COOL CLASSES: “Viruses, Humans, Vital Politics: An Anthropology of HIV and AIDS”

This medical anthropology and health studies course explores how HIV and AIDS have come to shape how humans live today, both intimately and socially.

Class name: Viruses, Humans, Vital Politics: An Anthropology of HIV and AIDS”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Co-Coordinator of Health Studies Chris Roebuck


Here’s what Roebuck had to say about his class:

This course in medical anthropology and health studies explores how HIV and AIDS have come to shape how humans live today, intimately and socially. We begin with two facts. One: HIV is more than a retrovirus. It’s a tricky social, political, and cultural actor. And two: HIV and AIDS are biosocial phenomena—that is, they are irreducibly biological and social. Asymmetric relations of knowledge and power, biology and politics, and medical and cultural practices shape how HIV and AIDS are understood, experienced, and addressed—in other words lived, and lived with.  One of the goals of the course is to cultivate critical anthropological perspectives on HIV and AIDS.  This compels us to ask how social history and cultural politics materialize the retrovirus and its syndrome of diseases in our lifeworlds.

In the class, we contend with the incredible vastness of scholarship, cultural work, and community practices that have emerged to confront the biosocial crisis—from critical theory and philosophy to art and film and video to clinical research and public health practice. The course was developed purposefully with this interdisciplinary—if not transdisciplinary—framework in mind, precisely because our most vexing health problems are complex, multifactorial, and demand a multidisciplinary approach, which brings—it must—all sorts of people, experiences, and knowledges together.

We engage textual and visual material, ranging from fiction to activist graphics to autobiography to public health research to clinical studies, and we also spend a great deal of time examining the historical and social forces, which have created the biosocial vulnerabilities for fostering what would become today’s global epidemic of HIV and AIDS.  Incorporating a critical historical approach, we examine—to borrow some language from smarter folks—how it’s so not random the ways in which HIV officially emerges in 1981 and the communities it has devastated. There’s many, long standing social and cultural crises that made the crisis of HIV today possible: the history of colonization of Africa, the history of uneven global connection and exploitation, the history of LGBTQ folks being labeled pathological within medical and psychological discourses, and the oppression—in both social and medical practices—of women, queer and trans* folks, and people of color. All of these entrenched relations of power and knowledge seemed to have converged—uniquely and tragically—in the 1980s and 1990s to create the possibilities for HIV’s epidemic emergence. I am always reminded of physician and physical anthropologist Rudolf Virchow’s contention from the mid  19th century: “If disease is an expression of individual life under unfavorable circumstances, then epidemics must be indicative of mass disturbances in mass life.”

The course also seeks to offer a critical comparative approach to the study of epidemics—with HIV as a case study.  We study Haiti as the nation that was accused as being the “origin” of the pandemic and how this plays out politically, scientifically, and in terms of perpetuating racial stereotypes. Paula Treichler’s contention that HIV is an “epidemic of signification,” whose meanings and practices mutate wildly, and Paul Farmer’s work on the “cartography of blame,” which has accompanied epidemiological research on HIV and AIDS, are perhaps the most illuminating here. We spend some time talking about Brazil, which is one of the countries that has been able to turn its forecasted 2000 HIV/AIDS crisis around by providing, at the national level, free anti-retrovirals, and so it has become a model for middle-income countries across the globe.

We also discuss HIV research and medical humanitarian work in sub-Saharan Africa, and the sorts of health inequalities these practices seek to address and yet unwittingly reproduce. But one of the issues we really try to confront is that HIV is not only an issue that’s pressing in some imaginary called “diseased Africa.” For instance, we read a 2010 CDC study, which reports that many low-income neighborhoods in the most populous cities in the US have “generalized epidemics.” In our local worlds, we have Washington, D.C., which is experiencing an HIV prevalence rate of 2 percent. Among trans* communities and among black men who have sex with men, the rate is much higher. This is the nation’s capital. Its HIV rates are higher than many countries, whose prevalence rates UNAIDS has determined constitute a “generalized epidemic”—rates of HIV infection over percent of the adult population. We are amid a state of emergency in the US, and yet we fail to recognize.

I hope the course invites us to wrestle with the recognition that HIV and AIDS are tricky political, social, cultural actors and biological agents. HIV creates brave-new worlds, it transmogrifies our bodies, it transforms the kinds of communities we make, not only by making us sick and killing our kindreds, but also by inaugurating new practices of care and therapeutics. HIV makes possible—vitally—new sorts of cultural work and community-building practices as well as instigating new forms of social relationships and new forms of politics—all of which are fomented in its wake. HIV has long forced us to contend with questions of whose lives come to matter and under what sorts of regulatory regimes of knowledge and power a life emerges as such—valued, cared for, recognized. HIV, the biosocial actor, compels us to create new stories, new avenues of research, new practices of accountable knowledge-making, and new political coalitions for more flourishing—always shared—tomorrows.


See what other courses the Department of Anthropology  and the Health Studies Multidisciplinary Minor are offering this semester.

Photo of the AHF AIDS Walk at the 21st International AIDS Conference in South Africa by Steve Forrest/International AIDS Society.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience