American Sociological Association

Claire Laurier Decoteau Award Statement

Claire Laurier Decoteau Award Statement  

The 2009 recipient of the American Sociological Association Dissertation Award is Claire Decoteau for her dissertation, The Bio-Politics of HIV/AIDS in Post-Apartheid South Africa.Dr. Decoteau conducted this research while working toward a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.She is now continuing this line of work as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Based on two years of intensive ethnographic field research in South Africa, this masterful dissertation elegantly links the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in poor, Black South African communities with the political economy of the post-Apartheid health system to elucidate the ways in which individuals negotiate the twin, and sometimes paradoxical, worlds of traditional healers and contemporary medicine.As Decoteau ultimately concludes, the result of the tensions between these two worlds is a culturally hybrid identity among many post-Apartheid South African Blacks, in which ideologies, norms, and values cutting across the international, national, and local level intersect and interact in complex ways.This dissertation illustrates the potential power of theoretically grounded mixed methods sociological research to advance our conceptual understanding of political and public health issues while also informing policy intervention and practice for a timely social problem.

More specifically, the focus of this dissertation is the widespread tendency for Black South African men and women living through the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic to switch back and forth between traditional, indigenous forms of healing and biomedical forms of healing even though the field of health care and services itself typically separates and divides these two approaches from each other.Indeed, given the effectiveness and availability of advanced biomedical treatments (e.g., anti-retrovirals), many view this mixed approach to healing as irrational.Drawing on a conceptual framework derived from Bourdieu and Foucault, Decoteau explored these issues with an ethnographic, qualitative analysis of health care practitioners, indigenous healers, and HIV-infected populations in formal townships and informal settlements.Her analytical approach was designed to understand how individuals, especially those from historically disenfranchised segments of the population, choose health care and, more generally, seek to improve or maintain their health.Regardless of social class, educational attainment, or other related factors, Black South Africans tend to access the full spectrum of healing approaches, from the most traditional practices rooted in pre-Apartheid conditions for Blacks to the more “modern” practices promulgated by western health care systems.This approach to healing reflects a kind of hybrid habitus that can develop among colonized populations to navigate structural obstacles imposed on them by a dichotomous separation between the “modern” and “traditional” worlds. It powerfully captures the ways in which health-seeking behavior occurs at the nexus of major social, political, and economic trends, including neoliberal economic restructuring, the spread of global health services, and the politics of race and gender.More to the point, because the HIV/AIDS pandemic began during a pivotal transitional period in South African history, it became a central site for struggles over the nature of this historical transition and related social upheaval—the indigenous practices that persisted among Black South Africans during Apartheid as a form of social resistance survived in the post-Apartheid era for similar reasons.

The groundbreaking nature of this dissertation, as well as the rigorous comprehensive approach that Decoteau took to the topic, garnered the enthusiastic support of the various members of the Dissertation Award Committee.Some of their comments go a long way towards explaining why it was selected as the winner this year…

“This dissertation tackles several issues most pertinent to sociology (and a public sociology that is engaged): social inequalities, access to health care, and the politics of services. In doing so, it brings AIDS to a global scale and sociology to an applied level.”

“This is a timely, well-written, and theoretically informed ethnography.Above all, Decoteau’s astute and compassionate dissertation tackles the broader problem many people around the world face as they draw on traditional and biomedical forms of healing simultaneously, yet without a sense of incongruity. In doing so, her research is poised to have a noteworthy impact on health policy in South Africa and around the world.”