Conceptual Models For Explaining And Intervening In Violence

This page is part of the Health effects of violence project.

The CDC uses the social ecological model to understand why violence occurs [2]. This model illustrates that public health problems such as violence do not occur in isolation, but instead are the result of a complex interplay of "risk factors" and "protective factors" at multiple levels of influence. "Risk factors" increase the vulnerability of an individual to perpetrate violence or to be victimized by violence, and "protective factors" decrease vulnerability and promote non-violence. For instance, to understand teen dating violence, risk factors for perpetration at an individual level include unhealthy beliefs about masculinity and desire for power and control in relationships, at the family level, exposure to violence in the home and harsh parenting practices, at the community level, association with aggressive peers and a lack of social sanctions for violent behavior, and at the societal level, media images that normalize violence against women.

Chart of nested spheres of influence, showing individual surrounded by relationships, surrounded by community, surrounded by society. Image from

The feminist theory of "rape culture" argues that sexual violence is the result of a complex system of beliefs and norms that encourage male aggression and support a continuum of forms of violence against women [1]. This challenges the traditional notion that sexual violence is inevitable or an act of individual deviance, as opposed to the foreseeable outcome of societal norms that can be changed.

In her book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America's Prison Nation, Dr. Beth Richie [4] uses the "violence matrix" to illustrate how multiple forms of violence play out in Black women's lives. She argues that it is critical to examine the role of the state in increasing the vulnerability of Black women to interpersonal violence (see sections on mass incarceration and neoliberalism). Richie also describes how the overreliance of the mainstream anti-violence movement on the criminal legal system, as well as the marginalization of women of color within the movement, has only furthered Black women's vulnerability to violence.

Physical Assault Sexual Assault Social Disenfranchisement
Intimate Households Direct physical assaults by intimate partners or household members, victim retaliation Sexual aggression by intimate partners or household members Emotional abuse and manipulation by intimate partners or household members, forced use of drug and alcohol, isolation and economic abuse
Community Assaults by neighbors, lack of bystander intervention, availability of weapons Sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, gang rape, trafficking into sex industry, stalking Degrading comments, hostile neighborhood conditions, hostile or unresponsive school and work environments, residential segregation, lack of social capital, threat of violence
Social Sphere Stranger assault, state violence (e.g. police), gun control policies Stranger rape, coerced sterilization, unwanted exposure to pornography Negative media images, denial of significance of victimization, degrading encounters with public agencies, victim blaming, lack of affordable housing, lack of employment and health care, mistrust of public agencies, poverty

In their 2010 report on the social determinants of health, the World Health Organization [5] puts forth a conceptual framework that outlines how the "structural determinants of health" — the social, economic, and political mechanisms in a given society — in turn distribute the "social determinants of health" — stratifications by income, education, gender, race/ethnicity, and other factors—inequitably within a population, resulting in differential vulnerability to health risks. This framework can be applied to understand how health inequities in terms of violence and traumatic stress occur.

In her book "Trauma and Recovery" Dr. Judith Herman [3] argues that the study of trauma is inherently political: "The study of war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifices of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in the context that challenges the subordination of women and children." (p.9) Further, she argues that "repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness" (p.9), and in studying trauma, bearing witness to horror and honoring "unspeakable" truths, one inherently confronts perpetrators who use silence, secrecy, and the "appeal to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil" to promote forgetting and avoid accountability (p.8)

Related Topics

This page is part of the Health effects of violence project.

See also:

1. Buchwald, E.; Fletcher, P.; Roth, M. (1993). Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013, Dec. 27). The Social-Ecological Model: A Framework For Prevention. CDC: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Atlanta: CDC. Retrieved January 16, 2014 from
3. Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.
4. Richie, B. (2012). Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America's Prison Nation. New York: New York University Press.
5. World Health Organization's Committee on the Social Determinants of Health. A Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health: Social determinants of health discussion paper 2. Debates, policy & practice, case studies. Geneva, Switzerland. 2010.
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