Newswise — WASHINGTON, DC—There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized influence on society, families, and individuals—and researchers continue to uncover its far-reaching effects. Specifically, questions about how and to what degree the pandemic has impacted domestic violence are still being explored. Evidence drawn from police data suggests that the pandemic spurred an uptick in domestic violence and child abuse, but conclusions drawn from survey data have been less clear. In particular, questions remain about the dynamics of abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic and victims’ own understandings of crisis and violence during this period.

In a new study, “Clustered Vulnerabilities: The Unequal Effects of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence,” which appears in the June 2024 issue of the American Sociological Review, author Paige L. Sweet, Assistant Professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, responds to these questions by exploring how crisis conditions during the pandemic—such as poor heath and insecure housing—affected domestic abuse and victims’ interpretation of violence.

Between May 2021 and August 2022, Sweet conducted multiple life-story interviews with 50 survivors in Michigan who experienced domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysis of these stories included the application of keywords to help identify patterns across interviews, facilitate comparison across subgroups of survivors, and help create a conceptual map of the data. The author then analyzed how participants’ specific social vulnerabilities clustered together, were affected by COVID, and in turn shaped their experiences and interpretations of intimate violence.

The author found that differences in survivors’ social backgrounds and life circumstances contributed to their distinct and divergent experiences of abuse during COVID-19. More specifically, survivors who were enduring abuse, poverty, housing insecurity, and were involved with systems such as police and courts pre-COVID did not suffer increasingly worse abuse during the pandemic. Instead, the pandemic worsened problems in their lives such as housing, childcare, and the strength of their social networks. These problems then made them more vulnerable to continued reliance on abusive partners. The small group of survivors in this study who experienced COVID-19 as a novel period of violence were likely to be middle-class and better socially and financially resourced.

“These findings challenge dominant understandings of the relationship between largescale crises and abusive relationships,” says Sweet. “While ‘external stressor’ models emphasize the strain put on families due to ‘shocks,’ this study shows that such models may only apply to a particular type of survivors who are relatively stable.”

To better understand the relationship between crisis and abuse for financially insecure survivors who endured abuse prior to the pandemic, Sweet proposes the concept of “clustered vulnerabilities.” “Clustered vulnerabilities” explains how, rather than entering in as “shock,” crisis actually amplifies existing structural problems, causing social vulnerabilities to pile up and become denser and more difficult to manage. “Clustered vulnerabilities” better explains crisis in the lives of some survivors and is useful for explaining the relationship between chronic disadvantage and crisis across cases.

Sweet explains, “We tend to look at domestic violence as a ‘private’ problem—something that takes place in the home and affects the intimate dynamics of a relationship or family. This study shows that, actually, the most marginalized survivors experience abuse as part of a whole host of other social problems. Abuse isn’t separate from housing problems, instability in their families of origin, intermittent joblessness, or involvement with police and courts. I want to encourage us to see abuse as woven into these other social inequalities, since this is how survivors themselves experience and describe the violence they experience. From a policy perspective, this means we should focus not just on ‘treating’ or responding to abuse as a discrete phenomenon, but on building up families’ financial resources, material supports, and social capital so that they can better manage the ‘clusters of vulnerabilities’ they are facing.”

For more information and for a copy of the study, contact [email protected].


About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is ASA's flagship journal.


Journal Link: American Sociological Review