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Higher Education Modules

Responding to AIDS: History, Politics and Visual Culture

Class 4: Target Populations, Harm Reduction and Preventive Practices

This class extends the analysis of public health posters begun in Class 3 by asking students to critically evaluate the techniques used by public health officials and advocacy groups in efforts to reach specific target populations. The class begins with Gregory Herek’s discussion of AIDS and stigma, which is designed to expose students to a variety of social, psychological, and demographic variables that have been found to correlate with AIDS—related attitudes. Allan M. Brandt argues that the way a society responds to problems of disease reveals its deepest cultural, social, and moral values. His essay analyzes the process by which social and cultural forces affect our understanding of disease—the “social construction of disease”—and examines several analogues to the contemporary health crisis.

Students should complete the secondary source readings before returning to the online exhibition Surviving and Thriving. Students should be asked to analyze another group of AIDS posters in order to deconstruct the ways in which values shape the strategies and content of campaigns designed to target specific populations. Discussion questions may be provided to students in advance. The digital galleries, “Minority AIDS Project,” “Harm Reduction/Clean Needles,” “Native Peoples Respond,” and “Please Be Safe,” address different themes from the secondary readings. Students should consult the discussion questions when browsing these galleries before visiting the exhibition sections in Visual Culture and Public Health Posters titled “Target Populations,” °Living with HIV/AIDS,” and “Solidarity and Human Rights.” Display of posters from these galleries can also be used to stimulate in-class discussions.

Secondary Sources:

Herek, Gregory M. “AIDS and Stigma.” American Behavioral Scientist 42 (April 1999): 1106-1116.

Brandt, Allan M. “AIDS: From Social History to Social Policy.” In AIDS: The Burdens of History. Edited by Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, 127-148. Available online at:

Primary Sources:

National Library of Medicine. “Harm Reduction/Clean Needles,” “Minority AIDS Project,” “Native Peoples Respond,” and “Please Be Safe.” Digital Gallery themes in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture. Last updated August 9, 2013.

—. “Target Populations,” “Living with HIV/AIDS,” and “Solidarity and Human Rights.” In Visual Culture and Public Health Posters Last updated July 10, 2012.,, and

Discussion Questions
  1. How and why have people with AIDS been the targets of stigma? What social, psychological, and demographic variables have been found to correlate with AIDS-related attitudes and why? How has AIDS stigma hindered societal response to the epidemic?
  2. Consider and evaluate Brandt’s explanation for the social attitudes and stigma associated with AIDS. How did AIDS highlight a central tension between the rights of the individual to fundamental civil liberties and the notion of the public good and the role of the state in assuring public welfare? Why is it important to understand the cultural context in analyzing the various responses to AIDS?
  3. What were the various aims, messages, and strategies that influenced the content and design of AIDS posters that addressed specific target populations? What techniques were used to appeal to certain groups? How and why was harm reduction adopted as a strategy? What preventive behaviors were promoted and how?