Alternative Paradigms for Building Theories

One explanation is that this is all biological—in the genes. After all, male gorillas are known to kill off the offspring of new females they bring into their harem. Humans, the reasoning goes, have a bit of that instinct in them, too. They mostly fight and overcome the impulse, but over millions of cases, it’s bound to come out once in a while. Culture usually trumps biology, but sometimes, biology is just stronger. This is an explanation based on assumptions from sociobiology or evolutionary psychology or evolutionary anthropology.

Another explanation is that it’s cultural. Yes, it seems like it’s more common for children to be killed by nonbiological than by biological parents, but this kind of mayhem is more common in some cultures than in others. Also, the deaths of some children at the hand of their biological parents may go unnoticed and unreported simply because we don’t expect that, while the deaths of children at the hands of nonbiological parents get more notice simply because we’re on the lookout for it (Crume et al. 2002). And, although killing children is rare everywhere, in some cultures mothers are more likely to kill their children; in other cultures, fathers are more likely to be the culprits. This is because women and men learn different gender roles in different societies. So, the reasoning goes, we have to look at cultural differences for a true explanation of the phenomenon. This is called an idealist, or a cultural, theory because it is based on what people think—on their ideas.

Yet another explanation is that when adult men and women bring children to a second marriage, they know that their assets are going to be diluted by the claims the spouse's children have on those assets—immediate claims and later claims of inheritance. This leads some of those people to harm their spouse’s children from the former marriage. In a few cases, this causes death. This is a materialist theory, as is the idea that women who have children from a previous marriage may, on average, be forced to marry men who carry a higher risk of being abusive.

Sociobiology, idealism, and materialism are not theories. They are paradigms or theoretical perspectives. They contain a few basic rules for finding theories that explain observed events. Sociobiology stresses the primacy of evolutionary, biological features of humans as the basis for human behavior. Idealism stresses the importance of internal states—attitudes, preferences, ideas, beliefs, values—as the basis for human behavior. And materialism stresses structural and infrastructural forces—like the economy, the technology of production and reproduction, demography, and environmental conditions—as causes of human behavior.

When you want to explain a specific phenomenon, you apply the principles of your favorite paradigm and come up with a specific explanation—a theory.

Why do women everywhere in the world tend to have nurturing roles? If you think that biology rules here, then you’ll be inclined to support evolutionary theories about other phenomena as well. If you think economic and political forces cause values and behavior, then you'll be inclined to apply the materialist perspective in your search for explanations in general. If you think that culture—people’s values—is of paramount importance, then you’ll tend to apply the idealist perspective to come up with explanations. The different paradigms are not so much in competition as they are complemen?tary, for different levels of analysis. The evolutionary explanation for the battering of nonbiological children is appealing for aggregate, evolutionary phenomena—the big, big picture. An evolutionary explanation addresses the question: What is the reproductive advantage of this behavior happening at all?

But we know that the behavior of hurting or killing step-children is not inevitable, so an evolutionary explanation can’t account for why some step-parents hurt their children and others don’t. A materialist explanation is more productive for addressing this question. Some step-parents who bring a lot of resources to a second marriage become personally frustrated by the possibility of having their wealth raided and diluted by their new spouse’s children. The reaction would be strongest for step-parents who have competing obligations to support their biological children who are living with yet another family. These frustrations will cause some people to become violent, but not others.

But even this doesn’t explain why a particular step-parent is supportive or unsupportive of his or her nonbiological children. At this level of analysis, we need a processual and psychological explanation, one that takes into account the particular historical facts of the case. Whatever paradigm they follow, all empirical anthropologists rely on ethnography to test their theories.

Handwerker (1996b), for example, found that step-parents in Barbados were, overall, no more likely to treat children violently than were biological parents. But the presence of a step-father increased the likelihood that women battered their daughters and decreased the likelihood that women battered their sons. In homes with step-parents, women saw their daughters as potential competitors for resources available from their partner and they saw sons as potential sources of physical protection and income.

And there was more. Powerful women (those who had their own sources of income) protected their children from violence, treated them affectionately, and elicited affection for them from their man. The probability that a son experienced an affectionate relationship with a biological father rose with the length of time the two lived together, but only for sons who had powerful mothers. Men battered powerless women and the children of powerless women, and powerless women battered their own children.

Is there any evolutionary basis for powerful spouses to batter powerless ones? Or is this all something that gets stimulated by material conditions, like poverty? A lot of research is being done on this now but this much is clear: Different paradigms produce different, interesting answers to the same question.

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