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The documentary movie “How to Survive a Plague” tells a story of the activist movement that fought for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS and advocated for the development of cures for the disease during the 1980s-1990s. The picture shows that the views of the activists and the US government were very different and, in some cases, even opposing to each other. It shows how different perceptions of the illness have led the construction of popular opinion on AIDS attaching some specific meanings and symbolism to it. Researchers define social construction of anything or event as “a dynamic process” involving “a multiplicity of social forces that combine to create and modify the phenomenon” (Conroy, Yeatman and Dovel 2). The story of the ACT UP movement, its confrontation with the federal agencies and political figures, the actions of each party involved in the described historical events, the changes in their knowledge and relationships perfectly demonstrate the dynamic nature of social constructivism. In this paper, I will evaluate the differences in the positions of ACT UP members, policymakers, and the media to analyze the process of social construction and marginalization of HIV/AIDS.
The main parties involved in the process of the social construction of AIDS in the USA were the activists, policymakers, and the media. ACT UP members regarded the disease from a personal point of view because many of them were HIV-positive. They felt that their needs and interests were ignored by the government, and no adequate strategies were created to help them. At the same time, it seemed like the fact that the majority of people with HIV/AIDS were the representatives of the LGBT community, and that the virus became widespread through certain behaviors which are openly criticized by the society set policymakers and conservative institutions against the activists and their efforts. For this reason, for a long time, neither the president nor the FDA wanted to accelerate the process of drug development and approval and were not encouraged enough to change something. Additionally, the media mainly focused on the conflicts between the two parties and passed on the sense of AIDS-related fatalism that many affected people had at that time.
As stated by Hallett and Cannella, “the mainstream news media paid little attention to HIV/AIDS until fears of transmission to the dominant culture were reaffirmed by medical testimony” (18). It is possible to say that by broadcasting a congressman’s verbal attacks on the activists, representing the latter as criminals, focusing on their anger and grief, providing insufficient or no scientific evidence about the problem, the media only promoted hostility towards AIDS and those who had it and spread the fear of the virus among people. It is likely that because the disease is now associated with many controversial views that provoke unpleasant thoughts and feelings many people prefer to ignore the problem.
Many times ACT UP used the strategy of taking over the facilities and blocking the streets. The advantage of such behavior is that it attracts attention. It was probably effective in the current situation when the interests of HIV-positive people were uncared of. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is illegal and frequently may result in aggression and violence.
Another strategy they used can be viewed as action research. This approach includes such steps as the investigation of a problem, the collection of research evidence and data, the sharing of information, and the utilization of findings in practice (Bergold and Thomas par. 2). It is possible to say that the real progress in the activists’ advocacy process happened when they started to research the problem from the scientific point of view and make evidence-based proposals to the agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and experts. The major advantage of this strategy is that it is rational and almost entirely excludes the emotional component which is often seen by strict institutions as a sign of childishness. Thus, it helped ACT UP to show that they are serious about their intentions. The main weakness of this approach is that it requires a lot of time.
It is possible to say that by focusing on the research of HIV/AIDS mechanisms and treatment, the activists could improve their relationships with experts. By educating themselves in the field of medicine, they became able to have a productive dialog with specialists and to collaborate with them. Before it happened and before ACT UP had any data to support their demands and statements, their relationships with expert claim-makers were rather tense. Therefore, action research may be considered an effective advocacy strategy.
It is possible to say that the social construct of HIV/AIDS remains linked to fatalistic beliefs even today. People still argue a lot about this problem because it is related to many ethical and behavioral issues that never had a simple answer. However, the example of ACT UP demonstrates that, with the right approach and appropriate means, a small group of people can influence the popular views on a phenomenon and can change dominant public attitudes. To do so, one needs to be in a dialog with those who have opposing positions and interests. A successful activist should make reasonable statements but stay inspired by emotions and a strong feeling of the need for change.
Bergold, Jarg, and Stefan Thomas. “Participatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012, Web.
Conroy, Amy, Sara Yeatman, and Kathryn Dovel. “The Social Construction of AIDS During a Time of Evolving Access to Antiretroviral Therapy in Rural Malawi.” Culture, health & sexuality, vol. 15, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1-14.
Hallett, Michael, and David Cannella. “Gatekeeping Through Media Format: Strategies of Voice for HIV-Positive via Human Interest News Formats and Organizations.” Activism and Marginalization in the AIDS Crisis, edited by Michael Hallett, Routledge, 2013, pp. 17-36.