CISP Online

Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Witness Seminars on HIV Histories

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Disentangling European HIV/AIDS Policies: Activism, Citizenship and Health (EUROPACH) is a Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) funded study, which explores the ways in which the history of HIV is mobilised in policy and activism in Germany, UK, Poland, Turkey and at a European level. The UK research is based in CISP and, below, Emily Jay Nicholls introduces the witness seminars she and Marsha Rosengarten convened as part of the project.

Between November 2017 and June 2018, Marsha Rosengarten and I convened a series of ‘witness seminars’ on various topics relating to the history of HIV. The series was part of our work as the UK-based researchers on Disentangling European HIV/AIDS Policies: Activism, Citizenship and Health (EUROPACH) and included seminars on the topics of: Antiretroviral Drugs up to and Including the Proposition of Treatment as Prevention (TasP) and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), The Criminalisation of HIV Transmission, HIV Prevention and Health Promotion and Women and HIV. In all, 33 people participated in these witness seminars, including people living with HIV, clinicians, academics, activists and those involved in the civil society response.

The witness seminar as a method can be described as something between a focus group and an oral history. It is a forum in which key actors who were involved in a particular event are brought together to tell its history collectively. The details of how witness seminars are organised can vary between researchers, but the seminars we convened lasted for approximately two hours and – although a list of proposed topics of discussion was circulated beforehand – tended to follow what was salient to those participating. Following the seminars, the audio recordings were transcribed, the resulting texts were tidied up and footnotes were added where appropriate. The documents were then circulated to participants who were invited to redact, edit or elaborate on their contributions. What resulted were four rich, provocative and often moving texts on different elements of HIV histories. Although they all had a different tone and feel, one of the things that united them, and what was of particular value, was a sense that we were often being told much more than what had happened. Rather, we learned the texture of it: what it felt like, what was happening behind the scenes, the strategies that were employed.

The edited transcripts of the witness seminars are now available here on the CISP blog, as well as the EUROPACH website. They are reflective of the enormous generosity of those who agreed to participate and share their thoughts and experiences. We hope that they will help in acknowledging the importance and ongoing challenges of the epidemic and prove to be a useful resource for those interested in histories of HIV, both now and in the future.

If you have any thoughts on the witness seminars you would like to share, please e-mail me at e.nicholls[at]gold.ac.uk

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