Laurier professor researches H1N1

Associate professor of communications studies at Wilfrid Laurier University Penelope Ironstone-Catterall has been studying the discursive construction of the flu since 2005.

Her research entitled “From Seasonal Flu to Pandemic Influenza: The Cultural Life of a Virus” focuses not on the scientific aspects of the flu virus but on the manner in which it is constructed socially.

“What I am looking at is the cultural aspect of how it is we come to make meanings of how we come to understand what a virus is and what a virus does.… How do we start acting, behaving, thinking of ourselves differently as a result of all of this stuff that we’re being told,” explained Ironstone-Catterall.

As part of her research, Ironstone-Catterall is doing a comparative analysis of eight newspapers in Canada and the U.S. in order to build a “flu archive”.

She is studying articles in specific reference to three past flu pandemics: the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957 and the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968, in addition to the mass vaccination campaign for swine flu in 1976, Avian flu since 1997 and most recently H1N1.

The research examines issues of space, time and subjectivity in relation to flu discourses.

Ironstone-Catterall explains how the manner in which space is discussed can generate anxiety; for example, through the link that people make between the flu and globalization.

“We’re anxious about the fact that we’re more interconnected now that we have ever been before,” said Ironstone-Catterall. “If historically, viruses have travelled across borders and boundaries and caused this much devastation, then what does easy and immediate movement around the globe mean for us?”

Also included in the context of space are debates regarding the flu virus’ origin. “The virus always comes from somewhere else … there’s always something happening over there [and] that’s scary.

And the concern is how something from over there comes here,” said Ironstone-Catterall.

She continued, explaining how discussions about the flu are equated to an alien invader. In the context of pandemics, zombie and alien films are models of contagion that exemplify the fear of the unknown and demonstrate the panic society feels when faced with an unstoppable threat.

Ironstone-Catterall’s next focus is what she calls the “once in future pandemic,” a historical reference point to explain current pandemics.

“[The H1N1] pandemic as it emerges, we make sense of it by referencing pandemics of the past and in particular to the central [Spanish Flu] pandemic [in] 1918-1919.”

Ironstone-Catterall lastly explores the importance of subjectivity. She not only discuses how different subjectivities – scientists, the media and the common population – communicate with one another, but also how the flu virus itself is personified.

“What I find really interesting is when we’re talking about the flu, we’re talking about it as if it is a person in its own right,” said Ironstone-Catterall. She believes that granting the virus a sense of agency is problematic and wants to consider the implications.

“What happens when we say, the virus is an agent and we’re sort of passive? … What happens when we become the objects of the flu as opposed to subjects who can actually do something about it?”

In continuing her research, Ironstone-Catterall encounters the same patterns and similar types of flu discourses throughout history.

She notes a miscommunication between the parties involved in flu discourses.

“On the one hand, the scale of the problem [as presented] is astronomical. The scale of the response [is] wash your hands. So we have a problem of making those scales coincide.”

Through her research, Ironstone-Catterall hopes to reveal the power behind social discourse and to convey a better understanding of how representation works.

“I think that we have multiple ways of telling the same story over and over again, and that there are consequences for that. My concern is that we’re not learning anything from it.”