Vaccines, research and reflexivity

This is a news item written by Pru Hobson-West and Alistair Anderson from the University of Nottingham (UNOTT) team.


In our experience of being part of the VAX-TRUST consortium, we have been struck by the importance of reflexivity. During our interviews with parents and healthcare professionals as part of Work Package 4, the aim was to create a positive atmosphere, where interviewees felt able to share reflections on their own experiences of vaccination and vaccine hesitancy. However, it is not just interviewees who are encouraged to reflect on their own experiences. Interviewers and ethnographers also need to do this, as a normal part of the qualitative analysis process. Furthermore, we would argue that reflection and reflexivity are also important for the VAX-TRUST research consortium as a whole.

Indeed, as we have all got to know each other better, partners have started to share stories about their own relationship with vaccines. For example, at a recent online meeting in October 2022, some VAX-TRUST team members shared brief personal reflections on their reactions to a new Covid-19 booster programme and compared notes on whether and when their own children had received Covid vaccines. To take another example, Alistair Anderson used a local UNOTT meeting to discuss the way in which the media analysis he did as part of Work Package 3 almost felt like he was ‘reliving the pandemic’ in real time, as news articles for each day were read and analysed. In this example, Alistair was not only reading the news media accounts of ongoing events, but also re-feeling concern for friends and family, and re-litigating personal decisions made around health and risk during that time. Alongside this, Alistair was trying to understand how these subjectivities blurred boundaries between research and writing practices. These types of reflections could be categorized as ‘anecdote’. Or, these conversations could be understood as important opportunities for self-reflection, and a chance to voice what it means to be doing empirical research on vaccines at a particular social and historical moment.

Of course, there is no one way to ‘do reflexivity’. As in the examples just cited, sometimes this reflexivity can be unplanned and framed as part of updating colleagues on research. At other times, reflection can be more conscious, creative or deliberate. For example, in May 2021 UNOTT team leader Professor Pru Hobson-West was invited to write a short piece for her University departmental newsletter. She decided to use this as an opportunity for personal reflection on receiving her first Covid-19 vaccine, and to use creative writing as part of this process. The text of the newsletter is reproduced, with permission, below. If you have any views or critical comments, please contact the UNOTT team.

‘My sociological research looks at controversies in science and medicine, and I currently have two large projects. One looks at the topic of vaccination, and the other looks at animal research. In May 2021 I was invited to get my first Covid jab. As a researcher, this was a strange moment, when lots of my interests came together: I am interested in how vaccines are consumed and understood, but also how they are produced, using non-human animals in laboratories. I therefore decided to set myself a personal challenge that day, which was to write a short account of what I noticed during my vaccine appointment. I am definitely not a poet, nor do I have any training in creative writing, although I did once publish a (very) short story, and later used this experience to consider how story writing might be useful as a tool for teaching. So here is what I wrote that day in May. Reading it now, I am struck by how this piece constitutes a highly localised snap-shot in time, when many in the UK were waiting for a first vaccine appointment, and global access to vaccination remains very unequal. In sociological terms, what also strikes me is how hard I was trying to ‘perform’ my health citizenship—both to myself, and to others. By my second Covid vaccine appointment in July 2021, it all felt so much more routine’.

‘You are here for the AstraZeneca?’

By Pru Hobson-West

Like Goldilocks, I don’t want to be too early, but I obviously can’t be late. It’s 1st May 2021. I wait until the car clock shows exactly 14.30. My appointment is at 14.40, but I need to walk the few steps across the carpark into the health centre.

There are no red carpets, no bugle players, and no balloons. But there is a short queue. Which tells me I am in the right place. Brought together by the accident of our birth dates, and our mouse clicks. Like good citizens, we line up neatly: united, but separate.

A cheery volunteer in an illuminous yellow bib monitors our queue, asking whether we have any symptoms of Covid-19. Confidently and loudly I answer ‘no’ to each symptom listed. I make that one syllable matter, as if my clear voice can convey just how very healthy I am. So that there can be no doubt: It is my turn. I can get my jab today.

Inside the clinic, the line continues to snake. An ‘X’ taped on the floor marks our treasure—the reassurance that we are standing in the expected place. Not a millimetre out of step. Performing the rules to each other. So that there can be no doubt: It is our turn. We can get our jab today.

At the front of the queue, my name is checked, and then I am asked: ‘You are here for the AstraZeneca?’ How strange, I think. No mention of a vaccine, a needle, a jab or a shot. My head nods but my mind whirs, taking me out of the room. I am upwards, soaring, trying to get a bird’s eye view. Straining my eyes, hoping desperately to see all that is hidden: All my fellow creatures, human and non, living and not, within the laboratory and without, whose labour, paid and un, led to this.