Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Exchanging Health Advice in a Virtual Community: A Story of Tribalization

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Exchanging Health Advice in a Virtual Community: A Story of Tribalization

Article excerpt

Why do some people go online and ask other people who are more or less strangers for advice on medical issues? Why do people believe strangers they have only met online? What are the consequences? These are the research questions driving this article. As debates on the failures of healthcare and on vaccines are high on the public agenda, the answers to these questions will shed light on the way people form and confirm opinions on wich they base decisions related to their and their children's health.

The quest for information by young parents is on the rise. The production of literature on how to raise children has grown exponentially over the last half century, as has the preoccupation for informing oneself on the subject (Rothbaum et al., 2008). In addition to books, the internet offers an immense quantity of information from sources varying in terms of quality and credibility. In the beginnings of life as a parent, people go through a time full of insecurity. Simultaneously, especially new mothers feel isolated from their previous social lives. The need arises to compensate for this deficit of information and social interactions by participating in online communities with similar views on parenting (Madge and O'Connor, 2006).

The attraction towards online social interactions is even greater in the case of parents with views that deviate from the mainstream, as it is more difficult to find likeminded people in this situation. In her study on a real-life community, Faircloth (2009, 2010) showed how participants in La Leche League meeting justified their choice (it is healthier, it is best for their children, "others" are not well informed) and defended themselves or hid from people who disagreed with them. Simultaneously, they tried to limit their interaction with mothers who did not share their values, or even excluded them from the community. All these efforts show how important it is for parents to create a social space where they find like-minded people. This space is much easier to be found online, than offline, as people who share a minoritarian view tend to be scattered.

Methodology

This research focuses on a Romanian-speaking virtual community of parents that hold similar parenting values. They promote and practice attachment parenting, respectful parenting, natural parenting, embracing natural birth, prolonged breastfeeding, babywearing, alternative education, homeschooling, unschooling, baby-led weaning and other related practices. They interact through blogs, Facebook pages, and Facebook groups, and sometimes meet in real life at conferences, garage sales or specialized local meetings (e.g. local babywearing groups). The community is made up mainly of mothers with medium to high socio-economic status. They are thus situated at the higher end of the digital divide, as previous research shows that parents with higher socio-economic status tend to use the internet more often and with more competence. They tend to have more frequent access to the internet and tend to rely more on official websites, than personal ones (Rothbaum et al., 2008).

A netnographic approach (Kozinets, 1998, 2010) is used in order to understand what drives these people to seek and share medical advice online, and how credibility is being built and perceived. The author has been working in the community under study for three years, after already having been a member of the community for another year. At various times, she announced her presence publicly, and privately to leaders of the community. There were no objections from the community, and some of the members even volunteered for interviews. As some of the Facebook groups belonging to the community are secret or with restricted access, information from them will not be used in this paper. The types of discourses present in those groups are the same as the ones used on public Facebook pages and blogs on the same topic, so we shall look at the latter in order to understand how arguments are made on specific subjects. …

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