The complexity and scale of the AIDS crisis in Africa has so far eluded effective prevention and treatment. It has also eluded full comprehension. This is in large part due to the limits of the methodologies that have been brought to bear on the problem where each research programme – epidemiological, public health, medical etc. – has operated independently of the others, with relatively little cross-communication. In all this, social science research has been starved of resources and, to a degree, has lacked imagination.
It is however signally important as AIDS in Africa has penetrated every aspect of social, political, economic and cultural life. This project started with two workshops in 2007, funded by the British Academy International Collaboration Grant and the Oppenheimer Foundation, to develop an ecological approach to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which straddles the boundary of the natural and social sciences and aims at combining human ecological and social anthropological approaches to illness and healing. It goes beyond a merely interdisciplinary approach by analysing the complex interactions and interdependencies between social and biological worlds and between the processes studied within the different disciplines. Building on Prof Robert Thornton’s work on sexual networks, it advocates the use of a systems-analytic methodology characteristic of ecological thinking. The first workshop, organised in collaboration with Prof Suzette Heald by Nadine Beckmann and Professor Elisabeth Hsu, brought together social, medical and natural scientists working on HIV/AIDS at Oxford (see here for details), the second, organised by Prof Robert Thornton, was held with PWA and several activist groups in Johannesburg.
Such an ecological approach to the study of sexuality, fertility and reproduction, with a special focus on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, will be advanced by Dr Nadine Beckmann’s two-year long John Fell research project on ‘AIDS, Sex and Reproduction on Zanzibar’ from 2010 to 2012. The role of ‘risk’, of individuals, and individual choice in sexual matters has been given too much attention. There are larger social structures—including those of sexual networks, kinship, family and household structure, formal and informal institutions and social networks—that determine overall trends of infection and that respond (or not) to its consequences. This has far reaching implications for our study of AIDS, and of sexual health more broadly; sexual networks are the primary ‘object’ that must be understood in investigations of the spread of STDs in any context.