Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines

Lay perceptions of collectives at the outbreak of the H1N1 epidemic: heroes, villains and victims

Wagner-Egger, Pascal ; Bangerter, Adrian ; Gilles, Ingrid ; Green, Eva G. T. ; Rigaud, David ; Krings, Franciska ; Staerklé, Christian ; Clémence, Alain

In: Public Understanding of Science, 2011, vol. 20, no. 4, p. 461-476

Lay perceptions of collectives (e.g., groups, organizations, countries) implicated in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak were studied. Collectives serve symbolic functions to help laypersons make sense of the uncertainty involved in a disease outbreak. We argue that lay representations are dramatized, featuring characters like heroes, villains and victims. In interviews conducted soon... More

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    Summary
    Lay perceptions of collectives (e.g., groups, organizations, countries) implicated in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak were studied. Collectives serve symbolic functions to help laypersons make sense of the uncertainty involved in a disease outbreak. We argue that lay representations are dramatized, featuring characters like heroes, villains and victims. In interviews conducted soon after the outbreak, 47 Swiss respondents discussed the risk posed by H1N1, its origins and effects, and protective measures. Countries were the most frequent collectives mentioned. Poor, underdeveloped countries were depicted as victims, albeit ambivalently, as they were viewed as partly responsible for their own plight. Experts (physicians, researchers) and political and health authorities were depicted as heroes. Two villains emerged: the media (viewed as fear mongering or as a puppet serving powerful interests) and private corporations (e.g., the pharmaceutical industry). Laypersons’ framing of disease threat diverges substantially from official perspectives.