Health and the Visual Culture of Schools

Year: 2015

Author: Enirght, Eimiear, Macdonald, Doune, Mccauig, Louise, Rossi, Anthony, Johnson, Rebecca, Hansen, Scott

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

From its inception in Western countries, mass public schooling has been seen by a range of stakeholders as an ideal site to prosecute a wide spectrum of health-related agendas (Gard & Pluim, 2014). In fact, the study of school-based health work demonstrates what a powerfully malleable discursive tool the concept of health has been and continues to be.

This presentation focuses on one contemporary example of school-based health work in the form of the visual culture of schools in order to investigate the evolving socio-political agendas that are attempting to shape students’ lives and bodies.

The study on which this paper is based is part of the ARC-funded Teachers as Health Workers project. Through this project we engaged with 12 schools and approximately 800 teachers across Queensland. The schools were a balance of primary and secondary in metropolitan and regional locations. Mixed-method data collection included document analysis, questionnaires and case studies. Data for this paper were primarily generated through visual methods. Photographs of the health messages (e.g. posters) and the visible health-related architecture of the schools (e.g. playgrounds, canteens) were taken in the 12 Queensland schools. 2076 photographs formed the corpus of images on which the analysis for this paper was based.

Theoretical Frame
Theoretically, we draw on the Foucauldian (1991) concept of governmentality to demonstrate how visual health messages in schools operate as governmental strategies to variously hail and position students, teachers and schools as responsible for youth health.

While visual images are polysemic, meaning different things to different viewers, we found that a number of dominant discourses underpinned the visual health messages. Risk discourses focusing on students’ youth, vulnerability and potential for engaging in harmful behaviour were, for example, commonly used as technologies of governing. Similarly, the dominance of nutritional discourses served to clearly constitute particular students as unhealthy and accountable for their unhealthy choices. Equally interesting, was what we called the non-dominant discourses. There was a noticeable absence of strengths-based approaches to health, or indeed to youth across the images analysed.

Health communication in the visual culture of schools may be equated with the hidden health education curriculum, and we argue its potential role as either a counter or complementary pedagogical device should be taken seriously.

Foucault, M. (1991). ‘On governmentality’ (pp. 87–104). In G Burchell, C Gordon & P Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality with two lectures by and an interview with Michel Foucault. Harvester: London,
Gard, M., & Pluim, C. (2014). Schools and public health: Past, present, future. Lexington Books.
Prosser, J. (2007). Visual methods and the visual culture of schools. Visual Studies, 22(1), 13-30.