Risk Discourse in the New Epidemics

While health epidemics are largely still thought of in terms of communicable diseases, non-infectious and chronic diseases -- such as obesity, autism, and allergies -- now permeate health fears in developed countries. Hypotheses for the emergence of these population health problems range from maternal behavior during pregnancy to breastfeeding to toxic environmental exposure. I am currently focusing on one particular case of an emergent public health crisis, the peanut allergy, to examine the rise of a new social and medical problem deemed an epidemic. While peanut allergies are potentially fatal and thus very serious at the individual level, they affect few children at the population level. Yet, myriad and broad-based social responses -- from changes in food package labeling to food bans at schools and day cares -- have emerged to address peanut allergy risk in public spaces. The problem is considered a population epidemic by some physicians and a case of population hysteria by others, and the contestation over this epidemic speaks to contemporary concerns regarding parental responsibility, child health, and food safety.

In "Parsing the Peanut Panic: The Social Life of a Contested Food Allergy Epidemic", I compare medical literature to other textual sources, including media reports, legislation, and advocacy between 1980 and 2010 in order to examine the nuanced rise of a putative epidemic. I find that understandings of peanut allergy risk at the population level are variable in different social domains, from parent groups to medicine to industry. I advance the term "discursive mobility" to explain how meanings shift and interact over time and across multiple sites in the social life of a public health problem to influence how we define, perceive, and manage a particular health risk as a society.

In a collaboration with Michaela DeSoucey (North Carolina State), we are extending this project through an analysis of the ways in which personal health risk becomes contingent on the actions of others in the case of peanut allergies and what this means for understandings of responsibility in a risk society.