Defining Torture: A Review of 40 Years of Health Science Research

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Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences


The current review critically examines the body of torture research (N = 209), focusing on the definition and operationalization of the primary construct. Almost three-quarters (69.9%) of the studies reviewed did not reference any definition of torture. Few studies identified important contextual variables related to defining torture such as identities and motivations of perpetrators and severity of abuse. Definitional ambiguity further impacted how individuals were queried about their experiences and the extent to which torture was distinguished from other forms of maltreatment. Although there are notable exceptions, the methods used in the torture literature are variable and often undefined, impacting the interpretation of findings of risk factors, consequences, and treatment of torture events.

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