Risk and the social construction of ‘Gulf War Syndrome’

Abstract: Fifteen years since the events that are held by some to have caused it, Gulf War Syndrome continues to exercise the mind and energies of numerous researchers across the world, as well as those who purport to be its victims and their advocates in the media, law and politics. But it may be that the search for a scientific or medical solution to this issue was misguided in the first place, for Gulf War Syndrome, if there is such an entity, appears to have much in common with other ‘illnesses of modernity’, whose roots are more socially and culturally driven than what doctors would conventionally consider to be diseases. The reasons for this are complex, but derive from our contemporary proclivity to understand humanity as being frail and vulnerable in an age marked by an exaggerated perception of risk and a growing use of the ‘politics of fear’. It is the breakdown of social solidarities across the twentieth century that has facilitated this process.Unfortunately, as this paper explores, our inability to understand the social origins of self-hood and illness, combined with a growing cynicism towards all sources of authority, whether political, scientific, medical or corporate, has produced a powerful demand for blame and retribution deriving from a resolute few who continue to oppose all of the evidence raised against them.Sadly, this analysis suggests that Gulf War Syndrome is likely to prove only one of numerous such instances that are likely to emerge over the coming years.

Risk and the Social Construction of ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Impact Factor 5.847 ISI 2015), Vol.361, No.1468, pp.689-695, April 2006