Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

Continue reading Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

Pandemic, race and moral panic

An Asian woman wears a surgical mask. She's touching her hand to the bottom of her chin as she looks off to the side

Since the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia in January 2020, I’ve been working on a couple of COVID-19 research posts for you. I was ready to post one of these on Monday, but I have decided to first address a race and public health response that is presently unfolding.(1)

In the afternoon of 4 July 2020, Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, gave a press conference announcing that two more postcodes are being added to COVID-19 lockdown (making 12 in total) (McMillan & Mannix, 2020). The new postcodes under Stage-3 lockdown are 3031 Flemington and 3051 North Melbourne.

Additionally, the Victorian Government is effectively criminalising the poor: nine public housing towers are being put into complete lockdown. The Premier said: “There’s no reason to leave for five days, effective immediately.” This affects 1,345 public housing units, and approximately 3,000 residents.

Public housing lockdown is made under Public Order laws. Residents will be under police-enforced lockdown for a minimum of five days, and up to 14 days, to enable “everyone to be tested.”

How do we know this public housing order is about criminalising the poor, and driven by race? The discourse that the Premier used to legitimise this decision echoes historical moral panics and paternalistic policies that are harmful.

Let’s take a look at the moral panics over the pandemic in Australia, and how race and class are affecting the policing of “voluntary” testing.

I support continued social distancing, self-isolation for myself and others who can afford to work from home, quarantine for people who are infected so they can get the care they need without infecting others, and widespread testing for affected regions. These outcomes are best achieved through targeted public communication campaigns that address the misconceptions of the pandemic, the benefits of testing for different groups, making clear the support available for people who test positive, and addressing the structural barriers that limit people’s ability to comply with public health measures.

Continue reading Pandemic, race and moral panic

Corporate Responsibility in Health Campaigns

Oil drawing of the tops of coke bottles against a red background with the title, 'Corporate responsibility in health campaigns'

When Coke launched its obesity campaign in Australia, social scientists spoke out about the problems with the messaging and strategy. The company says they are helping to combat weight-related illness by releasing smaller cans and by selling its low calorie Coke varieties. Coke also says it is providing nutritional information on its vending machines and it has teamed up with a bicycle group to encourage exercise.

Today’s post discusses the problems with Coke’s social media marketing strategy to appear more socially conscious about public health. The issue is not about whether or not you or I drink cola occassionally; the issue is broader, about how companies blur the lines on health and junk food.

To date, Coke has tried, and failed, to improve their corporate responsibility. Coke invests a great deal of money in science as a means to address health concerns, however none of this marketing speaks to the social and health problems associated with sugary soft drinks. Addressing social science concerns would better serve Coke’s corporate change, if Coke is indeed committed to its campaign of healthy living.

Continue reading Corporate Responsibility in Health Campaigns

Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

A room full of majority women watch a mix of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous women panellists at the Sydney Law School

On Thursday 23 May 2019, I attended at the Sydney University Law School Beyond Punishment Seminar Series: Aboriginal Women in the Criminal Justice Network. The speakers discussed data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison, and programs to support them in the state of New South Wales (NSW). ‘Aboriginal’ women in the context of the talks and the discussion below also encompasses Torres Strait Islander women.*

Before I tell you more about the talks, I’ll set the scene, looking solely at the adult prison context affecting Aboriginal women being targeted by the criminal justice system.

Over-incarceration is an issue best examined through a lens of intersectionality, a term originally exploring the limitations of dominant definitions of discrimination under industrial law (Crenshaw 1989: 150). Legal outcomes of Aboriginal women are simultaneously impacted by race, gender, class and other systemic inequalities. Lack of legal resources available to Aboriginal women to navigate the legal system is born of concurrent racial justice and gender inequalities. Economic disadvantage, poor access to therapeutic and other health services, and housing insecurity are preconditions of offending; these are class and racial justice issues. Sexual violence and poverty of Aboriginal mothers are typical of imprisoned women’s backgrounds at a rate that is much higher than male prisoners (Stathopoulos and Quadara 2014). Again, these are both racial and gendered issues, which are interconnected with colonial violence and intergenerational trauma.

I am writing on 26 May; National Sorry Day. This day commemorates the truth-telling of the Bringing Them Home report, the documentation of the Stolen Generations. Around 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly taken from their families under our racist social policy. The first institution built to ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children through the use of violence was in Parramatta, New South Wales (Marlow 2016). From 1910 to 1970, across the nation, Aboriginal children were forced to forget their culture, language and spirituality. They were placed into neglect by Christian-run missions and into White foster care (AHRC 1997). Today, the state continues to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families at four times the rate as non-Indigenous kids (Zevallos 2017). New forced adoption laws in New South Wales mean children placed in care will be forcibly adopted (Zevallos 2019). For Aboriginal women in prison, this will almost certainly mean losing legal rights to see their children. Fracturing families through the imprisonment of mothers is another way in which colonial violence continues in the present-day.

Forced removal of Aboriginal children leads to cultural disconnection, exposure to child abuse, an increased likelihood of entering the criminal justice system, and trauma for mothers. These are gender, race and class dynamics unique to Aboriginal women, their families and communities. Continue reading Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

Sociology of the Natural Food Industry

A White woman buys food from an organic food stall. The seller is an Asian woman of colour

An article on how large corporations get away with labelling food as “natural” was passed onto me by one of my former clients (first published by 2DayFM, now taken down). It makes me think about the importance of the social science of food. It’s sociologically interesting that the article appears on the blog of a popular radio show in Australia, but the article is hardly scientific. Nevertheless, it does have very good links to follow up, and I’ll discuss these issues with respect to empirical research. The fact that the article appears on a radio station blog aimed at a mass commercial audience makes me reflect on my work as a research consultant.

On the one hand, the article represents how consumer awareness of food products has become a social movement. On the other hand, my prior life working with the public as a consultant to businesses has shown me how the public’s need for health and nutritional information is a confusing and fraught process for ordinary people. People who aren’t trained to read research critically pass on information and act on advice by non-experts with a popular following.

My post today explores each of the claims in this popular article. I use a sociology of food to place the “natural” food movement into socio-economic perspective. I end with a reflection of how I used the sociology of public health perspective to inform my work with clients in mass communication with large consumer audiences.

Continue reading Sociology of the Natural Food Industry

Aboriginal Families Seek Action Over Uranium in Drinking Water

Racist policies are making remote Aboriginal communities sick. At least three communities in central Australia have levels of uranium in drinking water that exceed health guidelines, with dozens more not meeting good quality.

“It’s an international scandal that this is allowed to happen in a country like Australia — a rich country like Australia… If that was happening in Victoria, you’d have a hell of a row… Because they’re bush people and not a concern to politicians, they don’t worry about it.”

Continue reading Aboriginal Families Seek Action Over Uranium in Drinking Water

Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

An Aboriginal woman in a white lab coat, staring out the window of an office

Kim Webster, University of Melbourne and Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

Barely a week passes without a media report of the suffering or tragic death of a woman at the hands of a partner. Typically, these accounts focus on the individuals involved. While important, in isolation, such a focus can belie the fact intimate partner violence is a wider social problem, obscuring both the factors contributing to it and opportunities to prevent it.

A study being launched today by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety confirms the serious impacts of intimate partner violence. The analysis, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, provides estimates of the impact of intimate partner violence on women’s health.

Data from the Personal Safety Survey, Australia’s most reliable violence prevalence survey, was used as a key input.

Since the age of 15, one in four women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by a partner. This includes violence perpetrated by a live-in partner as well as boyfriends, girlfriends or dates. This is based on a definition of violence, used by the Personal Safety Survey, which includes physical and sexual assault, as well as face-to-face threats the victim believed were likely and able to be carried out.

When emotional abuse by a live-in partner is included, (defined as controlling behaviours aimed at causing fear or emotional harm), it is estimated one in three women have experienced violence or abuse by an intimate partner. Continue reading Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

The state of Victoria in Australia is facing a measles outbreak due to parents in relatively progressive suburbs choosing not to vaccinate their children. The anti-vaccination movement has its roots in Western societies in the myth that vaccines cause autism. The science demonstrating that there is no link between autism and vaccines is peer-reviewed and well-established. The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.

Given that the myths of vaccines have been thoroughly debunked, what is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I start by discussing the scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement before providing a broad sketch of the public who don’t believe in vaccination.

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement
Continue reading Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Demographic Profile of Anti-Vaccination Movement in USA

Source: Pew Research.

Yesterday I wrote about the fraud and science myths that inspired the anti-vaccination movement. Since I’ve gotten a few questions about the demographics of anti-immunisation groups, here is a broad sketch of the American public who don’t believe in vaccination. Scientific data show that anti-vaxxers come from all walks of life. There are no significant differences along gender, education, religion, race and income, though there are some differences in terms of political ideology. The strongest difference is in age.

As promised, I will later provide a more in-depth analysis of the sociology of anti-vaxxers, addressing educational and policy intervention. The main issue I highlight here is that the biggest divide is lack of trust in science amongst younger parents. Continue reading Demographic Profile of Anti-Vaccination Movement in USA

Fraud That Inspired the Anti-Vaccination Movement

 

Any time there is an article about vaccine initiatives, a segment of the public begin to shout about government conspiracies and their perception of nefarious science. What is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I will eventually write a post on the sociology of why this movement has gained support and what can be done about it, but for now I reproduce my comments from another thread filled with these conspiracy theories (http://goo.gl/KqwiVk). My post below presents scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement.

Continue reading Fraud That Inspired the Anti-Vaccination Movement