Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Sara Scott (1999) 'Dancing to Different Tunes: A Reply to Responses to Here Be Dragons'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 2, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 22/06/99      Accepted: 23/06/99      Published: 30/6/99

Dancing to different tunes: A reply to responses to Here Be Dragons

Two responses to my paper Here Be Dragons: Researching the unbelievable, hearing the unthinkable. A feminist sociologist in uncharted territory (Scott, 1998) were published in Sociological Research Online (vol. 4, no. 1). Although there are important differences between the two responses this short reply addresses their common argument concerning what feminist sociology is good for - what it can and cannot, or should and should not set itself to do. Both respondents express similar concerns that in researching ritual abuse I have been: "dancing to the tune of 'does it really happen then', addressing the dominant discourse with claims about realities" (Wise 1999: 1.11), and in doing so I have confused the tasks proper to social workers, courts and counsellors (responding to the pressing needs of child and adult survivors) and those proper to feminist sociologists (analysing the social construction of the discourses surrounding child abuse and questioning the foundational claims being made).

For Sue Wise and Annie Huntington the appropriate focus of sociological enquiry into social life is the question of howthings are socially constructed as 'social problems' (e.g. 'child sexual abuse'); as 'identities' or 'subject positions' (e.g. 'perpetrators' and 'victims'); and as accounts or narratives (e.g. 'a survivor's story'). They each express the view that claims about the 'truth status' of social phenomena cannot legitimately be made on the basis of sociological research. Annie Huntington (Huntington, 1999) argues that any version of realism - subtle, critical or otherwise - is epistemologically indefensible and claims that for her 'radical doubt is the only certainty' (Huntington 1999: 2.5). Sue Wise focuses on describing the tasks which she has found to be appropriate and epistemologically defensible as a feminist sociologist: the deconstruction of all orthodox knowledges about child abuse, the exposure of the ways in which 'truth' gets constructed in different contexts, and the rejection of the 'does it really happen?'/ 'did it really happen?' questions with which both radical and traditional discourses concerning social problems are centrally engaged.

In Here Be Dragons I believe I was not so much dancing to the 'does it really happen?' tune, as acknowledging quite how loud the music was playing in my ears, and considering the impact on research of working amidst such a din. It was my contention that suspending concern about the real lived experiences behind/beneath/related to the stories people tell concerning these was particularly ethically, practically and politically problematic when the 'reality' of the particular experiences in question was a matter of considerable public dispute. The question of the reality or otherwise of ritual abuse has dominated public and professional controversies over a number of child protection cases, books, documentaries and conferences in both Britain and North America (McMartin (California), 1985; Ingrams (Washington), 1988; Nottingham, 1987; Orkney, 1991; Ealing, 1993; Pembroke, 1994). Here Be Dragons details the ways in which I believe this history - and the 'discourse of disbelief' that developed alongside it - impacted on my research, ensuring that methodological and ethical decisions "were inevitably made within a social context shot through with scepticism over the truth status of ritual abuse accounts" (Scott, 1998 1.1).

As I moved from the immediacy of involvement with ritual abuse as a feminist counsellor and part-time foster parent to a more academic engagement as a feminist researcher, I found myself caught between a political rock and an intellectual hard place. Behind me was the widespread disbelief that the kinds of experiences I wanted to make sense of really happened to people, and in front of me was the post-modern turn of much contemporary (feminist) social theory which cast epistemological doubt on any attempts to look beyond texts to lives. In addition both mass media and academic accounts explained the emergence of 'cases' of ritual abuse by a selective social constructionism in the form of 'moral panic' theory. I found such explanations inadequate in a number of respects, not least in their failure to acknowledge the possibility of any link between survivors lived experience and the stories they told about their lives. As a communicant member of both academic and activist worlds I was both troubled and fascinated by the issues thus raised.

Was I - as Annie Huntington suggests (Huntington, 1999: 4.1) - 'seduced' by my political or personal 'mission' into claiming to have found 'the Truth' about ritual abuse? I do not think so. These terms suggest a naivety and zealotry which neither my opinions nor my writing on the subject possess (Kelly and Scott, 1991; Scott and Kelly, 1993; Scott, 1993; Scott and Snelling, 1994; Scott, 1997; Scott 1998). While I am clear that I believe something which can be usefully referred to as 'ritual abuse' does happen, I also describe how that belief arose in the context of a 'familial' relationship with a teenage girl escaping such abuse at the hands of her parents and their friends. I did not undertake my research in order to find incontrovertable proof that ritual abuse happens, but with the less ambitious aims of questioning the adequacy of claims that all ritual abuse accounts could be explained away as products of false memories or moral crusades, and of taking the accounts of survivors seriously as genuine attempts to describe their lives. My questions were: 'if such accounts are taken seriously what do they suggest about the kinds of families and networks involved in such extreme forms of child abuse? How do those involved as victims and/or perpetrators make sense of their experience? What difference does gender make? And how do such accounts compare with those of survivors of other forms of child abuse which have been more frequently believed?'

I began this research with the intention of putting the 'Truth' question to one side and exploring ritual abuse survivors accounts of their lives 'as if' they were no more problematic than those of say 'transexuals' or 'teenage mothers' - that is complex, historically and culturally situated accounts drawing on therapeutic, medical and mass media discourses to make sense of lived experiences. (In fact the single 'finding' I reported in Here Be Dragons was that putting the 'truth question' aside was not so easy, for "private pains and public claims persistently interpenetrate each other" (1.1) I aimed to interpret and explain accounts of extreme and bizarre experiences by contextualising them within life-histories and sets of relationships. I was therefore taking the same kind of ethnographic approach I might have taken in researching experiences of transexualism or teenage motherhood. In doing so I was also attempting to explore one of the general conditions of belief - contextual fit - which had informed my own acceptance of the reality of ritual abuse.

Far from making the strong assertion that 'subtle realism provides a defensible basis for the justification of my truth claims' attributed to me by Annie Huntington (Huntington, 1999: 1.1), I was rather explaining that in the context of the research this was the epistemological perspective most congruent with my ethical and political position. Such a perspective affirms the existence of a real, material world, in which life gets lived and abuses happen but at the same time accepts the contingent nature of our representations of it. I believed that the life-histories of my interviewees referred to an ontological reality involving experiences of ritual abuse, which although inevitably mediated through the discourses which gave them meaning, could in principle be tested against material reality. As Joan Busfield has argued in a related context:

To say this, does not commit us to the view that the meaning of such categories are invariant, or that the boundaries can be easily settled, or that the identification of individual cases is never problematic [...] But it does mean that a woman's claim that she has been raped should not be treated primarily as a narrative. (Busfield,1996:47)

Certainly I wanted to treat my interviewees testimonies no differently than I would have treated those of survivors of any other atrocities. A subtle realist perspective allowed me to appreciate the selective nature of all accounts while retaining the possibility that accounts were able to represent independent phenomena about which they inquire and towards an understanding of which they aspire. By different routes Sue Wise and Annie Huntington both prompt us to focus on the social construction of the texts and discourses through which things come to be 'known' rather than on identifying and analysing the causes and patterns of inequality, abuse and oppression. For feminists who wish to link their research to social change an exclusive focus on such matters is problematic.

In researching ritual abuse I used life-history interviews with adolescent and adult survivors as resources on the basis of which I developed ideas about issues such as the gendered nature of the abuse, the role of occult beliefs and the achievement of a 'survivor identity'. At the same time I explored the ways in which my interviewees narratives drew on - and sometimes challenged - culturally available discourses concerning gender, madness and child abuse. That is to say that although I attempted to do the kind of empirical research that looks for patterns in data and develops some middle range theoretical insights from them, I was not uninterested in the social processes and discursive practices by which such biographical data came to be. In other words, I refused to choose between regarding my interviewees accounts as either a topic in themselves or as a resource for knowledge about their lived experience. With such a dual reading I hoped to 'by-pass fruitless debate about the truth status of interview data' (see Seale, 1995: 602). If my subject matter had been some generally accepted feature of social reality this approach would have attracted little comment. It is the specific scepticism directed towards ritual abuse accounts rather than 'radical doubt' about the 'truth' status of all accounts that refused to be by-passed.

I find myself unable to make any thoroughgoing distinction between the tasks of practitioners and those of sociologists. As feminist sociologists we make choices about what we study, what we deconstruct, and the work we do influences - directly or indirectly - the thought and practice of social workers, counsellors, journalists and jurors. If there are both 'constructive' and deconstructive 'schools' in feminist sociology I would suggest they come together in the aim of producing knowledge that can be used to challenge exploitation and oppression - in the deconstruction of the discourses of the more powerful (feminist orthodoxies sometimes included ) and in the generation of new ways of knowing from lived experience.

It seems to me that doing feminist research corresponds with much of everyday feminist life. As Beverley Skeggs has put it:

We use the cultural resources available to us in the most beneficially feminist way possible, with an accompanying knowledge of the dangers, constraints and limitations in which we are located. (Skeggs 1994:89)


BUSFIELD, Joan, (1996) Men, Women and Madness: Understanding Gender and Mental Disorder. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

HUNTINGTON, Annie, (1999) 'A Critical Response to Sara Scott's "Here be Dragons: Researching the Unbelievable, Hearing the Unthinkable. A Feminist Sociologist in Uncharted Territory"', Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1.<>.

KELLY, L & SCOTT, S. (1991) 'Demons, Devils and Denial: Towards a Feminist Understanding of Ritual Abuse' in Trouble & Strife, No.22.

SCOTT, S. (1993) 'Beyond Belief: Beyond Help?' in Child Abuse Review Vol.4, No. 2.

SCOTT, S. & KELLY, L . (1993) 'Reviewing the literature on organised and ritual abuse' in Child Abuse Review Vol. 4, No. 2.

SCOTT, S. & SNELLING, O (1994) 'Ritual Abuse in the Media' in Valerie Sinason (Ed.) Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse. London: Routledge.

SCOTT, S. (1997) 'Giving Birth to Death: Reproductive Violence in Life Histories of Ritual Abuse Survivors'. Auto/biography, Vol.1, No. 23.

SCOTT, S. (1998) 'Supporting Survivors of Ritual Abuse' in Good Practice in Counselling, Zetta Bear (editor) London: Jessica Kingsley.

SCOTT, S. (1998) 'Here Be Dragons: Researching the unbelievable, hearing the unthinkable. A feminist sociologist in uncharted territory' Sociological Research Online, Vol. 3, No. 3.<>

SCOTT, S. (1999) 'Fragmented Selves in Late Modernity: Making Sociological Sense of Multiple Personalities' The Sociological Review.

SEALE, C. (1995), 'Heroic Death' Sociology Vol. 29, No.4.

SKEGGS, Beverley (1994) 'Situating the Production of Feminist Ethnography' in Mary Maynard and June Purvis (editors), Researching Women's Lives from a Feminist Perspective. London: Taylor and Francis.

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

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999