Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Malawi Religion Project: Data Collection and Selected Analyses

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Malawi Religion Project: Data Collection and Selected Analyses

Article excerpt


Scholars have recently become increasingly interested in the role religion plays in the responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, we present the Malawi Religion Project (MRP), which provides data to examine the relationship between religion and HIV/AIDS through surveys and in-depth interviews with denominational leaders, congregational leaders, and congregation members in three districts of rural Malawi. In the paper, we outline existing perspectives on the religion-HIV/AIDS link, describe the MRP's design, implementation, and subsequent data; provide initial evidence for a series of general research hypotheses; and describe how these data can be used both to extend explorations of these relationships further and as a model for gathering similar data in other contexts. In particular we highlight the unique possibilities this project provides for analyses that link MRP data to the Malawi Diffusion and Ideational Change Project. These linked data produce a multi-level data set covering individuals, congregations and their communities, allowing empirical research on religion, HIV/AIDS risk, related behaviors, attitudes, and norms.

1. Introduction

Demographers and health policy experts have long recognized the important role of local institutions in engaging salient population and health issues worldwide. Across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), international efforts to promote family planning, distribute mosquito nets, reduce infectious disease, and combat the spread of HIV and AIDS have mobilized the potential of schools, local clubs, and religious organizations. Despite widespread recognition that religion is a critical aspect of societies in SSA with profound implications for health in this part of the world (Feierman 1985; Oosthuizen 1992), empirical investigations of the impact that religious organizations have in efforts to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in SSA have been scant.

Ideologically-charged discourse on the role religious congregations hold for AIDS in SSA has been plentiful (Ahiante 2003; Green 2003; Kuphunda 2003; Pisani 1999; World Bank 1997), while even-handed, empirically-based assessments of their activities and relevance for AIDS-related outcomes has been limited (for a few exceptions, see Agadjanian 2005; Garner 2000; Lagarde et al. 2000; Takyi 2003). The existing empirical studies of religion and HIV provide important ideas of possible pathways through which religion may be linked to HIV outcomes: via broad-scoped comparisons of associations at country (Garner 2000) or denomination-level (Takyi 2003), the relationship between individuals' religious affiliation or participation and subsequent HIV-related attitudes and behaviors (Lagarde et al. 2000), and describing leadership activities in prevention and care (Trinitapoli 2006). However, no previous data has combined the ability to examine a broad range of religious communities' HIV-related activities with the capacity to then link the individuals who participate in those organizations to examine the organizations' influence on participants' HIV-related behaviors and outcomes.

This paper describes the background, methods, and selected results from the Malawi Religion Project (MRP) - an effort to systematically study the AIDS-related activities of religious congregations in three districts of rural Malawi. Recognizing both the contributions and limitations of studies that have documented the AIDS-related activities of particular African congregations through ethnography and small-scale studies of congregations belonging to the same religious tradition, the MRP capitalizes on innovations in the sociological study of organizations in both theoretical and methodological terms. This provides data that are equally relevant to scholars of religion in Africa and those interested in the role of religion for shaping key demographic processes. Finally, the MRP provides a model for adding a culturally informed ecological component to an ongoing large-scale demographic survey project. …

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