Background. Feminist work has made visible the extent and nature of domestic violence and the problems women face in having their experiences recognized by health and welfare professionals. Research has demonstrated that many health care professionals, including nurses, midwives and health visitors have little working knowledge about this issue. This impacts on their ability to recognize and respond to domestic violence within their practice.
Aim. This paper is based upon a study of British health visitors, which explored their practice in relation to domestic violence. Drawing upon empirical data from interviews with health visitors, it explores their understandings of the extent and nature of domestic violence in the context of their work.
Methods. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 24 health visitors selected by convenience and purposive sampling. Data collection took place during 1997–1998. The research draws on the theoretical perspectives of feminist poststructuralism.
Findings. The findings demonstrate considerable differences between health visitors in their understandings of the extent of domestic violence in their caseloads and their recognition of different types of abuse experienced by women. There were also differences between participants in their willingness to name situations other than physical violence as abusive, as well as the extent to which they recognized domestic violence within different social groups.
Conclusions. A feminist perspective provides critical insight into the professional knowledge base in relation to domestic violence, demonstrating the need for health visitors to develop their understandings further in order to respond appropriately to women and children experiencing domestic violence. This is discussed in the context of ongoing struggles for professional identity within an ever-changing arena of health and welfare provision.