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Situational action theory and intimate partner violence: An exploration of morality as the underlying mechanism in the explanation of violent crime

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Barton-Crosby, Jennifer Louise 


Despite the criminal nature of intimate partner violence, scholars infrequently apply general theories of crime to understanding its causes (Dixon, Archer, & Graham-Kevan, 2012). Indeed, some scholars reject the notion that the causes of intimate partner violence align with the causes of general crime and violence (Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992). A second area of contention is whether male and female violence can be explained within the same theoretical framework (Dutton & Nicholls, 2005). In this thesis I argue that as a type of criminal behaviour, understanding the causes of intimate partner violence from a criminological perspective is a valid and necessary research endeavour. Further, guided by the principles of the theoretical framework of this thesis, I submit that both male and female intimate partner violence can be explained within the same general theory of crime.

This thesis applies situational action theory, a general theory of crime that places morality at the centre of its explanatory framework, to the understanding and explanation of intimate partner violence. This thesis concentrates on the roles of personal morality and provocation in intimate partner violence perpetration. Partner conflict is defined as the experience of provocation, while friction sensitivity and low partner cohesion are included as key factors leading to partner conflict. Specifically, this thesis examines whether the strength of personal morality influences whether individuals respond to provocation with violence against a partner.

To address the aims of the research, this thesis uses data from the Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study, a study designed to test situational action theory. Participants are a representative sample of males and females between 24 and 25 years of age. Path analyses using a multiple-group method revealed that high friction sensitivity and low partner cohesion contributed to increased partner violence perpetration by influencing the level of partner conflict. Morality had a significant moderating effect on the path between partner conflict and partner violence perpetration. Namely, individuals with weak morality, and who frequently engaged in partner conflict, were significantly more likely to perpetrate acts of partner violence than individuals with strong morality who engaged in frequent conflict with a partner. These findings were replicated across males and females. The findings of this research illustrate the importance of morality in the explanation of partner violence, and provide evidence that both male and female partner violence can be explained within the framework of situational action theory.





Wikström, Per-Olof


Morality, intimate partner violence, gender, situational action theory, Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study, PADS+, moral rules, moral emotions, self-control, causality, analytical criminology, violence, aggression, mechanism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)