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Social representations of AIDS: towards encompassing issues of power

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Dominant social representations concerning the origin and spread of AIDS have frequently contained allusions to 'risk groups'. This paper focuses on the social psychological consequences of these allusions for members of one of the 'risk groups': gay men. As part of a wider study, depth interviews were conducted with a sample of British and South African gay men, a number of whom had HIV/AIDS. They were prompted to talk about where HIV/AIDS originated, how it spreads and which groups are worst affected by it in their own country. The representations contained in the mass mediated AIDS campaigns were examined in parallel to the analysis of lay thinking. Many of the gay men echoed the 'you get what you deserve' ethos which circulated in their social world, blaming their in-group and themselves for AIDS. However evidence of a spoiled identity was accompanied by signs that mechanisms which were being used (consciously and unconsciously) to manage this identity. These mechanisms ranged from active group empowerment, to idealisation and externalisation of AIDS. These inter-related mechanisms can be recast as forms of resistance to dominant social representations of AIDS. This paper aims to highlight the importance of power in the formation of dominant versus resistant social representations, since it has been under-represented in the literature to date.

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