The Social and Political Effects of AIDS in Africa

Conveners: Dr. Daniel Jordan Smith (Brown University, Providence, USA);
e-mail:, Dr. Bianca Dahl (University of Toronto, Canada); e-mail:

Africa is disproportionately burdened by the global HIV and AIDS epidemic. A great deal of recent research has tried to understand the causes of the epidemic’s rapid spread in Africa. Much scholarship has also contributed to developing policies and strategies that address prevention and treatment in ways that are suited to Africa’s social realities. This panel extends beyond examining AIDS in Africa as a health crisis, to look instead at the wider social and political consequences of the epidemic. The premise of the panel is that AIDS in Africa is not only an epidemiological reality but also a significant social fact that has affected every aspect of life from governance and civil society to religion, kinship, intimacy, and the very experiences of personhood and subjectivity. The panel will be composed of social scientists who draw on their long-term ethnographic research across sub-Saharan Africa (Botswana, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda). The papers will demonstrate the ways in which the epidemic both represents and contributes to exacerbating many aspects of social change. Potential topics include exploring how the scale of donor interventions has led to new dimensions of governance, often in manifesting itself in the work of non-governmental organizations. In addition, both Christian and Muslim faiths have taken up issues around AIDS that speak as much to the changing practices of faith as to the health effects of the virus. While AIDS has reconfigured political and social landscapes in the wider spheres of governance, civil society, labor relations, and religious practice, the consequences of the epidemic also reach deeply in communities and families, as parents die, orphans must be cared for, and people living with HIV desire to marry and make their own families. The most intimate relationships of care- giving and emotional attachment, and even people’s senses of self, are reshaped in the wake of AIDS’ effects on everyday life. The papers in this panel will all attest to the importance of understanding the material, economic, and political dimensions of social life as they intersect with and are often reinforced by the more symbolic, moral, and emotional aspects of human experience. While the papers will all extend beyond the health impact of AIDS to explore wider social and political effects, ultimately, as these presentations will show, these broader repercussions become part of the context in which behaviors relevant to preventing (or worsening) the epidemic take place. Many practices that appear irrational from a purely medical or public health point of view can be seen to have a discernible social logic, if these wider meanings and effects of the disease are properly studied, theorized and accounted for. AIDS-

related policies and interventions can be much better conceived and more successfully implemented if the importance of the non-health impact of the epidemic is more fully understood and addressed.