The aura of silence: a psychosocial analysis of stigma amongst students working In the field of HIV And AIDS at the University of Cape Town

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Centre for Social Science Research

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University of Cape Town

Eleven white, well-educated students from the University of Cape Town, all actively involved in the field of HIV/AIDS, were interviewed through a freeassociative-narrative method. This study sought to explore these students’ perceptions of and associations with HIV/AIDS and those infected, in an attempt to assess the extent to which stigma may occur amongst these students. To the authors’ knowledge, no other studies exploring HIV/AIDS-related stigma have been done on young adults who are actively engaging with, and highly educated on, issues around HIV and AIDS. The accounts revealed that underneath the overt denials of fear, the epidemic does seem to evoke various fears and anxieties for these students. Through their constructions of HIV/AIDS, the participants tend to ‘other’ the epidemic and those infected and thus distance themselves from a sense of threat. Such representations therefore appear to serve a protective function, enabling the participants to defend themselves from the anxieties they experience surrounding the epidemic. In line with psychosocial understandings of HIV/AIDS stigma, the results from this study indicate that this ‘atypical’ group of students may possess certain stigmatizing tendencies. This points to the fact that HIV/AIDS stigma may not be the product of a lack of education or ‘faulty’ thinking. There were however multiple, often contradictory and conflicting voices heard throughout the interviews. Many participants expressed an awareness of, and uneasiness with, their ‘othering’ and potentially stigmatizing tendencies. It is in this space, that the potential for change, and stigma reduction may exist. The findings from this study thus have both theoretical and practical implications for conceptualizing, and challenging HIV/AIDS stigma.