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Myths or theories? Alternative beliefs about HIV and AIDS in South African working class communities

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Abstract:

Despite three decades of public health promotion based on the scientific explanation of HIV/AIDS, alternative explanations of the disease continue to circulate. While these are seen as counter-productive to health education efforts, what is rarely analysed is their plurality and their tenacity. This article analyses the ‘AIDS myths’ collected by African HIV/AIDS workplace peer educators during an action research project. These beliefs about HIV/AIDS are organised, in this article, around core ideas that form the basis of ‘folk’ and ‘lay theories’ of HIV/AIDS. These constitute non-scientific explanations of HIV/AIDS, with folk theories drawing on bodies of knowledge that are independent of HIV/AIDS while lay theories are generated in response to the disease. A categorisation of alternative beliefs about HIV/AIDS is presented which comprises three folk theories — African traditional beliefs, Christian theology, and racial conspiracy — and three lay theories, all focused on avoiding HIV infection. Using this schema, the article describes how the plausibility of these alternative theories of HIV/AIDS lies not in their scientific validity, but in the robustness of the core idea at the heart of each folk or lay theory. Folk and lay theories of HIV/AIDS are also often highly palatable in that they provide hope and comfort in terms of prevention, cure, and the allocation of blame. This study argue that there is coherence and value to these alternative HIV/AIDS beliefs which should not be dismissed as ignorance, idle speculation or simple misunderstandings. A serious engagement with folk and lay theories of HIV/AIDS helps explain the continued circulation of alternative beliefs of HIV/AIDS and the slow uptake of behavioural change messages around the disease.

Keywords: Christian theology; HIV/AIDS; folk and lay theories; health education; myths; peer educators; racial conspiracy theories; traditional African beliefs

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2989/16085906.2013.863212

Affiliations: Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS, 2050, South Africa Author , Email: David.dickinson@wits.ac.za

Publication date: September 1, 2013

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  • Co-Published by NISC and Routledge - Subscriber access available here
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