How do you research what drives people to be wary of vaccines
“I am currently rolling out a survey together with my two PhD supervisors, Jeroen van der Waal and Willem de Koster, in which we present specific situations to the respondents and ask them to choose between specific options. For example, we ask them to choose between a vaccine and an alternative with specific characteristics and then check which aspects inform their decision. We work with fictional situations to avoid connotations with specific brands. After all, people may have certain preconceptions about one brand or other.
“For the first part of my dissertation, I researched immunisation campaigns in general. At the time, I mainly spoke with parents – about getting their children inoculated and why they may have doubts about doing this. I now want to determine if similar considerations play a role during a pandemic, in the context of inoculations in the general population.”
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How do parents actually decide for or against vaccination?
“Highly qualified parents have their doubts about childhood immunisation. This actually comes as a surprise, since the higher your level of education, the more faith you tend to have in science. Our interviews with highly qualified parents show that there are actually two distinct processes through which they may decide against having their child inoculated. One group was more focussed on maintaining a kind of natural state of health or immunity in their child, combined with scepticism about chemical substances. A second group arrived at their decision after personally assessing the scientific arguments for certain vaccines. For example, the HPV vaccine for girls was introduced a number of years ago. Some of the parents we spoke with were fine with vaccination in general but had their doubts about the quality of the scientific research supporting that particular vaccine. And that’s a very interesting finding, because you can see similar arguments or doubts looking at the current discussions surrounding the Covid vaccines.”
So could similar considerations play a role when people decide against getting a Covid jab?
“Looking at the discussions surrounding the Covid vaccines in the media and society, I think a lot of people feel specifically dubious about the underlying scientific research. People have voiced scepticism about the speed at which these vaccines were developed. I think the results will be very interesting. We can precisely identify which processes people go through to reach a decision, and for whom specific characteristics of vaccines play a role.”
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How did you land on this particular subject for your doctoral programme?
“I’ve always been interested in medical questions. In fact, I used to think I wanted to study Medicine – until I tagged along for a day, that is. When I was checking out Sociology during an open day, this really cool professor explained how Sociology can be applied to all sorts of issues. It centres on how groups of people think or assign meaning to something. It’s often different to what you’d expect. As in this case – with vaccination. That’s why after graduating, I started to focus on medical questions from a sociological perspective. This study into people’s mistrust of vaccines is part of a broader project organised by my supervisors, in which we research trust.”
What do you ultimately hope that will happen with your research findings?
“What you see occasionally is that people who oppose vaccines are treated as if they’re nuts. But if you want to understand why people arrive at these ideas, you need to enter into dialogue with them. Some of the people we interviewed were parents who had just had their first child and found it very difficult to decide on this issue. The volume of information that comes at you from every direction can be overwhelming. This kind of research can provide insight into their thought processes. Ultimately, that may make their reasons sound a bit less wacky, leading to less heated discussions – without people having to insult each other.”