‘The Unhealthy Other’: How vaccine rejecting parents construct the vaccinating mainstream

Volume 36, Issue 12   Pages 1521-1710 (14 March 2018)

Regular papers
‘The Unhealthy Other’: How vaccine rejecting parents construct the vaccinating mainstream
Original research article
Pages 1621-1626
Katie Attwell, David T. Smith, Paul R. Ward
To address the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy and rejection, researchers increasingly recognise the need to engage with the social context of parents’ decision-making. This study examines how vaccine rejecting parents socially construct the vaccinating mainstream in opposition to themselves. We analyse qualitative data from interviews with parents in Adelaide, South Australia. Applying insights from Social Identity Theory (SIT), we show how these parents bolster their own sense of identity and self-belief by employing a discourse that casts vaccinators as an Unhealthy Other. We demonstrate how the parents identify vaccination as a marker of parental conformity to the ‘toxic practices of mass industrial society’, linking it to other ways in which membership of the consumerist mainstream requires individuals to ‘neglect their health.’ This is explored through themes of appearance, diet, (over) consumption of pharmaceuticals, inadequate parenting values and wilful or misguided ignorance. This construction of the Unhealthy Other elevates the self-concept of vaccine hesitant and rejecting parents, who see themselves as part of an enlightened, but constantly besieged, group of healthy and virtuous parents. It is common for the vaccinating mainstream to present vaccine hesitant and rejecting parents as a group subject to epistemic closure, groupthink, confirmation bias and over-confidence in their own expertise. However, vaccine hesitant and rejecting parents also see mainstream society as a group—a much larger one—subject to the same problems. We suggest the need to mitigate the ‘groupness’ of vaccination and non-vaccination by extending the practice of vaccination to recognisable practitioners of holistic health.