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Measuring the Extent of Woman Abuse in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships: A Critique of the Conflict Tactics Scales

NRCDV Publications
General Material
Published Date
February, 1998

The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) and Conflict Tactics Scale-2 (CTS2) are the most widely used and cited quantitative measures of victimization in North American intimate heterosexual relationships. Despite this wide use, many researchers and practitioners contend that several major limitations with these measures hinder or even preclude the development of accurate data. This is not to say that they should never be used. Rather, they should be combined with other measures that provide information directly in their areas of weakness.

MAJOR PROBLEMS

  • Underreporting. All victim surveys suffer from an unknown amount of underreporting, but this has generally been assumed to be a particular problem with surveys of intimate violence, such as the CTS and the CTS2. To minimize this problem, researchers need to use more than one simple measure of one type of abuse. The CTS or CTS2 should only be used with supplementary short questions or requests for additional explanations. Further, any survey will get more accurate data when attention is paid to a safe environment, trained interviewers, etc.
  • Lack of Context and Motive Information. The CTS and CTS2 mainly provide simple counts of violent events. This makes it easy to develop erroneous theoretical, empirical, and political interpretations of these events. For example, by using only CTS information, many researchers and commentators have contended that women are just as, if not more, violent than male partners. Clearly, the CTS shows that women strike as many blows as men. However, context, meaning, and motive measures added to the CTS clarify for us that violence is not sexually symmetrical. When asked, a substantial number of women state that their violence was in self-defense or 'fighting back.' Further, most of the injuries in intimate violence is to women. Thus, researchers should include questions about context, meaning and motives for the use of violence with the CTS or CTS2.
  • Lack of 'Non-Dispute' Information. The CTS only situates abuse in the context of spats, disputes or 'differences.' We know that much violence either stems from attempts by one partner to control the behavior of the other, or else does not stem from any single identifiable cause (dispute, difference or spat).
  • Rank Ordering of Violence. Many object to the 'rank order' concept that some events (e.g., kicked) are automatically worse than others (e.g., slapped). Although the CTS2 speaks to part of this problem by including some measures of injury, many battered women claim that psychological and emotional terror is worse than much of the physical violence in some relationships.

In sum, researchers should move beyond only using unidimensional measures of woman abuse, such as the CTS or CTS2. Male-to-female assault is a complex, multidimensional problem that warrants the development and use of several well-crafted measures. Such an approach constitutes an important step toward eliciting more reliable data on one of North America's most pressing social problems.