qualitative research
Chapter Four: Findings
Study one
Participants’ accounts of abusive relationships with women
Participants’ accounts and perceptions of help-seeking for partner abuse from women
Participants’ recommendations for the future: What would help other men? Study two
Participants’ views and beliefs about partner abuse against men
Participants’ views and beliefs about help-seeking for partner abuse
Chapter Five: Discussion and Conclusions
Research question one: How do young men who have been abused by a female intimate partner describe these experiences?
Research question two: How do these men describe their decisions about and experiences of seeking help for partner abuse?
Research question three: What recommendations do they make for helping other young men who experience partner abuse?
Research question four: How do young men and women understand the issue of partner abuse against young men?
Research question five: What beliefs and ideas do these young people hold about seeking help for partner abuse?
Implications for clinical practice
Study limitations
Directions for future research
Young Men Talk About Partner Abuse: Experiences, Beliefs, and Help-Seeking After Partner Abuse From Women

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