A Methodological Design For Research Into Child Sex Abuse (CSA): Utilising Secondary Data and the Application of Theoretical Perspectives

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2757

1 Introduction

This paper shall briefly outline one possible methodological design for research into child sex abuse (CSA), by utilising secondary data and applying suitable theoretical perspectives. The approach to be explored is that of a meta-analysis of existing studies, with thematic analysis and grounded theory also drawn upon. Moreover, any ethical considerations in this area will also be considered, before outlining a structural-functionalist and rational choice theory approach, as lenses to be applied to this analysis.

2 Choosing a Research Design

2.1 Understanding the Meta-Analyses Approach

In cases where time and resources are limited, primary data often cannot be collected. Therefore, a meta-analysis of primary data in existing studies seems to be one of the most pragmatic and sensible ways forwards in creating a contributory piece of research in this field. Wampold (2000) explains that meta-analysis refers to a class of statistical methods that combine results from a series of studies that all address the same (or a similar) research question. Thus, by using this method, a hypothesis can be tested that cannot be answered clearly with one study; while it also eliminates any ambiguity that can result from narrative reviews, or from counting the number of studies that support a particular conclusion (Wampold, 2000). This then, is a technique that can be used to reach firm and confident conclusions through a vast cumulative sample.

In addition, Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins & Rothstein (2011) also look at why researchers perform meta-analyses, and what the advantages are of it as a methodology, and go on to say that it is important to understand whether a set of results in a research study is consistent across the body of data available, or whether it varies substantially from study to study. Thus: “we want to quantify the extent of the variance and consider the implications” (Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins & Rothstein, 2011, n.p.). Furthermore, what a meta-analysis also does is to move beyond questions of statistical significance (with statistically insignificant results often being the result of small sample sizes), and to address questions that are much more interesting and relevant (Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins & Rothstein, 2011). Moreover, by synthesising results from a wide range of studies, and looking at the cumulative samples and results, it is possible to gain statistically significant results from what are individually small sample sizes in a number of studies that have little value when viewed in isolation. Furthermore, on the subject of meta-analyses, Schulze (2004, p. 3) also says that as research in the social sciences is growing at such a rapid pace, it is virtually impossible for a researcher to keep track of all relevant published articles, and so there is a strong need for summaries of recent theoretical and empirical results. A ‘meta-analysis’ then, can be seen as a systematic review of studies done in a particular area (Pigott, 2012, p. 2), from which the results can then be synthesised to weed out any errors or deficiencies in individual studies, and to come to an overall conclusion based upon these cumulative studies.

2.2 Thematic Analysis and Grounded Theory

However, in addition to carrying out a meta-analysis, the use of thematic analysis (Guest, MacQueen & Namey, 2012) can also be used for any qualitative studies, which is one of the most common forms of analysis in qualitative research in the social sciences, as it identifies patterns within datasets, which can then be used to comment on a particular research question or overall hypothesis when looking at various studies. However, this method does rely on some degree of interpretation from the researcher, and so any researcher bias has to be carefully guarded against (Guest, MacQueen & Namey, 2012). In addition, Guest, MacQueen & Namey (2012) also state that:

“Thematic analyses move beyond counting explicit words or phrases and focus on identifying and describing both implicit and explicit ideas within the data, that is, themes. Codes are then typically developed to represent the identified themes and applied or lined to raw data as summary markers for later analysis… Generally speaking, reliability is of greater concern with thematic analysis than with word-based analyses because more interpretation goes into defining the data items” (p. 11).

As such, a good deal of reflection is needed to ensure that these themes and the research do not amount to a self-fulfilled prophecy of sorts, and the researcher essentially fitting the data into a preconceived idea about what the results will be (either consciously, or unconsciously). However, by using this approach in conjunction with a meta-analysis, it is hoped that any researcher bias can be significantly mitigated by the weight of evidence, and the sheer volume of participants referred to. The findings from the various primary studies to be examined in this kind of study shall therefore be placed into categories as the systematic review progresses, although it should be noted that the creation of these categories would have a certain element of subjectivity, due to the researcher creating these categories.

Furthermore, depending upon the results of a meta-analysis and the thematic analysis that develops from research, grounded theory (Birks & Mills, 2015; Charmaz, 2014) might also be drawn from, which is a methodology that can also be used in the social sciences to construct new hypotheses based upon the themes and codes created. This then, is an approach that has many crossovers with thematic analysis, in that it is “a systematic, inductive, and comparative approach for conducting inquiry” (Bryant & Charmaz, 2007, p. 1), with the key difference being that the overall purpose of grounded theory is to construct a new theory from the findings. In addition, Glass & Strauss (1967, cited in Swanson & Holton, 2005) define ‘grounded theory’ as: “the systematic generation of theory from data that has been empirically collected and analysed” (p. 266). Thus, this is an approach that breaks from a priori assumptions, and the testing of hypotheses, and instead takes a more open-minded approach, and creates theories based upon the findings. This then, allows the researcher to mitigate any biases or preconceived ideas about a particular subject, and to let the research lead to a particular conclusion, rather than tweaking the research parameters so that a certain conclusion is reached.

3. Ethical Considerations

Stanley & Sieber (1992) explore some of the ethical considerations involved in social research involving children and adolescents. Indeed, it is noted that: “the legal, ethical, and practical constraints governing research on minors seem, on the face of it, to place the investigator in an impossible position” (Stanley & Sieber, 1992, p. 1). One way to circumnavigate such ethical concerns then is to conduct studies on the childhood experiences of adults. Thus, instead of asking children directly about their experiences of sexual abuse, a sample of adults can be asked about their experiences of sexual abuse as children. As such, information can be gained about CSA, without actually imposing the research process on children. Of course, one downside to this is that research cannot be gained in the here and now, and such data is also going to be dated and provide a commentary on the past rather than the present. However, in light of the considerable ethical implications of research with children on the subject of sexual abuse, this seems to be a good compromise for collecting such data. Moreover, this can be added to with quantitative data about CSA in the present, such as the publication of police records pertaining to CSA cases. Nevertheless, for those researchers that wish to collect primary data about CSA directly from children, there are some rules and regulations in place to guide and monitor such research. For example, in the United States, some regulations were adopted in 1983 to help govern research involving children, which “permit research involving children (including survey and interview data), provided that the parents consent and the child assents and the research involves only ‘minimal risk’” (Stanley & Sieber, 1992, p. 8). However, what this ‘minimal risk’ entails is unclear, beyond that which a child may be at risk from the experiences of everyday life. Ergo, in any studies included in a meta-analysis or thematic analysis that includes research directly involving children, such consent needs to be verified, and risk levels to the children must be assessed. Furthermore, the potential benefits of such research will also need to by far outweigh any possible risks, in order to justify such a methodology and this kind of research process. It should also be added though, that in cases where CSA has been carried out by a parent, and the child has subsequently been removed from their care, such consent would need to be supplied by their current guardian, or by the state if the child is currently in state care. As such, overall, the ethical considerations involved in a piece of research exploring CSA are much more pronounced than in other kinds of research due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, and the harm that could be potentially created by interviewing children (or indeed adults) who have been sexually abused. This then, could be especially disturbing and psychologically traumatic for the participants, and so much consideration needs to be made with regards to the design of any research instrument looking into CSA, so that the trauma of reliving such experiences can be mitigated.

4. Perspectives That Can Be Drawn Upon: Structural-Functionalism and Rational Choice Theory

4.1 Structural-Functionalism

As a lens to view the data from in a study of this nature, a structural-functionalist perspective (Mooney, Knox & Schacht, 2011; Appelrouth & Edles, 2008) can be a useful lens through which to view a subject such as this, which is an approach that developed through the work of Herbert Spencer and his ‘organic analogy’ of society (Jayapalan, 2001, p. 79). This then, is an approach that was popular in the social sciences and in the field of sociology in particular from the 1930s to the 1970s, which sees society as a system comparable to that of human biology. So, just like in the human body, if something is perceived to be going wrong in society, then this could be said to be indicative of an underlying ill. Ergo, just like a lack of balance when walking could be an indication of a problem with the inner ear, a high level of a particular crime in society could be an indication that there is some other social problem – such as deficiencies in the education sector, or a rise in dysfunctional family units. As such, if levels of CSA are particularly high, it is important to delve deeper, so to speak, and unpick the underlying reasons for this, rather than simply identifying this trend. Thus, in order to remedy such a situation, it is important not just to be reactive, and to find better ways of identifying such crimes, and punishing them; but it is also important to understand why such trends are occurring, and addressing the root causes of it. This then, is where the structural-functionalist perspective comes in useful. Moreover, this is a perspective that not only considers the macro structural causes of a problem in society, but also considers that social phenomena might also perform a function – even in cases that seem abhorrent or indefensible. So, in this view, crime could hold several functions in society, such as: (1) prosecuted criminals acting as a warning to those considering committing a crime (which essentially is a constant reminder of the social contract that is in place for all citizens of a nation-state), (2) the creation of jobs (like the police, lawyers, judges, and even psychologists), and (3) as material for the media to cover (and so the creation of profits for media companies). This then, is by no means a defense of such crimes, but merely outlines how even the most abhorrent crimes can serve certain functions in society.

4.2 Rational Choice Theory

Another approach that could be taken to inform an analysis of such data, is that of rational-choice theory (Lichbach, 2003), which is an approach that is popular in the field of social work, and is based on the notion that all human action is essentially rational in nature, and that all people tend to calculate the risks and rewards of a particular action before making any decision about what to do and following through with that action. So, in the context of crimes such as the sexual abuse or the exploitation of children, would-be offenders would weigh the risk of being caught with the potential reward that they deem the crime to offer them, and if the reward, in their minds, outweighs any risk, then they are perhaps more likely to carry out the crime than they would be if the risk posed to them was deemed to outweigh any benefits. This then, is an important idea when talking about CSA, as if there is a perception that the sexual abusers of children are given harsh custodial sentences, and are being caught en masse, then this is likely to impact positively on such crime statistics, and to mitigate the chances of such crime occurring. Thus, it is important for those who are abused to come forwards and report such crimes; otherwise, fewer child sex abusers will be punished, and this may lead to more children being sexually abused. As such, in respect of this, education is likely to be key, to make young people more aware of what sexual abuse is and what it entails, and to make them understand what is normal and natural behaviour, and what is not. Furthermore, this can also be linked to the structural-functionalist perspective and the macro approach to understanding such phenomena, as if people are making a rational choice to do something, then this is likely to be underpinned by macro social forces, which can be changed via amendments to government policies and practices, and rules and regulations in different areas of society, such as in the police, social work, education, and healthcare (which are all positioned to identify cases of child sex abuse). Moreover, conversely, it could also be considered that the victims of such abuse are also making a number of rational choices in this process, such as choosing to tell someone about the experience (or keeping it to themselves), or choosing to fight or submit to such abuse – all of which can be weighed in terms of risk (such as the risk of being stigmatised and having their abuse out in the open, the risk of feeling publically humiliated, or risking physical abuse or even being put in a life threatening situation due to fighting the abuser). Nevertheless, it is conceded that it is very difficult to speculate on an individual’s thought processes when in such a situation. However, it may be useful to keep in mind that such decisions are essentially rational in nature, and are the result of societal structures, rules, regulations, norms, and cultural practices.

5. Conclusions

In summary, this paper has provided one possible methodological design for a research project looking at CSA, with this approach utilising secondary data in the form of a meta-analysis of studies, and applying various theoretical perspectives to inform the analysis – including grounded theory, rational choice theory, and the structural-functionalist lens. However, such a study must be conducted with ethical considerations firmly in mind.


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