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Public Underst Sci. 2005 Jan;14(1):47-65.

Public culture and public understanding of genetics: a focus group study.

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  • 1School of Communication Studies, Lasher Hall, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA. batesb@ohio.edu


As the role of genetic science in everyday life has grown, policymakers have become concerned about Americans' understandings of this science. Much effort has been devoted to formal schooling, but less attention has been paid to the role of public culture in shaping public understanding of genetics. Research into public cultural messages about genetics has claimed that the public is likely to adopt problematic accounts, but few studies have explored the public's articulation of these messages. This study is based on 25 focus groups convened to explore the lay public's understanding of genetics. The study found that the public processed a greater variety of messages than assumed by previous researchers, including documentaries, non-science-fiction films, and popular television in addition to previous researchers' focus on science fiction and news media. The study also found that the public does not process the messages through the linear, transmission model assumed by previous research. The public processes messages about genetics complexly and critically. On the basis of these findings, the study suggests that researchers should include a greater variety of texts about genetics in their research and attend more fully to audience processing in addition to content analyses of these texts.

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