Research on Intimate Partner Violence with Claire Renzetti - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. 

Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 


Alicia: Today we’ll meet Claire Renzetti. She’s the Judy Conway Patton Endowed Chair and chair of the sociology department in the UK College of Arts and Sciences. She works with colleagues across UK in the Center for Research on Violence Against Women.


Claire Renzetti: I have always had a tremendous curiosity about why people do what they do. I think that there are people, maybe my engineering colleagues for example, who have had a curiosity about how things work, or how things are made. Why do people behave the way they do toward other people? And I've always sort of liked to observe interactions between people. I don't think I knew what I was doing, and I actually would get my parents very upset at times because I would observe their interactions with each other and with other people and comment on them. Not always favorably in their opinion. So I think, yeah it goes back a long way, that I was really curious about that. And I was also really curious about not just, I guess what we call positive social interaction, but I was especially intrigued by why people do really bad things, and as I got older and I studied more, I was really intrigued by why people do really bad things to people they say they love. And that sort of set me on that course I guess.


Alicia: Do you remember your very first research project? Tell me a little bit about it. 


Claire Renzetti: The very first project that was mine would have been my research for my master’s thesis. So that would have been in the 1970's. It was a study of rape crisis counselors. Actually at that time, rape crisis centers were fairly new, and we didn't know a lot about them and we didn't know a lot about the counseling that went on in them. We knew that this was primarily designed for crisis situations, but we didn't really know about how are these counselors trained. What exactly were they talking to survivors about? How are they really helping them? So that's what my research focused on. I did interviews with rape crisis counselors and I actually went through the training and I sat in on other trainings and I sat in on the weekly meetings. So I did some participant observations and some interviews. It was a very eye opening, and also I’d say rewarding, project because I think that the results had an impact on how the counselors were trained ultimately. 


Alicia: So tell me a little bit about the area of research that you focused on in your career thus far, and what inspired you to pick that area.  


Claire Renzetti: So I did the very first study of violence in lesbian intimate relationships, and I did that in the 1990's. My book came out in 1992. And no one had ever looked at that before. A student of mine actually showed me an advertisement for a speak-out on lesbian battering, and I thought that that meant hate crimes. So I contacted the organization, because at the time I was on a hate crime task force, so I thought it would be good for me to go to it. I contacted the organization and they said, well no that's not what that's about and they told me. I said, well I study intimate partner violence, can I come to this anyway? And I went and they were so excited that someone was interested in this.


Basically they asked me if i would do a study for them, and I said, well I don't think that will be a good idea, no one will talk to me because I'm not a member of the lesbian community. And I would be an outsider. And they said, no that's actually a good thing. Because everybody knows everybody and, you know, they have to maybe talk about people that somebody else knows. So it started out as a small project in Philadelphia and as we realized the interest, it grew into a national study.

I've done work on the violent victimization experiences of women living in public housing developments in Philadelphia and in Camden, New Jersey. And I've just always focused on, I suppose, people who are on the margins instead of, what I guess what you call in the mainstream. And I think because I just feel like those groups are neglected. So I always felt like in order to fully understand a project, you know need to study groups that are understudied, or that maybe don't have a common experience. Because one size doesn't fit all and we are talking about very heterogeneous experiences. So if we're gonna remedy a problem, we need to know all the different facets of it. 


Alicia: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?


Claire Renzetti: I think the most challenging aspect of my work is that I'm studying a really sensitive topic. I want people to talk to me about their experiences and these are really painful, traumatic experiences for them. So I think the most challenging part of it is to build trust and I always feel like the way to do that is to sort of develop some reciprocity in the relationship. To let them get to know me. And I don't take this approach that the researcher is an “objective outsider.” I'm asking somebody to tell me really horrible things that happened to them and I'm a total stranger to them. And so they really have a right to know who I am and to ask me questions and to feel comfortable with me. I think that it's also challenging to hear those stories, and then to then think about what I can do with my research to contribute to remedying that situation. Not the individual one, but the larger social problem. 


Alicia: How has your research informed the way you train students who are also in the same discipline as you? 


Claire Renzetti: So I was trained very much in a positivist model, were the researcher is this objective collector and analyzer of data. And somewhere in my career, actually it was when I was doing the study of intimate partner violence in lesbian relationships, I realized that that really wasn't the best way to do this. And for that project I did what's called a participatory action model. And so, the people in the support group I was working with helped me frame that. And I focused really on that idea of reciprocity.


And so when I talk to students who want to study violence against women, or some aspect of violent behavior, and they want to collect data, I always tell them that the research process is both subjective and objective. The very fact that they've chosen to study this topic is a values-based decision, and how they study it is a values-based decision. Who they study. I really like to teach students about reciprocity in the research relationship. I try to tell them to talk about research participants and not subjects and to think about this as an exchange relationship, because these people are giving you all these things. And I try to emphasize not to do what we call "drive-by" research, you know, go in, get your information, leave. And then you publish it and you get the accolades, but you've left the people who gave you this, and this is your livelihood, you leave them with nothing. You should always contribute something and not assume, oh well, you know, it will trickle down.


Alicia: What have been some of the most fulfilling moments in regards to your work?


Claire Renzetti: When I go to an organization of practitioners, or a non-profit that serves survivors, someone comes put to me and says, you know, “I read such and such a book that you wrote, and it had a tremendous impact on me. I suddenly recognized what was going on in my life and I sought help.” And that's really important to me because it means that I've created useable knowledge. And while I love for me colleagues to read my work, and to build on that, and to make a contribution to my discipline, ultimately I want to produce knowledge that's useable to people in their everyday lives and improves their quality of life. 


Alicia: What is your favorite part of being a researcher?


Claire Renzetti: I think for me, the collaborative part is actually the best part. Because you know when you're dealing with human behavior and you're dealing with social problems… I don't know of any social problems that can be addressed from one perspective. And certainly when you're talking about something like intimate partner violence or sexual assault, you need psychologists, and you need social workers, and you need people in public health. And for me, it's really exciting to sit down with researchers from other disciplines, and turn that prism, if you will, and look at it from a lot of different directions. Because all the sudden, pieces of the puzzle come together that you wouldn't have seen before. And now you have a lot of people working and your energy increases because of that. And that makes me want to do even more work. So I think that's really a very exciting aspect of research in this area. 


Alicia: What have you liked best about working here at UK?


Claire Renzetti: So I haven't been at UK for very long. This is my 7th year. But I always tell people that I feel like I've been here for a really long time, and I mean that in a very good way. When I came to UK, I felt at home and I felt at home because people made me feel that way here. It’s a very collaborative environment. I work with people from the College of Medicine, I work with people from public health. And I always tell people who are just coming to UK for the first time, your hardest decision is going to be to decide who you want to work with, because there are so many opportunities here to work with people interdisciplinarily, and you have to be careful not to say “yes” to everything because then you get stretched too thin. But I think it's that sense of community that I felt here, and I felt like I was welcome and that I belonged. That's a very special part of UK and I'm really grateful for that. 


Alicia: So one last question for you. What do you do outside of your research that you enjoy the most?


Claire Renzetti: I have been collecting contemporary American ceramic art for about 25 years, more than 25 years. Mostly nonfunctional work. But I can't resist functional pieces, too. I love to use pieces that I get. And I get very excited about collecting from artists whose work I really love. I spend a lot of time reading about the art and the process. I've taken classes. All of my pieces have my signature cracks in them. They all use pounds of clay. They're super heavy even though they're only this big. I have no artistic talent, but I wanted to understand the process. I want to understand the chemistry of glazing and the different firing processes. So that’s where I spend my leisure time. I love going to galleries, I love going to exhibits and shows. And I love the discovery of a new favorite piece for my collection. And seeing the art and taking to the artists always makes me smile and makes me happy and I like building relationships that way. So, it lets me use a different part of my brain I guess. It's very relaxing and pleasant.


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