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The polyvocal fugue : frame and counter-frame in the management of an environmental health conflict Bassett, Beverly Raewyn


It began with the loss of the use of her forearm, then the use of her other arm, and then her legs. Headaches became severe migraines; seizures occurred. Her body wasted away and she became needle-thin. A neurologist, a psychiatrist, her family physician could not determine what was wrong. A local specialist, however, recognized the symptoms as those he had seen in others over several years. Concerned that the symptoms might be related to environmental toxins, he alerted the local health authorities. His concerns and those of his patients were not taken seriously, not, that is, until he and his patients coined a name for the symptoms: Somatic Chemically Induced Dysfunction Syndrome, or SCIDS. What was expected to be simply a name for a set of symptoms suddenly became contested. A social problem was defined, and experts from Agriculture, Health, and the Environment Ministries entered the fray. Unrelated at first, degradation of the local aquifer, death of wildlife, and a noticeable decrease in small mammals in the area had been noted. Questions were raised about the links between the two; between the environment and health. Somatic Chemically Induced Dysfunction Syndrome (SCIDS) suggested a causal link with chemicals, moreover with chemicals in the environment. This raised doubts in people's minds about the responsibility and accountability of government, and the authority of experts and the role of science was thrown into question. A private trouble became a public issue. The ensuing conflict revolved around naming and owning a social problem. Both experts and persons with SCIDS invoked science to make their case. Sides were drawn and the conflict was played out to the wider public through the media. It has been commented that research about illnesses of the environment have a bias towards the stories of the sufferers. This dissertation focuses mainly, though not exclusively, on the stories of the various experts involved. Set within the wider frame of social constructionism, I address the ways in which private troubles become public issues and are defined as a social problem. The frames used in this contest to wrest both ownership and thus management of the problem are investigated. The impact of this on a local social movement is examined.

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