Learning from feminist approaches to evidence based policy: The case of the Conflict Tactics Scale

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The Women’s Policy Action Tank was established to place a gender lens over policies, many of which purport to be gender-neutral, because many policies are never subject to such a specific interrogation of gender blindness and effects. In today’s insightful piece, Lisa Carson (@LisaC_Research) of the Public Service Research Group at UNSW Canberra provides an overview of her co-authored piece (with Eleanor Malbon (@Ellie_Malbon) of the Public Service Research Group at UNSW Canberra & Sophie Yates (@MsSophieRae) of ANZSOG and UNSW), which provides a practical example of why analysing data and forming policy must be approached from the vantage point of those who are disenfranchised. Specifically, they argue that framing data, interpretation and application within the context of robust feminist theory allows for a more nuanced and complex analysis of policy impacts by taking on the flawed data analysis employed by men’s rights groups. You can read their full open access article here.


In most established democracies, there is a desire to combine policymaking with evidence, earning a notch of legitimacy for policy and research alike. The use of evidence in policymaking is a good idea, but like many good ideas, it is more complicated in practice than it is in theory. Depictions of a ‘clean’ or objective relationship between evidence, researchers and policymakers leave little space for the realities of advocacy and normative arguments in politics. 

In a recent paper we posed the question “What can policymakers learn from feminist strategies to combine contextualised evidence with advocacy?” Our answer is: a lot. In particular, we show the importance of using evidence that is sensitive to gendered contexts and the significant role that normative arguments play. We suggest a different approach to evidence and policy, informed by political science and philosophy, which emphasises a theoretically driven approach to evidence production and advocacy.

Our approach is informed by feminist standpoint theory and we argue that the political tussle over what evidence is considered to be relevant for policy formation should be informed by knowledge relevant to those in subordinate positions of power (who form the focus of and are impacted by particular policies). When it comes to policy, feminist theorists and practitioners draw attention to the importance of anticipating and applying a feminist understanding to both policy formation and its outcomes by using multiple levels of analysis, such as individual, collective and structural, as well as analysing differential impacts across intersecting axis including gender, race, sexuality, ability, and religion among others. Using different levels of analysis is necessary to ensure that we achieve better politically informed and context-specific understandings of policy ‘problems’ and proposed ‘solutions’. We argue that this type of analysis is important because it has the potential to reveal additional layers of complexity that may otherwise be overlooked.

In order to show the importance of contextualised evidence and advocacy, we use a case study of interpersonal violence measurement tool the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS). We argue that the evidence-based policy approach, even when considered as principle or ideal, frames the policy-making process as ‘objective’, and in doing so ignores the gendered contexts in which knowledge is produced, used and translated into policy and implementation.

The contested nature of measuring violence and the use of the Conflict Tactics Scale

Early efforts to measure and respond to violence in families came from women’s movement activists, who worked to expose the existence of private gendered violence and make what was commonly termed ‘domestic violence’ a social issue requiring legislative and policy responses. Research at this period came from a feminist perspective, aimed at agenda setting and consciousness raising. It was mainly qualitative and based on clinical and refuge samples - i.e., participants had by definition experienced significant partner abuse. Unsurprisingly, results supported the feminist viewpoint that domestic and family violence was mainly perpetrated by men in order to control women and their children.

When researchers began using quantitative tools to measure domestic and family violence in the general population (e.g., the US National Family Violence Surveys of 1975 and 1985), the figures appeared to tell a different story. In the late 1970s, a team of researchers in the US developed and began using a tool known as the Conflict Tactics Scale (updated to CTS2 in 1996). The CTS is based on conflict theory, which sees conflict as an inevitable part of human relationships, and violence as a tactic used to deal with conflict. The CTS has now been in use for four decades, and results derived from this measure are used to support claims that women and men are equally violent in intimate relationships, that a focus on gender inequality as a driver of this violence is misplaced, and that policy and practice responses should focus on individualised interventions rather than those based on the way that gender and power shape our society.

Context is everything: The Conflict Tactics Scale counts number of incidents but ignores pertinent context such as coercive control or play violence  Photo credit: Le Pain Quotidien .

Context is everything: The Conflict Tactics Scale counts number of incidents but ignores pertinent context such as coercive control or play violence Photo credit: Le Pain Quotidien.

For as long as the CTS has been in use, feminist activist researchers have been criticising its validity. The main criticism is that it misses—and in fact is not intended to measure—contextual factors that are crucial to establishing patterns of coercive control. According to Dawn Currie, researchers from the family conflict tradition consistently “obscure the importance of gender” and its implications for existing power dynamics in intimate relationships, assuming that violence stems from conflict and that parties in conflict are equally powerful. The CTS asks participants to report the use or experience of 39 verbally/ emotionally or physically violent behaviours in response to a conflict or anger situation during the previous 12 months. Critics note that it counts the number of incidents but does not record the substantive issue that led to the violence, or any other pertinent context. The instruction to consider only conflict or argument-instigated violence reveals the assumption that all violence is used expressively, i.e. in anger, which potentially misses instrumental violence used to control individuals, and violence that doesn’t stem from an identifiable cause. Researchers who combine the CTS with other measures that collect information about context have found that the CTS encourages over-reporting of violence, produces findings of gender symmetry in perpetration that are thrown into doubt by other contextual information, and can even lead to miscategorisation of victims as perpetrators.

The difference between feminist and mainstream domestic and family violence researchers is not that they advocate for one particular research method or that feminists dismiss the value of quantitative measurement tools. Rather, it is that they strive to be sensitive to power and context, do not pretend that their research is (or could be) objective or value free, and produce work that is theory driven rather than the “abstracted empiricism” common to many studies on domestic and family violence.

Senate Inquiry into Domestic violence in Australia (2014-2015)

Debates about the validity of the CTS as a measure for intimate partner violence, and the validity of the gender symmetry argument more broadly, were triggered in Australian politics in the 2014–2015 Senate Inquiry into Domestic violence in Australia. During the Inquiry, representatives for the men’s rights activist group One in Three used evidence derived from the CTS measure to justify their claims that most family violence is mutual or 'common couple' violence.

However, the presentation of Straus’s work and the CTS measure was anticipated and met by a representative from the violence against women research organisation ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety). She identified One in Three’s reliance on results derived from the CTS, which meant that the men’s rights activist group was drawing on discredited evidence, and used this to demonstrate the need for evidence derived  from measures that take the context of violent incidents into account. ANROWS’ approach shows the power of using normative arguments in advocating for the Inquiry to recommend resources and research funding for domestic violence against women. ANROWS suggested that their evidence is more legitimate than the CTS-based evidence because it is theory-driven and has better explanatory power in accounting for the gender dynamics at play. The success of this strategy that combines contextualised evidence and normative arguments allows for the recognition that the people most vulnerable to domestic and family violence in Australia are women, especially Indigenous women, women with disability and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The final Inquiry report did acknowledge the need to give support to male victims of domestic and family violence, but it also accepted ANROWS’ analysis that women are most likely to experience violence in the home by a current or former partner, but men outside the home by strangers, acquaintances or neighbours. It also featured ANROWS’ argument that the contributors to violence are complex and include “attitudes to women and gender roles within relationships, family and peer support for these attitudes and social and economic gender inequality in the broader societal context.”

Whilst all violence is wrong, regardless of the sex of the perpetrator, there are distinct gendered patterns in the perpetration and impact of violence. Work by critical feminists, practitioners, and some men and masculinities scholars has shown that there may be similarities between male- and female-perpetrated violence, but they are not the same, because the causes, dynamics and outcomes of violence against women are different from those of violence against men. For example, men may fear and suffer violence from predominantly other men and some individual women, whereas women tend to face more widespread violence, both individually and structurally.

Insights for policymakers

This case illustrates that the combination of normative arguments and the gendered politicisation of evidence can be used to convince policymakers that certain quantitative measures are not reliable, and that resources to care for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence should be focussed on the women, and particularly the most vulnerable populations of women in Australia.

The case of feminist engagement with the CTS provides an example of a gender politically- and contextually-informed approach to evidence-based policy. Evidence cannot 'speak for itself' in a vacuum of objectivity, rather it needs political actors to give it voice and meaning. By examining feminist approaches to this case study, we can learn from feminist advocate researchers about the importance of context, normative arguments, and the politicisation of evidence in policymaking and implementation.

Our case study provides just one example that is informed by feminist theory and grass roots activism and advocacy. We argue that policymakers can greatly benefit from engaging with feminist approaches to policy and evidence, and especially committed feminist advocate researchers who refuse to accept that evidence can or should be decontextualised or depoliticised.


This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.