Stranger Intervention into Child Punishment in Public Places

Phillip W. Davis

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Davis, P. W. (1). Stranger Intervention into Child Punishment in Public Places. Social Problems, 38(2), 227–246.

adults , automobiles , Child abuse , department stores , mothers , parents , police , public space , social control , social issues

This paper focuses on the development and meaning of informal social control experiences when strangers intervene face-to-face in instances of child punishment in public. The central question is, in the absence of formal authority and institutional resources, how do strangers construe wrongful punishment, negotiate deviant import, and manage control outcomes? Thirty-seven interviews were conducted with people who intervened on at least one occasion, and seven more with witness-participants. Interviewees described the meanings, events, and circumstances surrounding 50 acts of face-to-face intervention. The analysis focuses on some of the micro-political forces, such as claim themes and audience norms, that shape control outcomes. The interpersonal predicament for interveners reflects the cultural tension created when approval of physical punishment is widespread, when distinctions between normal and deviant punishment are ambiguous, and when interaction rules for informal intervention are not institutionalized.

Main finding
In public settings typically shaped by civil inattention, such as grocery or department stores or outdoor public spaces, those that intervened upon observation of child punishment took considerable social and physical risks. Strangers in public step out of their role as an audience member just long enough to confront the issue and manage any counter-claims they may receive before resuming their audience status, feeling satisfied but shaken and worried. Lacking formal backing, these strangers interrupt the social flow as they attempt to quickly and informally remedy these deviant situations of punishment. This intervention is most often met with hostility from the presumed parent, and mixed reactions from others. Often, a claim-shift will take place that attempts to focus on the deviant involvement of the stranger in other people's business instead of on the treatment of the child. Regarding the participants themselves, almost half of the interveners interviewed did not think any physical punishment of children was acceptable. Roughly 80% of the direct interveners were parents, a finding consistent with other studies. About 80% of the interveners were also women, which is most likely biased by the convenience sample, but also speaks to the intersection between gender roles and public child maltreatment intervention.

Description of method used in the article
A convenience sample was collected via graduate and undergraduate sociology classes, word of mouth, announcements posted in churches and preschools, and advertisements in two local newspapers that ran for three weeks. This process resulted in semi-structured interviews with 37 people who directly intervened in child punishment at least once and with seven people who witnessed the others' intervention, six of whom also participated in some way. With six interveners recounting two interventions, the total retrospective descriptions of interventions totaled 50. No two participants were interviewed about the same incident, and 78% of the direct interveners were women. Interviews lasted anywhere from 25 minutes to two hours, with participants asked when the incident occurred, their best recollection of the event's details, and their thoughts about child punishment. More than half of the interventions recalled took place within a year of the interview, but some had occurred up to 12 years in the past.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Physical types
Geographic locations