Discrepancies in Perceptions of Intimate Partner Violence: Implications for Research and Policy

By Maiju Tanskanen.

Portrait of Maiju Tanskanen (Photo: Linjan Kuva)
Maiju Tanskanen. Photo: Linjan Kuva.

Many controversies and debates in the field of intimate partner violence (IPV) research stem from contextual variation in whether different situations are defined, perceived, and reported as IPV. Notably, this variation affects representation of IPV in different data sources, as well as societal responses to violence.

Definitions of violence vary across time and sociocultural contexts. Changes in views on violence in close relationships and domestic spheres, in particular, demonstrate, that many forms of behaviour that have been seen as normative and non-violent before are now unanimously considered criminal. Legislation shifts often response to these types of definitional changes. Legal definitions, however, quite rarely fully capture the concept of violence as it is seen in the broader society.

Furthermore, despite seemingly clear legal definitions of violent crimes, there are social differences in sensitivity to violence that lead to discrepancies in perceptions of violence across social groups (Kivivuori, 2014). Regardless of the data source, different levels of sensitivity to violence complicate research aiming at making comparisons between social groups. It is notable that also researchers may define and perceive violence in different terms. Indeed, different studies on IPV might be studying not the same but only partially overlapping phenomena. While this idea, as such, has been proposed decades ago (Johnson, 1995), it can be argued that its full ramifications have been overlooked in the research field. For instance, it is likely that the ongoing “gender debate” on IPV would gain from a more comprehensive acknowledgement of the role of gender in variation concerning perceiving and reporting violence in various research-relevant contexts.

Perceptions of IPV are affected by societal norms, expectations, and stereotypes that do not only affect ideas on what types of acts are considered violence but also notions on who victims and perpetrators of such violence are. From that point of view, it is noteworthy that public discourses on IPV often emphasize the “normality” of individuals involved in such violence. In particular, it is often implicitly or explicitly stated that violence between partners does not depend on the background characteristics of people involved in it despite plenty of research evidence pointing towards remarkable associations between IPV and different markers of social disadvantage and general criminality (e.g., Tanskanen, 2023).

While contextual variation in perceptions of violence is inevitable and not necessarily an issue per se if adequately addressed, special attention should be paid to assessing perceptions of IPV among law enforcement agencies responsible for societal responses to crime. Specifically, as the police are often the first agency to respond to any interpersonal violence, the capability of the police to adequately identify different types of violence is critical to any societal responses to IPV.

In a current research project, we study police perceptions of IPV by investigating the ”family violence” classification used by the Finnish police and comparing it to the population register information on the relationship between the suspect and the victim. Preliminary results suggest that the police are more likely to classify an IPV case as family violence when, for instance, the victim has higher income, both the victim and the suspect have at least high school education, and the suspect have not committed police-recorded general crime. Final results from this study are expected in late 2023. In the meanwhile, any current research efforts as well as crime prevention practises could benefit from critically reflecting their definitions and perceptions on IPV against most rigorous scientific evidence on the nature of IPV.


Johnson, M. P. (1995). Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: Two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 283–294.

Kivivuori, J. (2014). Understanding trends in personal violence: Does cultural sensitivity matter? Crime and Justice, 43(1), 289–340.

Tanskanen, M. (2023). Criminological Perspectives into Intimate Partner Violence. Uncovering Commonalities between Partner Violence and General Crime. Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy Research Reports 8/2023. https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/357552

Maiju Tanskanen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, University of Helsinki. She just finalized her her doctoral dissertation titled Criminological Perspectives into Intimate Partner Violence – Uncovering Commonalities between Partner Violence and General Crime.