Coded Talk, Scripted Omissions

The Micropolitics of AIDS Talk in an Affected Community in South Africa

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Abstract

In this ethnographic article, we explore the character of local discourse about AIDS in an affected township community in South Africa, describing the “indirection” that characterized communication about suspected cases of AIDS. Through a case study of one affected family, the article first explores the diverse ways in which people came to “know” that specific cases of illness were AIDS related, and how this “knowledge” was communicated. We consider why communication was indirect and coded, arguing that this reflected not a “denial” of its presence in this community but, rather, a complex group of overlapping concerns far from unique to AIDS: first, a normative injunction on naming potentially fatal conditions; second, an interest in pursuing different therapeutic options and the need to maintain hope of recovery; and third, a wish to avoid the “disrespect” entailed in referring directly to the nature of the problem in a context where, discursively, stigma was still present. The coded and indirect character of HIV/AIDS-related talk underlines the importance of ethnographic inquiry in understanding community responses to this epidemic, demonstrating that the subtleties entailed by verbal silence and elision should not be interpreted naively as collective “denial” but rather be grounded within existing patterns of responses to dangerous sickness.

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