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Representations of far-flung illnesses: the case of Ebola in Britain


  • Joffe, Hélène
  • Haarhoff, Georgina


In western cultures lay people are faced with a plethora of far-flung illnesses, relayed to them by the mass media. A number of social scientists have called for scrutiny of the link between people's patterns of thinking concerning such events, and the messages to which they are exposed. Using the outbreaks of Ebola in Africa in the mid-1990s as a vehicle, the study examines how British broadsheets and their readers, and British tabloids and their readers, make sense of this far-flung illness. Existing work on early representations of HIV/AIDS in the west is utilised to inform the research questions. In particular, this study investigates whether Ebola is constructed as a threat, how media and lay representations of Ebola interact, and whether there are different pockets of shared thinking, or a more uniform representation, in relation to Ebola in Britain. An analysis of the themes in 48 broadsheet and tabloid articles, and 50 interviews with their readers, reveals a common picture in which Ebola is represented as African, associated with African practices, and seen as posing little threat to Britain. However, group differences exist, and are characterised by a more essentialised vision of Ebola in the tabloids and their readers, in contrast to a focus on structural features linked to Ebola's escalation in the broadsheets and their readers. In terms of the media-mind relationship, beyond the similarities found between media type and their respective readers' ideas, certain key differences exist: While the newspapers make Ebola 'real' by referring to its potential to globalise, as well as to how it can be contained, lay thinkers feel detached from it, and draw an analogy between Ebola and science fiction. This is discussed as a method of symbolic coping on the part of the readers, as well as in terms of the power exerted by media imagery on lay representations of Ebola.

Suggested Citation

  • Joffe, Hélène & Haarhoff, Georgina, 2002. "Representations of far-flung illnesses: the case of Ebola in Britain," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 54(6), pages 955-969, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:54:y:2002:i:6:p:955-969

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    RePEc Biblio mentions

    As found on the RePEc Biblio, the curated bibliography for Economics:
    1. > Economics of Welfare > Health Economics > Economics of Pandemics > Specific pandemics > Ebola


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    Cited by:

    1. Kott, Anne & Limaye, Rupali J., 2016. "Delivering risk information in a dynamic information environment: Framing and authoritative voice in Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and primetime broadcast news media communications during the 2014," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 169(C), pages 42-49.
    2. Eichelberger, Laura, 2007. "SARS and New York's Chinatown: The politics of risk and blame during an epidemic of fear," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 65(6), pages 1284-1295, September.
    3. Branden B. Johnson, 2017. "Explaining Americans’ responses to dread epidemics: an illustration with Ebola in late 2014," Journal of Risk Research, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 20(10), pages 1338-1357, October.
    4. Smith, Richard D., 2006. "Responding to global infectious disease outbreaks: Lessons from SARS on the role of risk perception, communication and management," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(12), pages 3113-3123, December.
    5. Washer, Peter & Joffe, Helene, 2006. "The "hospital superbug": Social representations of MRSA," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(8), pages 2141-2152, October.
    6. Washer, Peter, 2006. "Representations of mad cow disease," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(2), pages 457-466, January.
    7. Mazanderani, Fadhila & Locock, Louise & Powell, John, 2012. "Being differently the same: The mediation of identity tensions in the sharing of illness experiences," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(4), pages 546-553.
    8. de-Graft Aikins, Ama, 2012. "Familiarising the unfamiliar: cognitive polyphasia, emotions and the creation of social representations," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 48049, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    9. Wallis, Patrick & Nerlich, Brigitte, 2005. "Disease metaphors in new epidemics: the UK media framing of the 2003 SARS epidemic," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 60(11), pages 2629-2639, June.
    10. Ribeiro, Barbara & Hartley, Sarah & Nerlich, Brigitte & Jaspal, Rusi, 2018. "Media coverage of the Zika crisis in Brazil: The construction of a ‘war’ frame that masked social and gender inequalities," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 200(C), pages 137-144.
    11. Quah, Stella R., 2007. "Public image and governance of epidemics: Comparing HIV/AIDS and SARS," Health Policy, Elsevier, vol. 80(2), pages 253-272, February.
    12. Taylor, Jennifer & Murray, Michael & Lamont, Alexandra, 2017. "Talking about sunbed tanning: Social representations and identity-work," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 184(C), pages 161-168.


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