A Feminist Affective Turn for Public Relations: Mothers, Passionate Publics, and the Childhood Vaccine Debate
Author(s)Kennedy, Amanda Kae
Contributor(s)Toth, Elizabeth L
Digital Repository at the University of Maryland
University of Maryland (College Park, Md.)
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AbstractThis project proposes a feminist intervention in how affect and publics are theorized in public relations research. Drawing from extant literature, I argue that public relations theories of affect and publics have been apolitical and lack depth and context (Leitch & Motion, 2010a). Using the context of the online childhood vaccine debate, I illustrate several theories and concepts of the new feminist affective turn, as well as postmodern theories of affect, relevant to public relations research: (a) Public Feelings, “ugly” feelings, agency, and community (Cvetkovich, 2012; Ngai, 2007); (b) passionate politics (Mouffe, 2014); (c) postmodern assemblages, biopower, and body politics (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988; Foucault, 1984); (d) affective facts and logics of future threats (Massumi, 2010); and (e) affective ethics (Bertleson & Murphie, 2010). Scholarship in the areas of public relations, risk, feminist and postmodern affect theory, and the vaccine debate provided theoretical grounding for this project. My research questions asked: How is feminist affect theory embodied by mothers in the vaccine debate? How do mothers understand risks as affective facts in the vaccine debate (if at all)? What affective logics are used by mothers in the vaccine debate (if any)? And, What are sources of knowledge for mothers in the vaccine debate? Multi-sited online ethnographic methods were used to explore how feminist affect theory contributes to public relations research, including 29 one-on-one in-depth interviews with mothers of young children and participant observation of 15 online discussions about vaccines on parenting websites BabyCenter.com, TheBump.com, and WhatToExpect.com. I used snowball sampling to recruit interview participants and grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to analyze interview and online data. Results show that feminist affect theory contributes to theoretical and practical knowledge in public relations by politicizing and contextualizing understandings of publics and elucidating how affective facts and logics inform publics’ knowledge and choices, specifically in the context of risk. I also found evidence of suppression of dissent (Martin, 2015) and academic bias in vaccine debate research, which resulted in cultures of silence. Further areas of study included how specific contexts such as motherhood and issues of privilege and access affect publics’ experiences, knowledges, and choices.