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Gossiping about AIDS

Like many, I am a sucker for the Chicago Public Radio program, This American Life. So when I loaded up the latest episode for my commute home yesterday, I was prepared to be entertained — especially since the show was billed to be about “Gossip.”

This American Life – Gossip

And I did love the show… But only the first few minutes were what I expected (a story about how a man inadvertently spread news about the sex life of his wife’s hairdresser…) The bulk of the program investigated Susan Watkins’ fantastic project studying how people talk about HIV/AIDS and sex in rural Malawi. It is seriously entertaining and informative, highlights all sorts of mistaken premises of longstanding prevention programs (like the idea that people don’t talk about sex or AIDS because she finds that they do all the time), and some of the popular ideas that fuel attitudes, behavior, and transmission of the epidemic. One particularly amusing anecdote is the discussion among men that it’s a better idea to sleep with a “bargirl” because “everyone” knows she sleeps around and has AIDS, and in such cases, there’s no question that you would wear a condom.

Anyway, Watkins’ work is some of the most important social science research on the social determinants of disease, and her approach — of getting ordinary people to keep journals, rather than conducting more artificial surveys — clearly bears a lot of fruit. Information about this breath-taking project are available here.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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