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Bielefeld Graduate School

in History and Sociology

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Luz Hernandez Nieto

What do cartoons tell children about science?

A qualitative study of the representation of science and scientists in animated television series

Science is a recurrent topic in mass media. It is present not only in journalistic contents such as scientific news, but also in the imaginary worlds of fiction. The images of science conveyed by novels, documentaries or fictional television series contribute to shape the public image of science. From a sociological perspective the question about the public perception of science goes beyond a mere concern about the reputation of scientists and scientific institutions in society. In democratic societies the public perception of science plays an important role in the attribution of resources (e.g. project funding, human resources or infrastructure) and in the determination of external regulation. In this context mass media have an important function for the public and for other scientific spheres: through their journalistic, fictional and advertising contents the mass media offer descriptions of the social reality, including the reality of science as well. These descriptions, which are in constant circulation among the media, can be considered an expression of social views about the role of science in society. From this standpoint, the representation of science in the mass media constitutes a relevant topic of research for the media and science sociology.

Popular images of science circulate in a broad spectrum of contents including entertainment media such as cartoons, and reach a heterogeneous public that is not restricted to adults. Current studies show that children hold stereotypical images of scientists. When speculating about the source of those stereotypes, many studies attribute stereotypical views to the depictions of science conveyed by the media. This raises the question of the representation of science in media addressed to children from an empirical perspective.

With these initial considerations as a starting point, the empirical study focuses on a specific form of television content that plays an important role in the daily lives of children and has so far received little scholarly attention: the animated series. The study revolves around two research questions. The first is a descriptive question: How do mass media, particularly cartoon series for children, portray science? The second is an interpretative question that bases on the results of the first one: what do these depictions say about the society in which they emerge?

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