Depth and usefulness in theories of sexual violence

Ian V. McPhail

Recently, Prof. Tony Ward made a few recommendations on how researchers and theorists can contribute to theory development and advance our understanding of the causes of sexual violence (article can be downloaded here). In this post, I will examine two of the main arguments raised by Ward.  My purpose here is to point out some limitations to his arguments and propose some ideas that I think will also be fruitful in developing explanations of the causes of sexual violence that help us do what we want to do and solve practical problems (i.e., prevent sexual violence and treat sexual offenders).  So this post will be thoroughly Jamesian (read: pragmatist) in approach.  And from the start, the reader should know that since this is a critique of a conceptual work, the post will necessarily be somewhat technical, so buckle up for some heavy conceptual lifting!

Let me begin by sketching an outline of Ward’s two arguments and follow up with a discussion of these arguments.

Ward argues we should resist the recent drift toward theorizing about single risk factors of sexual violence; instead focusing on comprehensive explanations of sexual violence. To quote: “it seems that we have become preoccupied with single factor theories in the form of dynamic risk factors at the expense of multilevel multifactorial theories” (p. 137).  In particular, Ward indicates that all sex offenders will exhibit some degree of four sets of problems (emotional dysregulation, deviant sexual arousal/interests, intimacy/social deficits, offence-supportive norms, attitudes, and beliefs) and the theorist should account for these sets of problems. While he appears to make an argument against single risk factor theories, he later argues that “we need to (…) think more deeply about the probable nature of the underlying processes that constitute features such as deviant sexual interests or intimacy deficits” (p. 139). Although this appears to be a reversal of opinion, I generally agree with this argument and will discuss this issue further a bit later.

Another key argument that Ward makes is that theoretical models of sexual violence ought to take an approach called integrative pluralism, which I take to be a further attempt to incorporate certain ideas from the philosophy of science into how theory is done when explaining sexual violence.  Taken from the work of philosopher of science Sandra Mitchell (an introductory article can be downloaded here), integrative pluralism stands for broad-based theorizing, or theorizing that incorporates multiple domains of human knowledge-creation.  Within psychology, Ward describes these different domains of explanations as involving neuropsychology, sociology, and “folk” psychology.  Integrative pluralism, as a philosophical position of how science advances, stands against reductionism (see here and here). Within science and the philosophy of science, reductionism is the belief all the explanation we need to explain a phenomenon will inevitably be found at the more minute levels of matter; that is, explanations belonging to physics and, to a lesser degree, biology. Integrative pluralism is also a step beyond a Feyerabendian “anything goes” isolationist pluralism, that is, multiple potential descriptions of individual phenomenon can exist as plausible explanations and explanations on different levels do not require integration and can exist separately. Ward’s main argument is that there has not been enough integration of ideas from different domains in previous theories of sexual violence, limiting their explanatory power. Mitchell’s idea of integrative pluralism represents a fruitful way forward according to Ward.

I would propose that, at our current stage of conceptual development, not all clear and useful theorizing on the psychological constructs causally involved in sexual violence will be comprehensive and include multiple domains.  At least not for the foreseeable future.  Instead, psychological constructs can be described successfully by using a single domain or approach. This conceptual work, focused on psychological constructs, to be useful to those in pursuit of psychological activities (explaining and predicting human behaviour and intrapsychic processes; treating individuals’ problematic processes in therapy; conducting psychological science), will likely need to develop a strong, coherent, and relatively parsimonious account couched firmly in the language of a single domain. That is, theories using a single domain (say, some personality psychology theory or neurobiology) attempt to develop the aetiological role of a single risk factor, explain how a risk factor might develop for an individual, and how these explanations can be used in clinical practice.

Ward says, “there needs to be theoretical work at each of the levels sketched earlier, embedded within a conceptual framework that (loosely) links all the factors” (p. 135). However, rather than starting with an integrative approach to devise theories with ill-defined explanations, we inevitably need a robust set of single factor theories to integrate.  (Whether or not integration to form comprehensive theories is ever truly necessary to explain sexually violent behaviour is a larger, longer term debate I’ll set aside for now.)  As way of an example, in Mitchell’s article I linked to earlier in the post, she cites how integrative pluralism can be used to explain a specific phenomenon occurring in Lake Erie. In this example, she shows how micro theories that address only a specific process that occurs within the lake can be used to develop a comprehensive model that has more explanatory power and give us a fuller understanding of why this issue is occurring in the lake than any of the individual theories alone. To my mind, this is an example of a situation where numerous mini-theories, as Ward calls them, that exist at different levels of explanation (zoological, biological, ecological, sociological, political), are available to be brought together in order to more fully describe the phenomenon. Without these well-developed “mini-theories”, the larger, more comprehensive, integrative explanation of the phenomenon would not be possible. This may seem like a minor point. However, if the field is going to get to the impressive point of comprehensive, integrative theories of everything, then the crucial step waiting for us theory-heads is likely to be a singularly focused, intense, and deep conceptual effort on single so-called risk factors. I would think that conceptual work aiming to explicate what these single risk factors are and how they come to be an issue for an individual will be of great value to the field and for further empirical and non-empirical work.

I will also hazard a guess that if we were to use integrative pluralism in practice, we would wind up with bloated, ill-defined theories of sexual violence. Theorists will wind up ‘taking on more than they can chew’; in terms of operationalizing numerous risk factors from the perspective of different domains, reviewing large swaths of literature, making unique contributions in multiple domains, then taking on the ill-defined and daunting task of “knitting” different domains together.  This process of “knitting”, when individual domains of knowledge-production do not have well-defined or well-established theories (arguably, theories of sexual violence risk factors could be considered under-developed), might amount to gathering poorly wrought constructs together and seeing what happens, leading to numerous ill-defined constructs being partially merged to explain sexual violence.  Indeed, an article integrating the sociological, neurobiological, cognitive, and experiential elements into a comprehensive explanation of sexual violence is likely to contain a large chunk of information that is underdeveloped and other information that is not of much use to most people reading the article.

In psychology, especially an applied field such as forensic psychology, theories need to, at some point, generate knowledge that provides clinicians with knowledge that helps them do what they want to do, such as treating offenders.  It’s interesting to note that Ward’s article is relatively light on the pragmatism of conceptual work in forensic psychology, something I advocate for strongly. One idea that Sandra Mitchell proposes is “cross-disciplinary” integration.  Psychology is a vast discipline. Psychological explanations of risk factors causal of sexual violence will likely be well served to be couched in the language of clinical psychological theory and personality theory (which I’ll admit is something certain theorists have been pretty good at in the field).  At least if these theories are to be useful in application, as well as explanation.

When considering the argument that single risk factor theories might be a good next step conceptually, the possibility exists that multiple explanations of the risk factor might be developed by theorists using the perspectives of different domains. For example, one might conceivably develop a social cognition explanation of sexual deviance; another theorist might develop a neurobiological explanation of the construct. An attitude I would urge the field to adopt is an understanding that a theory couched almost exclusively within a single domain’s specific language game is not necessarily a direct argument against a theory emerging from a different domain.  Unless a theorist is making a direct argument against some other domain’s explanation, we are wise to accept that the theorist is not making such arguments.  At most, the theorist is creating a competing theory of the construct, if theories to explain the construct already exist.  If Paul Feyerabend is onto something, myriad competing theories are vital to doing science successfully.  And do keep in mind that competing theories likely can exist side-by-side without too much trouble or name calling.  Sandra Mitchell, the philosopher whose theory of integrative pluralism Ward discussed, ends an article on this issue with a quote by the philosopher Rudolph Carnap. I think the quote sums up the openness and tolerance that is required in the (hopefully) upcoming surge of theoretical development in forensic psychology:

“The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any other branch of science, will finally be decided as their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required.  To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress (…) Let us learn from the lessons of history.  Let us grant to those who work in any special field of investigation the freedom to use any form of expression which seems useful to them; the work in the field will sooner or later lead to the elimination of those forms which have no useful function.”

Mitchell concurs, saying: “I endorse both Carnap’s pragmatic standard and his plea for toleration.”  Being a dyed in the wool pragmatist, I’d third that sentiment.


Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2014, July 27). Depth and usefulness in theories of sexual violence [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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