Posted by: littlez2008 | May 25, 2011

The Anthropology of Anti-Vax

At She Thought, Anthropologist Underground kind of nailed it with this piece about how not immunizing becomes a mark of social status in some parenting communities:

Many women who can afford to stay home gave up careers to do so. Larger society undervalues stay-home moms (as well as teachers and other child care workers). So bright, educated women find themselves in clusters, isolated from prestige, and they bring the work ethic and focus that advanced them in careers to parenting. They must seek status and validation from other members of the stay-home community, and this requires separating themselves from the unwashed masses. (My friend calls this “competitive parenting.”)

My read is that challenging the authority of conventional medicine and MDs is one way of artificially ascribing status to oneself.

Thought provoking, and yet completely unsurprising, really.  Living in LA, I’m surrounded by status moms like this.  They were all over my mom support group listserv, to the extent that I finally had to unsubscribe.  I often posted on here and Rational Moms about these moms.  Reading their posts on the listserv was a great way to take the temperature of the anti-vax community in response to news about the Wakefield scandal or the whooping cough epidemic.  (Ultimately, it proved too frustrating for me to encounter their responses daily, so I left the board.)  I think Anthropologist Underground has pegged the way these people think, to a large extent.  And I wouldn’t confine it to moms.  There are plenty of stay-at-home dads who join the status parenting club as well.

I would add (and I did in my comment) that unfortunately, recent events in our country do lend credence to the idea that a web of financial interests can override public interest.  Just watch The Inside Job to have that sneaky suspicion confirmed.  So I don’t think it’s only a group status/power mentality at work here.  I believe anti-vax parents are egged on by a prevailing cultural suspicion of authority that has been intensified by the events of our time.

Responses to this idea?



  1. Hi. Just found you on the tag surfer.
    Sometimes, we anti-vax people were TOLD to skip immunization because of a prevailing health issue of one child. Yes, I am a SAHM, and retired home educator, but my pediatrician advised me to wait with immunization until my child was over the impetigo he had. This tidbit of advice put all immunizations on hold in our family, since the immunized one is contagious for a few days. It all was totally wonky with six kids and so forth. We got off schedule and had more babies, who also could not be immunized for the same reason. (We truly did fight impetigo for years…)
    I think several things were wrong with this picture, but one of them was NOT that I was anti-doctor, anti-authority, etc.
    Just trying to keep ’em all alive and legal. The rubber hits the road when they go to college. All are now current with their “shots” as all went to college on academic scholarships. Happy ending to a scary ride.
    However, I do think immunizations are important, really, just have to take them more seriously than we sometimes do. 🙂

    • Are you truly anti-vax? Even though you start by saying you are, you apparently have a child, or more than one, that couldn’t get a vaccine at the recommended time.

      And yes, I do think we take vaccines for granted. The anti vax movement has stopped me from doing that.

      Here’s a good Ted talk on Polio, check it out:

      • You are right, I am not truly antivax, but often have felt forced to defend myself as if I were. There is nothing like the scowl of a disbelieving public health nurse to make you wonder which side is safer.
        I fought off doctors to get immunizations, fought of public health to stop them, and again to resume them.
        I do not mind fighting for my children’s lives; it was my joy. But having to fight both sides, back and forth, was plain tough, all sience aside.

    • “since the immunized one is contagious for a few days.”

      Do you have evidence of this for vaccines other than smallpox (which is not given to children since the 1970s) or OPV (which has been replaced by IPV in the USA)? Thank you.

      • The current science was not in play, then. I was a mom of a patient, not a scientist. I was trusting the physician’s OPINION, and we all trust someone’s opinion, whether he be true scientist or physician. MY OPINION is that a physician should be current on his science and all science should be freely available to anyone who wishes to learn it. Alas, no one consults my opinion.
        However, I had to protect my children (my opinion, again) and chose to do so by listening to a physician. Too bad, some may say, but really, a popular route, on any given day. And that’s fact with lotsa evidence.

      • So you don’t really know. Thank you.

  2. I think anti-vax is more a symptom of this growing notion that if we just jump through enough hoops, we’ll be safe and healthy. If we never expose our children to “toxins” they will be strong and intelligent. If we feed them the correct combination of foods, they will never get cancer. It’s another way we humans try to control our “destiny.” The people who don’t vax are, simply put, afraid of anything “bad” getting into their kids’ systems. And you have people like Dr. Oz on TV affirming their suspicions.

    The competition part comes in when their notion is challenged. If they are wrong, it means they are exposing their children and other people’s children to disease and that is too hard to swallow, so plug on they must, with more fervor. They can’t be stupid after all, it has to be everyone else. (Kind of like fundamentalists)

    But I think competitive parenting rears it’s ugly head in who is the most organic, who is having little Madison or Jayden enrolled in French classes, who has kids in a Montessori school (no offense – really!)or what mom is so amazing she is HOMESCHOOLING or UNSCHOOLING and how much more they are going to learn than being another brainwashed plebe.

    Competitive parenting occurs when you have some system of parenting that you believe is the one way to raise and mold your child. It is rampant because older, educated people are having children and they think they know better and have all the answers. Then, because they have little outlet besides being wrapped up in parenting, they go on forums and blast the rest of us who send their kids to public school, who might take them to McDonald’s on occasion or give a good swat on the backside.

    But I live near Chicago, so what = status might be different.

    • No offense intended toward Ms Montessori, but to those who HOMESCHOOL…? Was that one intended?

  3. Oh, my. If one wishes to dwell on the psyche of the anti-vax movement, then read this account of a Skepchick being expelled from the AutismOne conference using three security and four police officers:

  4. Thank you for this post. I blog for Moms Who Vax, a blog devoted to mobilizing the parents who actually do vaccinate to begin fighting back against the anti-vax nonsense and the scare tactics they utilize to bring vaccine-hesitant or new parents into their fold. I never considered this aspect of the anti-vax movement you outline here, though, why otherwise highly educated women and men would buy in to such misinformation. It’s such an interesting idea–and makes sense. It’s like they are in this middle ground where they might have an advanced degree in liberal arts (as I do) and this gives them the feeling that their attempts at “research” into something like vaccines or immunology are sufficient to make such a grave decision a truly “informed” one. I will never understand why people who are not infectious disease specialists, vaccinologists, immunologists, or are otherwise highly trained in the scientific process, believe they can better interpret the existing science on this matter than people who spend their lives doing just this. That, or else the medical community is perpetrating the biggest fraud on the world population in history–and no one has leaked a thing. It’d be amusing, if children’s lives were at risk every single day as a result.

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