AIDS Exceptionalism: On the Social Psychology of HIV Prevention Research


  • The authors wish to thank Nicole Crepaz of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and her research staff for assisting us with access to the Prevention Research Synthesis project database, and Blair Johnson for providing access to a database of HIV prevention interventions.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to William A. Fisher, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada [e-mail:].


The current analysis considers the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) prevention research record in the social sciences. We do so with special reference to what has been termed “AIDS Exceptionalism”—departures from standard public health practice and prevention research priorities in favor of alternative approaches to prevention that, it has been argued, emphasize individual rights at the expense of public health protection. In considering this issue, we review the historical context of the HIV epidemic; empirically demonstrate a pattern of prevention research characterized by systematic neglect of prevention interventions for HIV-infected persons; and articulate a rationale for “Prevention for Positives,” supportive prevention efforts tailored to the needs of HIV+ individuals. We then propose a social psychological conceptualization of processes that appear to have influenced developments in HIV prevention research and directed its focus to particular target populations. Our concluding section considers whether there are social and research policy lessons to be learned from the record of HIV prevention research that might improve our ability to address effectively, equitably, and in timely fashion future epidemics that play out, as HIV does, at the junction of biology and behavior.