Mass media constructions of 'socio-psychological epidemics' in sub-Saharan Africa: The case of genital shrinking in 11 countries

Public Underst Sci. 2015 Nov;24(8):988-1006. doi: 10.1177/0963662515600391. Epub 2015 Sep 7.


Genital shrinking is a recurring phenomenon with about 180 reported cases in sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades. Transcending national boundaries, it results in distress for victims, mob violence against accused perpetrators and mass panic which law enforcement agencies struggle to contain. This article examines mass media construction and framing of genital shrinking within a social representations theory framework. Our analysis suggests the following: (1) mass media reports are informed by lay and expert perspectives; (2) three stocks of knowledge are drawn on interchangeably, with culture constituting a core representation; (3) lay and expert perspectives overlap on cultural and common-sense explanations of genital shrinking; and (4) scientific explanations are limited to individual pathophysiology and psychopathology and do not inform public opinion. We consider the implications of understanding genital shrinking for improving mass media constructions and dissemination of information on 'socio-psychological epidemics' that may have scientific explanations.

Keywords: genital shrinking episodes; mass media; risk perceptions; social representations; socio-psychological epidemics; sub-Saharan Africa.

MeSH terms

  • Africa South of the Sahara
  • Culture*
  • Genitalia, Male / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Behavior*
  • Mass Media*
  • Somatoform Disorders / ethnology
  • Somatoform Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological