Response to Ian McPhail – ‘Depth and usefulness in theories of sexual violence’

Tony Ward

In his recent nextgenforensic post commenting on my paper on theory construction in the sexual offending area (Ward, 2014) Ian McPhail identified a number of weaknesses that he believed would result in poor theory construction.  His major concern is my suggestion that integrative pluralism should guide theory construction will result in ‘bloated, ill-defined theories of sexual violence’. I take it that McPhail thinks I suggest that all researchers should pursue integrated theories in their own research programs, each attempting to build their own integrated (pluralistic) theory. That is incorrect. What I am suggesting is that the forensic/correctional research community should work in a more coordinated manner.

In my paper I argued that the lack of attention to the formulation, development and evaluation of theories of sexual offending theory has resulted in a conceptual landscape best described as impoverished: essentially a collection of single factor ‘theories’ in the form of dynamic risk factors. Certainly, good theoretical work has been occurring but sadly this seems to be ignored by clinicians in their case formulations and assessment of risk, and by risk-oriented researchers. I quote from my paper (p.140)

“the explanatory strategy of integrative pluralism is likely to prove fruitful as it should result in a series of loosely linked or interconnected local theories, referring to different levels of human functioning: molecular, neuropsychological, first person experiential, environment and social/cultural systems. Each of these levels has its own structure and associated subsystems and processes.”

This means that there will be a division of intellectual labour; pretty much like the model of theory construction advanced by McPhail! That is, individual researchers could concentrate on their own specific cluster of problems at different levels, and across different domains. For example, intimacy problems could be researched at neurobiological, psychological-interpersonal, psychological-agency, social and cultural levels. Furthermore different domains of functioning could also be investigated: historical, developmental, environmental and future functioning (course of problem).

The difference between this model of theory construction and the rather thin one currently (tacitly) embraced is that researchers working on their own problems will keep in mind the need to create conceptual links with researchers investigating other problems and domains: their ‘local’ theories will be linked by a loose conceptual framework that seeks to integrate different types of explanations. For example, as I work on cognitive distortions in sex offenders I keep in mind that my explanations should be consistent with X’s work on empathy deficits and Y’s research on emotional regulation. And so on. I will not ignore the other work as irrelevant. This should not be an onerous task as the focus is on one type of offending: my responsibility is to accept the constraints of consistency if the other work is seen as meeting the required scientific standards.

This task will likely require some degree of specialization or division of intellectual labour: theoretical and empirical/experimental researchers. And in this respect, reflect what already exists in mature sciences such as physics, biology, astronomy, and geography. In other words, theorists and empirical researchers would ‘speak’ to each other, keep others’ work in mind and when investigating their own favoured research problem, and actively keep in mind the conceptual and empirical  constraints of other work on sexual offending.

Ideally, theorists will create theoretical structures that will loosely link the work and thus provide some degree of coherence and direction in the ongoing research programs. For example, frameworks  such as Marshall and Barbaree’s (1990) comprehensive theory of sexual aggression or the Ward and Siegert Pathways Model (2002). Furthermore, seeking first to detect the relevant clinical phenomena associated with sexual offending before constructing theories will further constrain theoretical work and provide common or overlapping explanatory foci for researchers working in varying “local” areas.

In short, McPhail seems to have completely misunderstood the point of my paper which (among other things) was to sketch out a framework for integrating local theories or models (single factor focus) guided by a broader, integrative theoretical framework.  In fact, his suggestions for theory construction pretty much reflect my own conclusions. To quote from my paper: The goal is not to create a global, seamless theory with each level linked tightly to the others through bridging theories or some form of reductionism. Rather, metaphorically, it would be a coalition of friendly theories that are consistent with each other and that accept what each has to offer from an explanatory viewpoint. (p.140)

This suggestion should result in more dynamic interactive work between theorists, empirical researchers and clinicians, not a bloated intellectual super structure.


Suggested citation:
Ward, T. (2014, July 30). Response to Ian McPhail – ‘Depth and usefulness in theories of sexual violence’ [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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