PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Hands as Media of Contamination
Reading Public Health Handwashing Posters

Sheryl Hamilton  

North American public health authorities are engaged in an ongoing project to re-teach us how to wash our hands. As part of these attempts to educate citizens about the role their dirty hands play in the spread of infectious disease, we find handwashing posters in public bathrooms, hospitals, airports, and shopping malls. From witty references to classic fiction, to graphic representations of germs, to detailed "how to" instructions, to the playful invocation of the British wartime slogan, "Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands," these posters deploy a variety of visual and textual techniques to communicate their scientific message. I have compiled a corpus of over 100 public health handwashing posters that have circulated in the United States and Canada in the last decade. I am conducting a semiotic reading of them (individually, in thematic groupings, and collectively), focusing on the following questions: - how do the posters work to responsibilize individuals into the broader goals of public health by constituting viewers as prudent citizens? - how do the posters represent germs and bacteria as active agents? - how do the posters link citizen health to work and economic productivity? - how do the posters constitute hands as media of contamination requiring continual management? This analysis will not only detail the nature and range of the communication practices deployed by public health authorities in the pursuit of disease control, but will also analyze their rich layers of additional meanings. These posters are public aesthetic texts with cultural consequences that exceed their primary scientific goals. This analysis is part of a publicly funded project exploring the implications of living in "pandemic culture," namely a period where the social, political, cultural and economic environment is increasingly shaped by the threat of pandemic events.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.