Anthropology, Public Policy, and Intimate Partner Violence in Vietnam

When I started to write my dissertation, my initial intention was to explore the relationship between anthropological theory and the world of public policy. The reason for this was very simple. Throughout the entirety of my degree, many of us (whilst being completely mesmerised by the narrative of the world that our discipline produced) were left feeling somewhat perplexed as to what position this narrative was to actually play in the world. This belief reflects one of the key characteristics of contemporary higher education, whereby all knowledge must be functional. Knowledge, particularly when it pertains to the fundamentals of the human condition, can never be acquired just for the sake of epistemology. Although I do personally believe that certain knowledge does not need to be framed using a functionalist perspective, I do also believe that we were not completely wrong in trying to ascertain what role our discipline could prospectively play in shaping the future of our collective world.


How did I settle on the research topic that I ultimately ended up writing about?


Southeast Asia has always been a geopolitical context that I have been fascinated by, and so the dissertation proved to be a fantastic means for learning more about the intricate economic, political, legal, and sociocultural paradigms that exist in the region.  


On account of how my anthropological interests ranged from legal, economic, and medical anthropology to our discipline’s expertise in the fields of gender, sex, and kinship, I wanted to find a topic that would operate at the intersection of all of these interests. I ultimately therefore ended up writing about the driving forces of intimate partner violence in Vietnam specifically because of how this was a topic that could only be completely understood through the adoption of such a comprehensive analytical strategy. Albeit a morbid topic, the abundance of ethnographic material that existed on this context also made the prospect very appealing (as epitomised in the work of anthropologists such as Helle Rydstrøm, Tine Gammeltoft, and Nguyễn-võ Thu-Hương). 

As I read numerous United Nations reports on the state of intimate partner violence in Vietnam, I soon realised that my understanding of the role that anthropology could play in the world of public policy was somewhat flawed. Going into the dissertation process, I saw anthropology as a means for enriching the way that policymakers could understand the benefits of the policies that they were implementing. The more I engaged with the issue, however, the more I realised that the theoretical terms with which intimate partner violence was being understood were somewhat problematic. How could organisations like the United Nations or the Vietnamese Politburo hope to tackle this troubling social epidemic if their theoretical understanding of what drove this phenomenon was not completely accurate? Although I am sure that ethnographic fieldwork methodologies are a useful means for understanding the efficacy of different policy initiatives, I realised that what anthropology was ultimately best positioned to do in this case was to redefine the way that policymakers were to understand the motives for abusive behaviour amongst Vietnamese couples so that future policy objectives could be designed using more accurate understandings of the phenomenon. This, I would hope, will lead to the sustainable alleviation of intimate partner violence occurrences not only in Vietnam, but in other parts of the world as well.

My dissertation was also framed with an agenda that was intended to engage in a more anthropologically-specific debate. Our discipline is riddled with concerns surrounding the question of whether anthropologists should produce ‘grand theories’ of how human behaviour operates across the world. Proponents of relativism would purport that this is an anachronistic mentality with which to approach anthropology. Although I see the merits of viewing sociocultural behaviour through the lens of a particular context, I do also believe that, in this evermore globalised and interconnected world, a new analytical space has emerged for producing more large-scale theoretical understandings of the world. The models that I ended up putting forward in my research, therefore, should be viewed as an attempt to equip anthropologists with a more sophisticated set of analytical tools with which to contextualise local behaviour vis-a-vis global phenomena. Indeed, the models that will be discussed in this post should be viewed as a kind of ‘immutable mobile’, whereby individual behaviour can be viewed as a localised permutation of globally-significant logic.    


What were my findings?

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Contemporary gender roles in rural Vietnam are caught between the nexus of modern Vietnamese socialism and Confucian conservatism.


 The key analytical insight of my dissertation was grounded in the anthropological concept of intersubjectivity. As one might quickly surmise, ‘intersubjectivity’ simply refers to the way two individual subjects form some kind of relation between one another. In the context of gender analysis, the concept of intersubjectivity is incredibly useful because it disrupts our understanding of gender performance as operating solely on the level of the individual performer, and instead acknowledges that gendered performances must be viewed as a relationship between two gendered subjects. This is particularly important when trying to understand the way gender performance operates in the context of a romantic, sexual relationship.

Simply put, the performance of one gender cannot be conducted without someone of the opposite gender providing a correct performance of their own respective gender. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by this in the context of Vietnam.

Although post-liberalisation Vietnamese society is coordinated through the logics of market socialism, the moral code underpinning social behaviour amongst Vietnamese people (particularly those who belong to the majority Kinh ethnic group) is grounded in Confucianism. In the context of gender roles, the interface between Socialism and Confucianism is a most fascinating yet also perplexing one.



‘Young generation of Vietnam, study and follow the moral example of Ho Chi Minh!’ – propaganda posters outlining Ho Chi Minh’s socialist vision for the future of Vietnam line the streets of Hanoi before and after every big national event.


On the one had, the Socialist ethos of the Vietnamese Politburo insists that men and women be viewed as social, economic, legal, and political equals. Each respective gender therefore plays a crucial role not only in the management of the elementary familial unit, but also in securing a prosperous collective future for Vietnam as it attempts to compete with its regional rivals (such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and China) for socioeconomic prosperity.

On the other hand, Confucianism requires that women submit themselves through three primary deferential logics. They are expected to submit to their parents when they are still unmarried. Upon the moment of marriage, they are then expected to submit to the will of their husbands. As women exercise these two deferential logics, they are also expected to submit to the political will of the State so as to not disrupt its cosmic stability. By mandating that the social cosmos can only be stabilised through women’s submission to the will of their parents, their husbands, and the political State, Confucianism problematises the efficacy with which the Vietnamese Politburo is able to introduce complete gender emancipation to Vietnam.

As a result of the Politburo’s mandate for increased gender equality, Vietnamese women are rapidly moving into the nation’s economic heartlands in pursuit of economic independence and the opportunity to secure the education that previous generations of Vietnamese women were never afforded. These claims for independence, however, problematise the ease with which traditional gender scripts can be enacted, leaving women caught in a limbo state that straddles the expectations of traditional Confucian communities and the future that the Vietnamese Politburo has envisioned for the nation. In the words of Henrietta Moore, therefore, these women experience a kind of ‘internally differentiated gender subjectivity’.


Simply put, the performance of one gender cannot be conducted without someone of the opposite gender providing a correct performance of their own respective gender.


This is where our innovative intersubjective analytical strategy becomes useful. Many anthropologists have interpreted the performance of hegemonic masculinity in Vietnam as a question of Confucian ‘machismo’ culture, whereby masculine capital can be accumulated through a woman’s embracement of the deferential subject position. When women therefore heed the call of the Politburo to assert the right to parity with their male counterparts, this disrupts the process through which masculine capital can be accumulated by the male partner.

Henrietta Moore interprets this disruption as an act of ‘thwarting’, whereby a woman’s rejection of deference  becomes a direct assault on the man’s social livelihood. In this moment, the male perpetrator, overcome with anxiety as to the future of his place as a man in Vietnamese society, attempts to physically discipline his wife into a correct performance of femininity that is synchronised with traditional Confucian gender ethics. Intimate partner violence, therefore, needs to be thought of as a man’s most radical attempt at stabilising the process through which masculine capital is sought in Vietnamese society. This becomes particularly apparent amongst men who are unemployed or who are poorly educated, and who therefore find their wives’ socioeconomic and educational aspirations incredibly anxiety-inducing.

One could almost view the stereotypified means of accumulating masculine capital as a spectre that haunts every couple’s relationship, whereby both parts are perpetually conforming as well as problematising the gendered expectations that they make of one another. By employing an intersubjective analytical strategy here, we are thus able to begin analysing how different forces within one’s social ecology contribute to the formation of internally differentiated gender subjectivities as well as to disrupting the cumulative flow of masculine capital. The graphic below demonstrates how this analytical disaggregation would look like in the context of Vietnam.


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Figure 2: Ecological model with integrated globalised framework through which to analyse violence against women in Vietnam across all levels of social ecology (adapted from Schuler et al. 2014: 1153). 


By breaking down one’s social ecology into ontogenic, microsystemic, exosystemic macrosystemic, and global levels, we begin to understand just how comprehensively informed one’s sense of internally differentiated gender subjectivity is. This kind of disaggregation can also be conducted in other contexts, as a result of which we can begin to receive a far more accurate understanding of the commonalities and differences between intimate partner violence in different parts of the world (Emma Fulu and Stephanie Miedema (2015) have already initiated this kind of cross-contextual analysis by comparing the aetiology of IPV in Mauritius and Cambodia respectively).   


What are the implications of this for future research?

The implications of these findings are multiple, but the two below are particularly important. For one, policymakers need to begin focusing alleviation strategies on the ways in which male perpetrators are socialised. The Vietnamese State needs to begin acknowledging how young Vietnamese boys are being socialised through the internalisation of toxic masculine entitlement. What therefore needs to occur is the formulation of an intervention strategy wherein young boys are told from an early age that this kind of toxic masculinity is not the means through which a happy and prosperous society can be brought into fruition.

Men who have already been socialised with this toxic masculinity need to be directed towards a different path for accumulating masculine capital. Higher  amounts of foreign direct investment as well as the expansion and innovation of various industries will open up new employability opportunities for these men, which will therefore aid their attempts at accumulating masculine capital. These men should also be offered means through which to access education. This access should not, however, come at the expense of women’s access to education, but should instead be executed in complementarity to this. Both respective genders must be guaranteed the right to enjoy the fruits of Vietnam’s integration into the global economy from both a professional development as well as educational perspective. 


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A more concerted effort is required so as to streamline Vietnamese nation-building initiatives with local moral economies. 


The Vietnamese government also needs to acknowledge the hypocrisy in its intimate partner alleviation strategy. Although the state mandates that women being abused by their partners are entitled to a divorce, the state also mandates that this divorce demand be initially reviewed by a village-level marriage reconciliation committee. These committees are often staffed by state bureaucrats who are sympathetic to the Confucian moral expectations of the village context, and so they will often encourage battered women to simply ‘become better wives’ so as to avoid future violence. As a result, divorce applications are often denied by these committees. The Vietnamese Politburo needs to therefore conduct more investigative work into the functioning of its own bureaucratic elements so as to ensure consistency between the mandates coming from the upper echelons of the Politburo and the grassroots bureaucrats who act as representatives of the State in the Confucian heartlands of Vietnam.    

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of the initiatives that have been taken by various international organisations as well as the Vietnamese Government to combat intimate partner violence have proven to be incredibly successful. We cannot, however, hope to completely eradicate intimate partner violence from any context if we have an incorrect understanding of what drives this phenomenon. The insight from this research should therefore be used so as to strengthen the efficacy of already-existing policies as well as any policies that are to be adopted in the future.



Fulu, E. & Miedema, S. (2015). ‘Violence Against Women: Globalising the Integrated Ecological Model’ in Violence Against Women, 21:12, 1431-1455.


Schuler, S.R., Lenzi, R., Hoang, T., Vu, S-H., Yount, K.M. & Trang, Q-T (2014). ‘Recourse Seeking and Intervention in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence in Vietnam: A Qualitative Study’ in Journal of Family Issues, 37:8, 1151-1173.


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