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Contribution to book (non peer-reviewed)

Book Risk communication in & for the real world
Editor , Bourrier Mathilde
Publisher Springer, Berlin
Title of proceedings Risk communication in & for the real world


As organizations involved in the 2014-2016 Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak response in West Africa are now drawing lessons from the crisis, the “manufacture of consent” (Burawoy 1979) emerges as an important issue. Recommendations and public health interventions developed during the response were met with suspicion and often resistances by affected populations (Fribault 2015), pushing involved organizations and actors to reflect about the validity of their risk communication tools and concepts. These difficulties stressed the numerous shortcomings of risk communication practices, which proved inefficient in an unfamiliar social and cultural context. Many reasons can be pointed-out to explain this failure to communicate risks and public health measures effectively under these circumstances. They include: unrealistic goal for communication; lack of integration of social science skills and knowledge in communication guidelines and human resources; underestimation of the breadth of communication-related tasks; over-segmentation and lack of clarity of communication concepts and expertise (risk communication, crisis communication, social mobilization, health promotion are all but a few of these categories). Among all these possible lines of inquiry, I want to address what can arguably be considered the most fundamental flaw of crisis communication during the West African EVD episode: its inability to take into account and analyze efficiently the context of the intervention. To discuss this point, I will start by proposing an informed definition – to the extent that social sciences are concerned - of what a “context” might be. Drawing on this definition, I will then extract a few significant characteristics of the response context, by applying proper analytical tools assembled from the disciplinary archives of social sciences (thus showing that the issue is more about heuristics than knowledge of local circumstances per se). In a last section, I will contrast this analytical framework with the techniques of inquiry available to health emergency communication experts. These tools and related practices were identified and investigated during different fieldworks involving interviews with risk communication experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) and at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as observations at WHO’s Department of Communications (DCO) [1]. This will allow to show that these techniques tend to erase contexts by taking an individual, psychological and behavioral perspective on affected populations, in the spirit of EBM medicine (Brives, Le Marcis, and Sanabria 2016).