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Defining HIV Risk and Determining Responsibility in Postsocialist Poland

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Abstract

Drawing on 15 months of ethnographic research on HIV prevention programs in Poland, I explore the consequences of the shift from models of HIV prevention that emphasize “risk groups” and AIDS blame, to models that focus on “risky behaviors” and universal risk. The centrality of choice making and individual risk management in these models suggests objective risk assessment free from moralizing arguments. The Polish national prevention strategy shifted to focus on choice making, address all risk groups, and include concrete prevention strategies. This shift created a backlash that resulted in the reassertion of moral arguments about risk and risk groups that positioned those most vulnerable to HIV outside the purview of prevention efforts. AIDS organizations working with marginalized, “morally problematic” populations used the label “at risk” to legitimize claims to resources. They enacted a model of risk reduction in which the relevant actor is the individual buffeted by social forces; behavior change, and therefore HIV risk reduction, is a long process because of myriad forms of vulnerability clients face. Despite efforts to reconceptualize risk, organizations positioned the individual as the locus of HIV prevention interventions, rather than attempting to address the social context that shapes risk.

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