Spousal abuse and social workers : when private sphere goes public

  • King Fan, Veronica SHEK

Student thesis: MPhil Thesis (Lingnan)


This study uses the concept of public and private spheres to analyze how Hong Kong‘s social workers manage spousal abuse cases. Victims of spousal abuse in Hong Kong generally see their experiences as "family shame" - something that belongs to the private domain - and are therefore reluctant to disclose them to third parties. However, there is a public conviction that social workers are appropriate agents to handle spousal abuses. This study examines the roles and responsibilities of social workers and their service recipients in spousal abuse cases. The analysis is based on eleven semi-structured, in-depth interviews conducted with social workers affiliated to local welfare agencies that handle spousal abuse.

I found that counseling services enable clients as well as professionals in spousal abuse cases to rethink their roles and responsibilities. Social workers tend to reaffirm the necessity and usefulness of their interventions, but often complain about the conflicting attitude of their clients who expect effective services but are reluctant to compromise. More importantly, whether clients will proactively seek public resources that will help their situation depends on, as explained by social workers, whether they can successfully enter the private domain of their recipients.

This finding echoes academic discourses on the private sphere. Individuals may set a soft, spongy, rigid or flexible boundary when communicating with external parties and their selection of such boundaries reveal their self-perception and their readiness to be empowered by service professionals during crisis situations. Strategic intervention from well-trained professionals may facilitate service recipients in spousal abuse cases to let down their self-imposed barriers.

These findings contribute to our understanding of two key issues in spousal abuse intervention in Hong Kong. Firstly, they explain clients' accusations of the 'unprofessional and useless services' provided by the social workers. Secondly, it brings in a valuable reference point for policy makers to re-examine the prevailing management of spousal abuse cases, and provides a platform for further academic debates on public and private boundaries.
Date of Award2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Sociology and Social Policy
SupervisorHau Nung Annie CHAN (Supervisor) & Cheung-ming Alfred CHAN (Supervisor)

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