Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Sue Wise (1999) 'Reading Sara Scott's "Here Be Dragons"'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 30/03/99      Accepted: 30/03/99      Published: 31/3/99

Reading Sara Scott's 'Here Be Dragons'

Reading Sara Scott's article "Here Be Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist Sociologist in Uncharted Territory", which recounts her research on ritual abuse was an uncanny experience for me, since it raised so many issues that were familiar from my own experience of PhD research. Between 1985 and 1989 I, too, was doing doctoral work on child abuse and experienced many of the dilemmas referred to in Scott's article, especially so in relation to the emotional, political and epistemological impact of the subject being researched.

In 1985 I 'escaped' from local authority social work, where I was mainly involved in child protection cases, into what I hoped would be a 'safer' and less stressful world of research via winning an ESRC studentship. Like Scott's experience, gained on a more personal footing, I hoped that in the relative calm and detachment of a research framework I would be able to make sense of what had occurred for me when I was working as a child protection social worker: the daily, taken for granted and normalised existence of unspeakable acts of cruelty to children.

Whatever the original purpose of my thesis (and, like all theses, this changed over time), the focus became the sense-making activities that surround child abuse rather than its aetiology and treatment. I was, after all, a sociologist, or rather I had become one in a different way than before. I became centrally interested in what 'the problem' is, who defined it as such, who owned it, the emergent discourse and the position of groups and organisations and organisational persons within this in relation to notions of 'expertise', and how perpetrators and victims and others involved at first-hand were positioned within it. In short, I became interested in the 'social constructionist' and definitional issues of child abuse as a 'social problem', not least as a means of making sense of my own experience. My experience as a local authority social worker had involved me working in effect as a 'specialist' worker in relation to child abuse cases. Indeed, there were times when my heavy caseload was almost exclusively composed of high risk child abuse cases. Not only were these very stressful to deal with, but part of the stresses involved included the fact that, albeit high risk and involving terrible things, these cases also involved immense complexities in determining 'what had happened' and 'what should be done about it'.

It is because of this social work experience and then the sociological experience of writing about it that it seems to me that Sara Scott could in fact have started her article at the point at which it finishes. Her article is both extremely interesting and insightful, and also another example of the 'does it really happen?' approach. As I see it, however, the central questions are, how to move on from this question, and how not to be reduced to paralysis by it. The crux of the problem is that the article is aimed at the hegemonic discourse that Scott complains about, those who ask 'does it really happen, then?' Critical feminists, of whom I think Scott is one, are stuck in the dilemma of engaging with a dominant discourse, wherein feminists constantly have to assert and re-assert that a feminist viewpoint is valid and that child abuse is a real and important issue, whilst at the same time, problematising its existence as a social construction - and ritual abuse in this context is an archetypal example, or rather an example writ large, of this dilemma. In effect, the position many feminist researchers and activists have taken up has meant that they assert over and over that 'it happens' but also reject moving on from this to examine the complexities and problematics, as well as the facticities, involved.

The consequence is that it becomes very difficult to move beyond the reassertion of the existence of the problem to a more sophisticated analysis and understanding of it; and in this sense Scott's article is a symptom of the very problem she discusses. Sara Scott has the problem, as I had the problem as well, of how to talk about the problematics of something which is incredibly consequential in people's lives. If we want to talk about child abuse/child sexual abuse in a social constructionist way, then many are likely to conclude that the problem disappears and becomes unreal; and this occurs because the discourse is stuck around the two poles of a binary: it really and absolutely happens, and actually it doesn't. When a social constructionist kind of analysis is proposed, many feminist commentators and activists feel betrayed because they assume that the problem is being discounted, while anti-feminists feel their views are validated. At basis, indeed, it seems to me that both groupings have a similar, if not the same reaction: that the researcher in question is saying that the phenomenon doesn't exist. This is what makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move substantially towards a more sophisticated analysis: aware and conscientious researchers are caught between the two poles of a binary, but each of which work with foundational and absolutist notions of truth and reality.

Scott refers to the emotional impact of working on a topic that is 'unthinkable' and the stress that this creates, leading in her case to nightmares, sleep-walking, physical illness and a general perception that knowledge of the unthinkable can lead to "a nasty dent in your ontological security" (Scott 1998: ¶5.14). I have rarely seen such accounts of the research process written by men, although many female academics who have worked on physical and sexual violence against women and children have reported similar feelings. In my own case, the child abuse that I wrote about was experienced from the viewpoint of a social work practitioner who was intimately involved in the definition of a child abusive situation. Although this was not 'personal' in the sense that the persons involved were not my intimates (my family or my friends) nonetheless I was 'intimately' involved through my role in making decisions about whether child abuse had occurred in a given situation. Moreover, my subsequent detailed and everyday involvement in researching the theoretical and empirical literature on child abuse brought me into closer contact with a greater number of cases than I had ever been as a practitioner.

The result of this was that I felt overwhelmed by child abuse: I not only saw it everywhere (in the supermarket, in my neighbours' kids...) but I expected it to happen - I remember sitting on a train from Manchester to London and marvelling about the ability of a nearby three year-old to entertain itself for lengthy periods of time, having forgotten that this is 'normal' child behaviour for most children.

Even though my experience was not about intimates, in the sense of involving family and friends, it was still a highly personal kind of experience being involved in the definitional aspects of child abuse as a social worker, in the sense of being expected to make decisions about what was, and wasn't child abuse, and being involved in dealing in a direct way not only with the victims of child abuse and their family members but often also with the perpetrators as well. For me, this brings even more into view the complex definitional issues involved. While Scott is exclusively concerned with survivors; she is not dealing with the holistic situation that involves the family and the perpetrators of child abuse as well as the child/survivor. So whereas she can see the subtleties, nuances and greynesses of the accounts of survivors, she does not see those subtleties in relation to family members or perpetrators, which by definition add at least one more dimension of complexity to the accounts of survivors themselves.

To return to the emotional impact that doing this kind of work, and then this kind of research, had on me, this had a number of effects. Firstly, it made me re-evaluate my relationship with my own parents and especially my father; and this led me to a kind of reconciliation of the not-so-unusual tensions in the relationship between him and me as I began to understand what 'bad fathers' really can do. Secondly, it led me to a position where it overwhelmed me and made me feel that I needed a break: I had become unable to recognise a 'normal' child anymore, or rather when I saw a child and parent in a 'normal' relationship in public or private places, this seemed to me almost bizarre or peculiar. Thirdly, it adversely affected my health, in particular I experiencing migraine headaches every Friday through Sunday evening and had a panic reaction to the telephone ringing, in case it heralded one of my 'cases' having reached crisis point or worse. And fourthly, from an academic point of view, after having finished my doctoral work I became unwilling to think about, work on or write about child abuse: I had had enough. The result is that it is only now, ten years later, that I am coming back to thinking and writing about it.

Sara Scott notes that 'Odd though it may sound, it was questions of epistemological grounding rather than of infant sacrifices that kept me awake at night' (Scott 1998: ¶7.2). Although on the surface this may sound odd or even outrageous, it is actually obvious that this is the way that a researcher, or indeed any outsider, would approach it. That is, they would see that the situation is rarely entirely clear cut, and also that, although there may be foundational truths about it, it is neither obvious nor clear what these truths are and where they are to be found. The problem for an ethically- and politically-motivated researcher in this context concerns where social constructionism take you practically in terms of everyday resolution, in terms of the real, concrete and practical situations of people who are involved in child abuse.

For me, both as a feminist sociologist and also as a feminist social worker, these issues surrounding the complexities and nuances of child abuse on the one hand, and those pressing needs of people who are experiencing the consequences of something they experience as terribly and terrifyingly real, cannot be collapsed into each other. That is, there are the real needs of those people who are survivors of child abuse and whose sufferings are absolutely real, and some kind of sensitive and appropriate response needs to be made to this; and then there is also the equally real matter of the claims and counter-claims that constitutes the discourse surrounding child abuse, and the equally real issues involved in making any kind of foundational claims about some kind of grounding to this. Sara Scott has been dancing to the tune of 'does it really happen, then', addressing the dominant discourse with claims about realities, and this was at odds with her previous experiential understanding of ritual abuse; and I was dancing to the tune of 'physical child abuse is a straightforward, clearly indentifiable' syndrome (Wise, 1991), as against my experiential understanding that it was complex, grey, and almost always disputable.

In this context 'truth' in the sense of a single, unseamed and foundational truth, is at best not helpful and at worse a nonsense. Defining a phenomenon such as child abuse is pointless; and what is actually useful, both for those who have experienced child abuse, and those who have to work with child abuse, is understanding what 'abuse' means to different people in different contexts and how those meanings have consequences and are sometimes translated into official interventions into people's lives.

For me, the main point is to contest orthodox knowledges about child abuse. Indeed, my comments are as much addressed to contesting 'radical' orthodoxies as much as conventional ones. In the context of theorising child abuse, these concerns are addressed to feminist theorists of child abuse as they are to more conventional clinically oriented approaches. I end with the comment that it is extraordinarily difficult to move forward in advancing any kind of radical critique when one is constantly looking over one's shoulder and feeling the need to address or engage with the conventional analysis: this confirms its hegemonic position, and also rebutting its premises then entails taking on those radical commentators who, de facto if not de jure, accept its positivist and foundational premises.


SCOTT, Sara (1997) 'Giving birth to death: ritual abuse survivors' accounts of reproductive abuse', Auto/Biography, vol. 1, pp. 15-25.

SCOTT, Sara (1998) 'Here be Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist Sociologist in Uncharted Territory', Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 3, <>.

WISE, Sue (1989) 'Child Abuse Procedures and Social Work Practice: an Ethnographic Approach', unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester.

WISE, Sue (1991) 'Child Abuse: The NSPCC Version', Feminist Praxis, no 32, University of Manchester.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999