Jennifer Scott

Jennifer Bracken Scott

New Mexico State University

My current project is my dissertation: a study of the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism.  I am currently in the proposal stage. The study will use rhetorical criticism to understand how minority scientific opinions can become the basis of widespread belief, as well as how those opinions, once dismissed by the scientific community, persist among members of the public.

This dissertation will consist of three smaller-scale studies to enable a broader understanding of the rhetoric of the controversy. One chapter will discuss the 1998 study by Wakefield et al., how Wakefield promoted the study and responded to criticism, and how others have constructed him as a prominent figure in the controversy. Another chapter will address anti-vaccination rhetoric, including the advocacy work of organizations such as SafeMinds and individuals such as Jenny McCarthy. Finally, one chapter will concern the backlash against anti-vaccination advocacy by prominent figures in public health such as Paul Offit, and by journalists such as Seth Mnookin and Michael Specter.

Through this research, I hope to contribute to rhetorical theory and to research in the rhetoric of health and medicine by providing a fuller understanding of this controversy and exploring ways to communicate health information while countering misinformation.

Keywords to describe work

rhetoric, health, medicine, vaccination, autism, rhetorical criticism

Work in relation to symposium keywords

The keywords “methods” and “theory” resonate most with me at this point in my research and my career. As a doctoral candidate in the process of writing the dissertation, I’d like to learn more about how more experienced scholars select and employ different methods in their research. I’m particularly interested in rhetorical criticism and grounded theory, given my current project. As someone relatively new to the study of discourses of health and medicine, I am interested in how others have used theory to support their scholarship.

Participation Questions

  • How would you define medical rhetoric or health communication or whatever it is you see as your primary work?

I’ve settled on the term “rhetoric of health and medicine” to describe my work, and I would define it as the study of how practitioners, patients, media, and society talk about health issues and health care, and how those rhetorical choices shape our individual and collective understanding of illness and health.

  •  How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

Within my field, medical rhetoric/health communication seems to bridge professional communication and rhetoric of science. For example, I would consider Eva Brumberger’s work with document design in the Medicare Part D handbook and Judy Segal’s writing on the migraineur to fall under the same umbrella of “rhetoric of health and medicine.” Both of these scholars reflect on rhetorical choices that affect the quality of care that a patient receives, so I would place them in the same general category despite their obvious differences in method and focus. But I recognize that there are scholars beyond rhetoric and communication who are doing work that is relevant to the field, including some scholars in medical anthropology, health communication, and even public health and nursing. This sub-field clearly does not belong to any one discipline, but I don’t see that as a problem; rather, I would argue that the complexity of health care and medicine in contemporary American society demands that scholars from many disciplines use their unique perspectives to explore and improve it.

  •  What research challenges have you experienced and how did you solve them?  Choose to focus on one or two specific examples that can help the group develop strategies for overcoming these types of challenges.

One challenge I have encountered as a graduate student with an interest in this sub-field is becoming familiar with scholarship that is outside my area of study, but still relevant to my research. This challenge has presented itself in some unexpected ways; for example, as I was preparing for my comprehensive exams, I made the rookie mistake of using the same set of databases I had become accustomed to using in my library research. As a result, I initially overlooked several journals that contained relevant research simply because the databases I typically use did not index those journals. I was able to partly overcome this challenge with some trial and error and with the help of the outside member of my committee, who teaches in a Ph.D. program in nursing. However, I feel I still have quite a distance to go before I’m comfortable doing research across disciplines; even simple differences in terminology can present unexpected problems.

    • What are some of the most pressing questions in health and healthcare that health communication/medical rhetoric scholars can help answer?

-As more provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect, what rhetorical choices would most benefit practitioners and patients as they navigate forthcoming changes in healthcare?
-As patients seek to become more informed about and involved in their own treatment, how can healthcare personnel and patients work together to ensure quality care and avoid misinformation?
-How do we, as a society, promote healthy lifestyle choices without shaming bodies?

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