Repeat violence in Scotland: a qualitative approach

This report presents findings from a qualitative research study which explored peoples’ experiences of repeat, interpersonal violence. The research involved in-depth interviews with people who have lived experience of repeat violence and community stakeholders who support them.

Executive summary

Interpersonal repeat violent victimisation

The definition and conceptualisation of interpersonal repeat violent victimisation (RVV) is contested. Interpersonal violence refers to violence between individuals, often subdivided into community violence and violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse. These two forms of interpersonal violence are often studied separately, using divergent theoretical and methodological approaches (Batchelor et al. 2019). Mainstream research on RVV is largely quantitative in orientation, counting recurrent incidences of the same type of violent offence against the same target and identifying risk factors that make some people more prone to victimisation than others. Feminist research on men's violence against women and girls more often draws on qualitative methods to explore experiences of overlapping and intersecting forms of violence, conceptualising repeat physical violence as part of a process of coercive control located within a context of gendered inequality and norms.

Building on these insights, the current research adopts a qualitative approach to unpack patterns of RVV evident in official statistics on non-sexual violence in Scotland. Unlike survey research, which asks respondents to self-report the number of incidents they have experienced over a specified period, typically the previous 12 months, the present study acknowledges the impact of repeat violence and associated trauma on memory, imposing no time limit on participants' experiences. As a result, whilst we invited participants to reflect on recent experiences of physical violence, they also often related experiences of other forms of violence, experienced across the life course.


Within the official crime groupings in Scotland, interpersonal violence is categorised under 'non-sexual crimes of violence', which includes murder and culpable homicide, assault, robbery, crimes recorded under the Domestic Abuse Act 2018, threats and extortion, and stalking. Non-sexual violence in Scotland has fallen significantly since 2008/09 but remained broadly stable over the last decade (Scottish Government 2023a). The most recent data from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (Scottish Government 2021) showed that in 2019/20 the likelihood of experiencing violent crime (including assault and robbery) was highest for men, those living in deprived areas, and those living in urban locations. Victims of repeated incidences (i.e., those experiencing two or more violent crimes) accounted for two-thirds (65%) of the violent crime experienced in 2019/20. Experiences of partner abuse (including psychological and physical abuse) were highest amongst women, those aged 16 to 24 years, and those living in deprived areas. In 2018/20[1] three in ten respondents (31%) who experienced partner abuse within the 12 months prior to interview had experienced more than one incident; around two-thirds (67%) also experienced at least one incident prior to this period.

In response to these patterns, the Scottish Government commissioned qualitative research to better understand repeat violent victimisation, informed by the social-ecological model (Powell et al. 1999) adopted by public health approaches to violence prevention, which regards interpersonal violence as the outcome of the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. A public health approach to violence prevention focuses on preventing violence by addressing underlying causes at each of these levels.

Research design

This summary sets out key findings from the RVV study, describing the views and experiences of people with lived experience of repeat violence, not all of whom identify as victims. This included people with convictions and people defined as having multiple complex needs. Research questions included:

1. What are the characteristics and circumstances/contexts of people who experience interpersonal RVV?

2. What are victim-survivors' understandings and experiences of RVV?

3. What impact does interpersonal RVV have on victim-survivors?

4. What are victim-survivors' experiences of seeking help and support with RVV?

The research involved qualitative interviews with people who have lived experience of repeat, interpersonal violence (n=62) and community stakeholders who support them (n=33). In the main, participants were recruited from specific Urban, Town and Rural case study areas characterised by high levels of deprivation and violent victimisation. This case study design allowed the research team to consider the community contexts as well as the individual characteristics of people who experience interpersonal repeat violence, in line with the social-ecological model.

Stakeholder interviews comprised questions about representatives' understanding of the nature, context and circumstances surrounding repeat violence within their relevant communities; its impact on victims; as well as their views on existing service provision and barriers to accessing support. Lived experience interviews focused on participants' experiences of 'repeat violence', which we allowed them to self-define. The interview topic guide steered the discussion towards repeated experiences of non-sexual physical violent victimisation in the recent past, but these experiences were often inextricably linked to childhood experiences of neglect and abuse, institutional violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence, as well as violent offending and robbery. Interviews also explored experiences of and views on support services.

Key findings

In developing a qualitative understanding of repeat violence, the research emphasises that such violence must be understood as a dynamic process, rather than a series of discrete events, in which different forms and contexts of violence interact and reinforce one another. The report also illustrates the dynamic and contested character of the categories of 'victim' and 'perpetrator', which overlap and shift across the life course.

Repeat violence typology

Most participants experienced violence across the life course, but the nature and intensity of this violence changed according to their circumstances, for example increasing in tandem with escalating substance use and diminishing during periods of recovery support. For others, experiences of violence were more time-limited, though the impact of such violence could be long-lasting.

We distinguished between three groups or 'clusters' of lived experience of repeat violence:

  • Unsettled lives: Comprising men and women aged 25 to 59 years, many of these participants were currently homeless or living in supported accommodation and in recovery from addiction, experiencing deep poverty. They reported the most persistent patterns of repeat violence across the life course, often beginning with childhood experiences of abuse, with men reporting more physical violence and women reporting more sexual violence. Domestic abuse was another common experience in this group, reported by some men and almost all women. Recent experiences of repeat violence were usually related to the drug economy.
  • Mutual violence: Mostly men, aged 16 to 44 years, living in social housing, this cluster of participants was predominantly involved in violence between young people in the community, tit-for-tat neighbour disputes, or violence in or around the night-time economy. Often fuelled by excessive amounts of alcohol, such violence was normalised: described as 'recreational', or as an informal form of dispute resolution. This group were resistant to thinking of themselves as victims despite sometimes receiving very serious injuries.
  • Intermittent victimisation: Mostly women, aged 25 to 44 years, this group of participants portrayed violence as being 'out of the ordinary', confined to particular contexts or periods. Most repeat violence experienced was either (a) domestic or sexual abuse confined to one relationship[2] or (b) multiple, unrelated incidents of sexual and/or physical violence usually starting in their teens and mostly perpetrated by peers or acquaintances, and sometimes strangers. Victims of intermittent violence reported alcohol and drug problems or recreational substance use, commonly presented as a means of coping with victimisation.

The role of gender

The research confirmed gender-based understandings and patterns of repeat violence, with men who have been on the receiving end of violence more likely to identify as perpetrators and women as victims. These identifications were linked to gendered norms relating to violence and victimisation since most of the men and women we interviewed had both perpetrated violence and been on the receiving end of violence, though men had typically engaged in more persistent and more serious forms of physical violence and women had experienced more sexual violence. A minority of men and a majority of women reported physically violent victimisation within the context of intimate relationships, with physical violence perpetrated by men often more persistent, more serious, and more commonly accompanied by coercive control.

The role of drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol featured prominently in participants' accounts, with connections commonly made between poverty, violence and the drug economy, and alcohol, violence and the nighttime economy (NTE). As well as being understood as drivers of repeat violence, both drug use and alcohol use were described as a means of coping with the impacts of repeat violence and trauma. People who experienced drug- and alcohol-related harms faced barriers to accessing victim support.

Community context

Participants made a connection between poverty, violence and the drug economy within their communities, linked to generational deprivation, lack of local jobs and withdrawal of services, housing inequalities, social norms sanctioning specific forms of violence, a defensive culture of non-cooperation with the police, and models of masculinity emphasising self-reliance. Within this context, violence was presented as an endemic, embedded, routinised and normalised feature, that people in the community become accustomed to but do not necessarily accept. Positive features of communities included close family connections and community spirit.

Individual characteristics

The life histories of people who experienced repeat violence were characterised by childhood experiences of neglect and abuse, bereavement and loss, and psychological trauma. They had also often experienced a series of systemic exclusions across their life course, including experiences of being 'looked after' and 'locked up'. Participants reporting a greater number of diverse experiences of trauma and harm in their background reported more persistent repeat violence as adults. These institutional histories had an important impact on their vulnerability to violence and exploitation, their sense of self-worth, their faith in state systems, and their help-seeking behaviours.

Experiences of repeat violence

Participants discussed a range of different forms of violence, including violence between young people, violence in the NTE, community disputes, violence related to the drug economy, violence in institutions, sexual violence and domestic violence. These different forms of violence were described as being overlapping and co-constituted, emphasising an understanding of repeat violence as a dynamic process, wherein diverse forms of violence inform, transform and amplify one another. Pervasive violence across diverse settings informed participants' perceptions of what constituted violence, with 'real' violence restricted to serious violence involving physical injuries inflicted against 'innocent' victims. Physical fights as means of dispute resolution or a form of recreation were deemed to involve willing participants – and therefore no 'victims' (unless things went too far).

Impacts of repeat violence

The impacts and effects of repeat violence are difficult to disentangle from accumulated experiences of associated trauma and harm. Participants disclosed a range of physical and mental health problems with profound and sometimes permanent consequences. A number of participants had received diagnoses for complex PTSD, but an even greater amount described recognised trauma symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, and anxiety. For some this resulted in social withdrawal and feelings of isolation; others described hypervigilance and emotional reactivity. These reactions negatively impacted personal relationships and social networks. Strategies for coping with trauma included regular binge or heavy drinking, drug use, fighting, and self-harm. Participants were often driven towards such behaviours because family and social support systems were absent.

Attitudes towards reporting repeat violence

The majority of participants in our 'unsettled lives' and 'mutual violence' groups said that they did not and would not consider reporting victimisation to the police, even in cases involving serious injury and hospitalisation. This was linked to rules and repercussions of 'no grassing' and a desire to deal with violence themselves, as well as previous negative experiences with the police, e.g. as a result of being arrested. Within our 'unsettled lives' cohort, there was a sense of resignation about victimisation linked to stigma and deeply internalised disadvantage. These participants did not see any point in reporting because they did not think they would be taken seriously, or that they deserved support. Participants in our 'intermittent victimisation' group were more likely to consider reporting but expressed reservations based on previous experience of police and criminal justice interactions as victims.

Experiences of the criminal justice system

A small number of participants had ever reported experiences of victimisation to the police, and fewer still had their cases taken forward to court by the procurator fiscal. Most of these participants were in the 'intermittent victimisation' group. As a group, these participants reported dissatisfaction with their treatment by the criminal justice system, recounting examples of insensitive questioning, invalidation, and lack of support or representation, experienced as secondary victimisation. Negative experiences with criminal justice contributed to a lack of faith in formal systems, reinforcing a pervasive sense that nobody cares, and no one is coming to help. Despite these negative views and experiences, participants often held community police in high regard, largely because they had taken the time to build meaningful relationships with people within the community.

Experiences of accessing support

Outwith the 'intermittent victimisation' group, very few of our participants had accessed victim support services. Participants in the 'mutual violence' group did not see themselves as victims and tended to adhere to masculine norms emphasising self-reliance. People with 'unsettled lives' often considered themselves as exempt from support services due to their own involvement in violence, or they were actively excluded due to their substance use or housing status. Low levels of uptake were also related to the timing of referrals and readiness for engagement, with several participants reflecting that they did not feel ready to access support immediately after the event, sometimes as a result of insecure living circumstances. One of the major difficulties in offering victim support services to people with lived experience of repeat violence is that they often have other more pressing concerns, such as finding suitable accommodation, alongside prior experiences of trauma.

Preference for informal and grassroots solutions

Many participants explained that they would prefer to deal with issues directly rather than report to the police or any other statutory authorities. This preference for informal resolutions sometimes resulted in an escalating series of tit-for-tat disputes, related to further violent victimisation. Grassroots support services were valued for their community connections and emphasis on holistic response. Smaller, locally based organisations were also seen to offer more individualised support, with an emphasis on building longer-term relationships of trust. Lived experience gave workers credibility, alongside the experience and skills to engage people who are distrustful of more formal sources of support.


Taken together, these findings demonstrate that people who experience frequent and serious repeat violence usually do not bring this to the attention of the authorities, meaning that their victimisation 'doesn't count' in terms of the officially recorded picture of crime. When they do report victimisation they feel dismissed, discredited, and devalued by state-funded organisations and institutions.

Public health and gender-informed violence prevention

These findings support a public health approach to violence prevention (Powell et al. 1999), identifying multiple forms of violence that intersect, alongside a complex interplay of individual, relationship, community, and societal factors which shape vulnerability to victimisation and support-seeking strategies. However, they also support a gendered approach to violence prevention, which recognises that men and women are differently impacted by different forms of RVV, with men disproportionately the victims of violence from other men in public and women disproportionately affected by sexual and domestic violence from men known to them. Prevailing social constructions of masculinity mean that men who experience RVV struggle to perceive themselves as victims and this can prevent them from seeking support. Men also receive less recognition as victims and there is a lack of services tailored to their needs.

The complex nature of the challenges identified means that no one sector can prevent repeat violence on its own, but rather there is a need for a strategic response involving multi-sectoral collaboration.

Examples of what this might look like include:

  • Community justice and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) partnerships: Identify and strengthen relationships between different planning processes, where relevant undertaking joint consultation, needs assessment, or progress reporting.
  • Police, health, homelessness: Develop shared training for staff on the gendered experiences of people with lived experience of repeat violence, their rights and entitlements and how to respond appropriately.
  • Prison, housing, and criminal justice social work: Coordinate efforts to ensure that those returning to the community from prison have access to safe accommodation on release.
  • Children and families, education, health: Establish shared protocols for recognising and addressing trauma among children and young people.

Community development and lived experience

The findings also emphasise the central and critical role of the community in violence prevention. Histories of marginalisation within socio-economically deprived areas are associated with a lack of trust in state institutions. This contributes to a culture of self-reliance and non-cooperation with the police. 'Grassroots' community development approaches that encourage dialogue and ownership have the potential to develop positive relationships between community members and partner agencies, tackling key drivers of repeat violence through participatory processes.

Features that participants identified as helpful include:

  • Grassroots organisations with knowledge of the local community
  • Community policing presence
  • Peer support from someone with lived experience
  • Trauma-informed and personalised support at the right time
  • Co-located services, so there is 'no wrong door' to accessing support

Victim empowerment

Finally, the findings point to the need to develop support services that are inclusive of people with experiences of repeat violence and promote empowerment for victims going through the criminal justice system. Services can challenge stigmatisation and internalised disadvantage by adopting a person-centred approach which empowers people to have the confidence and the ability to access justice, should they wish. This involves acknowledging the agency of individual victims and supporting them to make informed decisions. Such an approach supports and builds on existing strengths and resources – both personal strengths and resources and strengths and resources in their social networks.

Within the literature on violence against women and girls (e.g., Russell and Light 2006), the components of a victim empowerment approach are identified as:

  • Respectful treatment of victims
  • Validating victim experiences
  • Showing empathy and compassion for victims
  • Regarding victim reports as credible
  • Understanding victim reluctance to report
  • Appreciating the needs of diverse victims

Further research

This report has presented the findings of the first qualitative study of RVV in Scotland based on 95 in-depth interviews with people who have experienced repeat violence and community stakeholders who support them. In doing so it has addressed an important knowledge gap, providing a detailed insight into:

  • factors that increase vulnerability to repeat victimisation amongst high-risk groups, including people living in deprived areas, people with convictions, and people defined as having complex needs.
  • the lived experience of repeat violence and related forms of psychological trauma and social harm, including violent offending.
  • the support needs and experiences of people who experience repeat violence, who tend to be less likely to seek and access police and victim services.

Important gaps in knowledge remain. In particular, the report identifies a lack of evidence on repeat violence and access to justice within the following communities and contexts in Scotland:

  • Disabled people
  • People in the LGBTQI+ community
  • Racialised/ethnic minority communities, including migrant communities and asylum seekers
  • Men who experience domestic abuse and sexual violence
  • People living in institutions

All these groups have unique recruitment considerations that were beyond the scope of this study and should be a priority for future research.



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