Abstract: Entrenched, Unrelenting, Unsettled: Essentializing Discourses of Culture in International Development Research about Domestic Violence in Nepal (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Entrenched, Unrelenting, Unsettled: Essentializing Discourses of Culture in International Development Research about Domestic Violence in Nepal

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Claire Willey-Sthapit, MSSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Washington, WA
Taryn Lindhorst, PhD, Full Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Susan Kemp, PHD, Professor, University of Washington
Background and Purpose: In countries categorized as “least-developed,” professional social work activities are largely carried out under the auspices of development. While much attention is given to evaluating the effectiveness of these programs, postcolonial scholars have elucidated international development organizations' implicit function: the production of knowledge about developing countries and the cultures associated with them. Intersectional feminist scholars have further called attention to the commonplace yet consequential use of culturally essentialist discourses applied as explanations for gender-based violence. Such discussions frame the subjectivies available to different actors, the form and delivery of programs, and understandings of what constitute effective outcomes. The current study analyzed international development research on domestic violence in Nepal to explore: 1) how culture was constructed, and 2) how these constructions influence understandings of domestic violence. Nepal is an important site for this study because of its longstanding ties to international development and increased attention given to domestic violence in recent years.

Methods: The sampling strategy sought to identify research reports that were conducted or supported by international organizations. Documents were identified through a keyword search in the United Nation’s Kathmandu-based Information Centre online repository, and perusal of top donor websites and citations of sample documents. The final sample included reports from 26 studies, 13 of which were first-authored by organizations located within Nepal. Targeted summaries were generated that captured each document as a narrative whole, including constructions of culture. Matrices were used to examine similarities and differences between the reports.

Results: Analysis of the data revealed a dominant discourse, present across the sample documents, which explained present day violence through allusions to traditional Nepali culture. In this discourse, present-day violence was depicted as a carryover from a static cultural past, in contrast to the non-acceptance of violence which was coded as social change. While most reports alluded to diverse cultures, attitudes, and experiences in Nepal, four documents--all written by organizations located outside of the country--depicted violence as so relentless that women lacked recourse or agency.

Passages that countered the dominant narrative that violence stemmed from traditional Nepali culture revealed how this discourse constrained knowledge about domestic violence. These insertions drew attention to 1) Nepali cultural practices, norms, and structures that could be used to counter domestic violence, 2) the existence of patriarchy within developed countries, and 3) recent or international contexts that may exacerbate violence, such as the breakdown of community life in the face of increasing labor migration. Only documents first-authored by organizations in Nepal discussed cultural strengths or patriarchy within developed countries.

Conclusions and Implications: The findings suggest that culturally essentialist discourses constrain what can be known about domestic violence in developing countries. When domestic violence is viewed only as a product of local culture, then important strategies for addressing violence are missed. Social workers in development settings should be aware of assumptions embedded in development reports, continue to promote diverse local perspectives and leadership, draw on cultural strengths in program design, and document the impacts of transnational processes on family life.