Academic journal article Oceania

Sovasova and the Problem of Sameness: Converging Interpretive Frameworks for Making Sense of HIV and AIDS in the Trobriand Islands

Academic journal article Oceania

Sovasova and the Problem of Sameness: Converging Interpretive Frameworks for Making Sense of HIV and AIDS in the Trobriand Islands

Article excerpt


   This kind of sexual behaviour [having multiple partners] is part of
   our custom so it is not really surprising to us about AIDS, because
   maybe we already know this disease through sovasova. Because we have
   the clan system and we follow it in our sexual behaviour and if we
   don't follow it we get sick. So maybe people from other places don't
   understand about the clan system and they have too much mixing of
   the same kind and that is how this virus has spread and made so many
   people sick. But here we know this sickness and we have treatment.
   We can control the spread.

   Trobriand man, aged mid-30s, 4/11/03

HIV is far greater than a microscopic pathogen. The human immunodeficiency virus 'transcends the boundaries of biomedicine' (Huber and Gillapsy 1998:191) as it moves through cultural landscapes and becomes visible in the social body, configured by discourses of sexuality, morality, fear, risk, and disease, and the meanings people bring to bear on the information they receive. Concurrent with the persistent spread of HIV infection throughout the world is the proliferation of multiple ways of comprehending HIV and AIDS as different knowledge systems and discourses converge and interact, producing an 'epidemic of meanings or signification' (Treichler 1999:11).

The migration of predominantly western models and moralities about disease causality, sexuality, and sexual behaviour has enormous influence on the interpretive process of making sense of HIV and AIDS in diverse cultural contexts. The application of external models of meaning potentially affects the capacity for people to articulate and clarify local understandings and form cognitive links with new information. The discursive production of HIV and AIDS is able to rupture deep layers of cultural knowledge and expose established forms of meaningful practice to new evaluations. For example, Philip W. Setel's ethnography of the epidemic in Northern Tanzania demonstrates how 'the disordering effects of the epidemic are simultaneously creative of new meanings and revealing of long-standing values which surround social reproduction' (1999:16). The discursive production of meanings also underscores how perceptions and understandings of H1V and AIDS change over time as experience of living with the effects of the epidemic unfolds (Farmer 1990, 1992). Additionally, the question of temporality has a direct bearing on eliciting perceptions through the process of research, as Paul Farmer (1992:287) points out: 'Investigation of evolving understandings of AIDS calls attention to the problems inherent in studying cultural meaning while it is taking shape.'

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, this article examines the discursive dimension of the epidemic, and the dialogical mediations between a specific cultural model of sexuality and disease and received representations of H1V and AIDS. (1) The views presented are a representative sample of the perspectives of adolescent and adult men and women obtained during unstructured interviews, group discussions, and informal conversations. While mindful that 'the way the epidemic is brought to people's attention will be the critical determinant of how they will respond to it' (Reid 1994:1), my concern here is how an existing cultural model provides an interpretive framework for making sense of new phenomena. The popular abstraction of AIDS as a looming threat from beyond the islands provides a pivotal reference for the assertion of Trobriand ideations of sexuality, morality, and disease. The Trobriand concept of sovasova, or chronic illness that manifests from the breach of clan exogamy when members of the same matrilineal clan have sexual relations, is a persuasive and problematic form of cultural knowledge that directly influences comprehensions of HIV and AIDS in the Trobriand context. The topic of sovasova emerged unprompted in nearly every scheduled interview session held during the research. …

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