About Elizabeth A. Hintz, Ph.D.: Elizabeth A. Hintz is Assistant Professor of Health Communication at the University of Connecticut, where she is Faculty Affiliate in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program and the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate program. Dr. Hintz’s work focuses on pain communication, the communication experiences of people managing stigmatized and poorly understood health conditions, and on people who are voluntarily childfree.

Dr. Hintz’s research has appeared in important publications like Health Communication, Journal of Family Communication, and Communication Monographs. Her articles have been honored with a number of awards, including top paper awards from the Health Communication and Interpersonal Communication divisions of the International Communication Association (ICA). Her paper, “Childfree Sterilization: A Normative Rhetorical Theory Analysis of Paradoxical Dilemmas Encountered by Childfree Patients and their Providers,” won the Nancy Burrell Award from the Interpersonal and Family Communication Division of the Central States Communication Association Conference (CSCA), while, “‘Having Pain Is Normal’: How Talk About Genital Pain Reflects Messages from Menarche,” won the Top Overall Paper Award from the CSCA’s Health Communication Division. Dr. Hintz’ contributions to the field were recognized with Early Career Awards from both the Interpersonal Communication Division and the Family Communication Division of NCA in 2023.

In addition to her work at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Hintz is Faculty Affiliate at the Intimate Communication Lab. She received her Ph.D. from the University of South Florida, her M.A. from Purdue University, and her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, all in Communication. Dr. Hintz received a number of prestigious awards for her graduate work. Her Ph.D. dissertation, “Explicating the Process of Communicative Disenfranchisement for Women with Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions,” won the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Interpersonal Communication Division and was a finalist for the Health Communication Division’s Abby Prestin Dissertation of the Year Award from the ICA’s Health Communication Division. Her master’s thesis also received a number of awards including Top Qualitative Thesis from the Master’s Education Section of the National Communication Association (NCA).

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in the contact points between health communication and interpersonal communication, and in particular, begin to research how people managing stigmatized or misunderstood health conditions communicate with their families, partners, and providers?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] I majored in organizational communication as an undergraduate, which might be surprising. I found I was not in love with it, and I wanted to explore other opportunities for research. When I applied to graduate programs, I had been chronically ill since I was a teenager, and I had lots of positive and negative experiences talking about my chronic illnesses with healthcare providers, family, and friends.

There was not a lot of research in the field at the time about conditions like mine. I really wanted to contribute to improving conversations about the illnesses that I was suffering with, which affect so many people, especially women, in the U.S. and around the world. I come to it because of personal experience, and that is what drives everything I do.

[MastersinCommunications.com] A key focus of your research has been on communication dynamics surrounding chronic and unexplained pain. Could you introduce us to some of the unique and important communication issues raised by these conditions? How does viewing pain as a social and communicative phenomenon, as you argue in “Pain Communication: An Agenda for Communication Researchers,” present new possibilities for studying chronic pain conditions?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] In some ways, the phrase pain communication is counterintuitive because pain is often difficult to communicate about. Pain is hard to talk about for a variety of reasons. This is why organizations like Amnesty International, for example, have difficulty convincing governments to stop torturing people. Pain has no semantic object.

At the same time, pain is communicative because it has to be expressed and validated in order to be attended to. It is also inherently subjective, so we are reliant on communication as the vehicle for receiving the help and support and resources we need. For poorly understood and chronic pain conditions, we encounter the same problem of how to communicate about pain. Add to that the fact that these conditions are contested because not everyone agrees they exist or are real beyond being a manifestation of mental illness. Both of those things make it challenging to talk about it.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research highlights the ways in which pain operates as a site of gendered and racial inequity. Could you discuss how race and gender disparities reproduce themselves in communication about pain and how we might work to redress these inequities?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] My work considers the idea that our everyday interactions are ideological. They call upon these broader systems of meaning that circulate in our culture about what kinds of health conditions are real, whose bodies are able to feel pain, and whose bodies are “really sick.” When we conceptualize everyday communication as being ideological, we begin to see there are these broader systems of meaning across cultures and around the world. People I interview and people I survey report hearing the same kinds of comments about their chronic pain or poorly understood health condition.

These are very much raced, gendered, and classed ideas about whose bodies are really in pain, whose bodies are really sick, whose are not, and why. Communication is the vehicle for reifying these stereotypical biases about who can really be sick. If we view communication as the vehicle by which we constitute what is real at a fundamental level, then communication is also a site for intervention. We can use communication to work to change the upstream factors that lead us to the statements that perpetuate racist and sexist biases about who is really sick.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you tell us more about these “upstream factors” and the ways you have thought about intervening against them?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] Especially in interpersonal, health, and family communication, which are the fields my work straddles, there is such a reliance on socio-psychological ways of thinking about communication that defines communication as perception and cognition. As we think about other intellectual traditions that can help us address these wicked problems, we begin to think more broadly about how people perceive or respond to this kind of talk, as well as what the broader conditions are for people to be spoken to in this way. We can begin to think about people as being collateral damage for the ideological operations of our everyday talk.

These can also be things that are structural rather than ideological; there is no institutional recourse for someone who is called crazy by their doctor. That is a structural consideration. When I think “upstream factors,” then, I think not just about studying the people who have already been harmed, but the conditions that are making it possible for people to be harmed. Much of our research focuses on the consequences, which are important, but we also need to look at the conditions that are leading people to be harmed and what we can potentially do to address them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your dissertation on chronic pain conditions, “Explicating the Processes of Communicative Disenfranchisement for Women with Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions,” won the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Interpersonal Communication Division of the International Communication Association (ICA) and was a finalist for the Abby Prestin Dissertation of the Year Award, given jointly by the National Communication Association and ICA. Could you tell us a bit about your dissertation research and the problem of “communicative disenfranchisement” it explores?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] I am really excited to talk about this. I am in the process of writing a full, theoretical explication of communicative disenfranchisement, and I am thinking about this concept really broadly. To use a simile, the concept of communicative disenfranchisement is like the sun in my construct cosmos. Paradigms, or ways of studying this idea, are like planets. My dissertation research is at once quantitative, critical, and postmodern. I have developed measures for studying this idea and its consequences, but I am also writing this very critical, postmodern articulation of the theory of communicative disenfranchisement. [You can read more about the theory of communicative disenfranchisement in Dr. Hintz’s coauthored publication in Journal of Communication, “Theory of Communicative (Dis)enfranchisement: Introduction, Explication, and Application.”]

When I think about critical, postmodern theorizing, I think about excavating the taken for granted assumptions and ideological constraints that afford the possibilities for daily life. Critical postmodern research mobilizes those commitments toward social justice ends. As opposed, for instance, to an interpretive or descriptive approach that would focus on understanding how people construct meaning about illness, it is taking an explicitly political position and asking how this talk reflects and constructs ideology. What are the very material harms of these operations of these broader systems of meanings in everyday lives? That is how I am theorizing the idea that people are collateral damage for ideology. People are disenfranchised because they are spoken of and to in a particular way which brings about negative consequences in their lives.

As a preface, it is really important to be able to address problems with multiple sets of tools for different stakeholders. The social justice commitment of my research is to help people who have encountered talk from important people in their lives — for example, people who suffer from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or, arguably, long COVID — that tells them their illnesses are not real. My research is trying to develop a way to visualize the functions of that talk and its ramifications in people’s lives.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Having authored such a lauded dissertation, do you have insights you would share with graduate students on how to successfully navigate dissertation writing?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] I am a first-generation college student. I always think about my research program and research ideas by asking, “What would this mean to my parents or the people I grew up with who aren’t in the academy and engaged in these theoretical discussions?” I advise my students to ask what their research can mean to people on the ground. I think if you have an idea that you can talk about with someone who is not in the academy, that is really valuable.

For example, my other line of research is about the issues faced by people who are voluntarily childless — people who call themselves “childfree.” They tell people about their decision to be childless, and people often say, “Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older,” or, “You just haven’t met the right person yet.” Everyone knows somebody who has experienced that kind of talk. That is why people cite, read, and assign that line of my work.

For this dissertation, my question was how I could connect my research to this idea circulating in our culture that people were talking about and familiar with. I titled the recruitment materials for the dissertation “It’s All in Your Head” because what people call “medical gaslighting” was such a hot topic when I was writing this dissertation. The average person whom I would try to recruit would see my flyer and say, “Yeah, that’s happened to me,” or, “That’s happened to my sister, I’m going to send this to her.”

Then the work gets cited because you do not have to have any specialized knowledge about interpersonal communication theories, methods, or constructs in order to understand the significance of the idea and why the research about it matters. My main piece of advice, then, is to find a topic that is meaningful and timely. I think that accounts for some of the recognition the work has received.

[MastersinCommunications.com] As you mentioned, another primary focus of your research concerns communication issues surrounding people who choose to be childfree, which you have explored in contexts ranging from how the media represents people who are voluntarily childless, to patient-provider communication around voluntary sterilization. Are there key findings you would highlight from your work on childfree people across these contexts?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] This arm of my research program underscores the importance of looking at the same idea multiple ways. I looked at media coverage of voluntary childlessness because, before that, I was doing research on how people who opt to be childfree are being “bingoed,” which is a term that describes being told that the desire to be childfree is just a passing phase, or they will regret it when they are older, and so on. I wanted to know where these ideas come from. We assume they are circulating in culture, but no one has analyzed U.S. news coverage of voluntary childlessness. Our study was the first to do that.

In “Media Frames of Voluntary Childlessness in the United States Between 1989 and 2018,” Amy Haywood and I analyzed 30 years of news coverage. That study is interesting because it underscored what I had read in the literature on voluntary sterilization and the issues childfree people face in accessing voluntary sterilization. This issue is overwhelmingly represented as an affluent, white, upper middle-class issue. This excludes people who are diverse with respect to gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and class. This focus on white affluence leads us to overlook the complexity of the issue. For example, Black, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous patients are twice as likely to be approved for sterilization than white patients.

There is something happening here with respect to how, as we discussed before, interactions can be sites of perpetuating these racist and sexist ideas. In this context, that would be ideas about who “ought” to have children, and calling on these various racist, classist, and sexist ideas about who is able to make these decisions and who should be having children. Studying this in the public sphere with attention to media and also in the context of the private conversations patients have with their doctors has illustrated the pervasiveness of pronatalism, but also the rampant racism and sexism going on in these conversations that are really about coercion, control, and deciding who gets to have children.

These are deeply problematic and often not interrogated. Sterilization comes from a history of eugenics, and we do not like to talk about that, but we are still seeing the modern-day consequences of these historical ideas about who should have children. My research tries to incorporate that material context and the very real outcomes of this way of talking, which so much interpersonal research often tends to avoid including.

There were only six studies published about voluntary childlessness prior to 1972. Everything in the academic literature we know about what it means to be voluntarily childless in the U.S. is predicated on the availability of abortion. Now that 23 states [at the time of this interview] no longer provide access to abortion services, this is an increasingly consequential interaction that people are having with their physicians. It is not just a matter of denying their preferred method of contraception. It is now putting them in a place where they may be unable to make the reproductive decisions they want, and also may be unable to act to terminate an unwanted pregnancy because of where they live. The stakes are so much higher, and we do not yet have the research backing to consider the implications of this lack of availability of choice.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your most recent publications is “Promoting a Social Justice Sensibility in Qualitative Communication Research Practice.” Would you discuss how this essay directs researchers to attend to the ethical and activist implications of their “communicative micro-practices,” and your larger recommendations for qualitative research aiming to foster social justice?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] One reason I wrote this article is that, when I would read about social justice and think about what good I could do for the participants I interact with in my research, I always felt like it was an abstract, lofty goal. I also felt like, if I were doing really good social justice research, I would have to have a multi-site intervention, or some massive community driven campaign, or a center of some kind to facilitate this work. That large-scale work is extremely important, but it is also difficult, resource intensive, and time consuming. Not everyone has the capacity to do it.

Especially because interpersonal communication scholars are so focused on micro-level interactions and day-to-day communication experiences, I really wanted to think about how people interacting with research participants could act as a catalyst for social justice. The motivation for this came out of a study I did interviewing people who had poorly understood chronic pelvic and genital pain conditions — this is where my research started and what I wrote my Master’s thesis on.

I was interviewing these women, and they needed resources and information. Those were their motivations for participating in the interview study, even though I could not pay them and I was a 21-year-old Master’s student. They were coming because they needed help. During a session, one of my participants stopped our conversation and asked, “Do you know of any doctors who can help me? Do you know any way that I could be cured?” No one in any methods class has ever talked to me about what to do if a participant broke the fourth wall of the interview. It was such an awakening.

What was I doing for these people who were being told their illnesses were made up? What could I be doing to help these people beyond giving them a space to talk that would maximize the ethical good they would get from my study? When we write about how participants would benefit from our studies in IRB materials, we tend to say, “We’re not sure whether participants may benefit.”

I think there is something to be said about thinking about structural factors like the lack of funding for research on these conditions that are potential motivators for being part of the study. That publication, then, was basically me working through what I could do about this. What can I ethically offer these people who need my help? How can I do the most good? Not all of that is providing them resources or information. Sometimes it is just telling them they are not alone and connecting them to support groups. I wanted to attend to these everyday communicative micro-practices and how they provide an everyday means of promoting social justice.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are currently Faculty Affiliate at the Intimate Communication Lab, an initiative dedicated to research on intimate communication and memorable messages. Could you tell us a little bit more about the Intimate Communication Lab and your work with this project?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] My social justice commitments led me to a place where I began to look for ways to partner with scholars in the field who were doing really excellent, community based, social justice oriented interpersonal and health communication research. I began to read the work of Drs. Angela Cooke-Jackson and Valerie Rubinsky, who are the co-directors of the lab. I also work with another member of the lab, Jacqueline Gunning, who is a current doctoral student at UConn. If you look at their website, they are incredible. They work with choreographers, artists, and community organizations. They have access to diverse populations and community driven research initiatives, and that is something I did not have that my research could have been bolstered by.

I wanted to do clinical research for my dissertation, but COVID came along, and it set me back a bit in terms of building those connections. I approached Dr. Cooke-Jackson and Dr. Rubinsky about the possibility of partnering and what we could do in research to advance our shared goals. They have a very robust research program spanning qualitative and quantitative research and popular press works. Working there has been a master class for thinking about alternative things we can do with our research besides publishing behind a paywall — the actual things on the ground we can do to help people right now. That is what the lab does really well, and that is why I am excited to be a faculty affiliate there.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in health communication, interpersonal communication, or communication research on chronic or poorly understood health conditions more specifically, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Hintz] I think if you have a personal connection to your topic, it puts a fire in your belly to do good work and it also holds you accountable to the needs of the community. My research is always thinking about what the community needs. I started my master’s thesis interviewing women about their romantic partners, and they would say, “Why are you asking me about my partner? Why aren’t you asking me about my doctor?” Then my dissertation became all about women and their communication with their doctors: about trying to develop a way to empirically visualize the talk they were experiencing and its deleterious consequences.

Patients have told me for years and years that being spoken to in a way that contests their experiences of illness can lead to suicidality, having worse mental health, and having a poorer quality of life. My research is really driven by the question of what this community needs, and I have attached my interests to something personal so that I remain accountable to the needs of the community.

Generally, in terms of applying to graduate school, I would recommend thinking about what kind of mentor you need. This is not one mentor, it is a network of mentors, but picking your advisor is really important to ensuring you have a smooth ride through graduate school. I would think about the kind of ally you need in an advisor, as well as what kind of program will give you the tools to address the wicked problems on which your research is centered.

Thank you, Dr. Hintz, for sharing your insights on pain communication, poorly understood and stigmatized health conditions, and more!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.