Understanding AIDS: Historical interpretations and the limits of biomedical individualism

E. Fee, N. Krieger

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The popular and scientific understanding of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the United States has been shaped by successive historical constructions or paradigms of disease. In the first paradigm, AIDS was conceived of as a 'gay plague,' by analogy with the sudden, devastating epidemics of the past. In the second, AIDS was normalized as a chronic disease to be managed medically over the long term. By examining and extending critiques of both paradigms, it is possible to discern the emergence of an alternative paradigm of AIDS as a collective chronic infectious disease and persistent pandemic. Each of these constructions of AIDS incorporates distinct views of the etiology, prevention, pathology, and treatment of disease; each tacitly promotes different conceptions of the proper allocation of individual and social responsibility for AIDS. This paper focuses on individualistic vs collective, and biomedical vs social and historical, understandings of disease. It analyzes the uses of individualism as methodology and as ideology, criticizes some basic assumption of the biomedical model, and discusses alternative strategies for scientific research, health policy, and disease prevention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1477-1486
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican journal of public health
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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