Susan Cotts Watkins

Susan Cotts Watkins

Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Sociology

Competition: US & Canada

University of Pennsylvania; University of California, Los Angeles

I spent my professional life trying to unravel the mysteries of dramatic, widespread, and consequential changes in sex and death: first the historical declines in fertility in Europe and the U.S., then the global spread of fertility control, and, since 1994, the role of informal social networks in responses to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, with two research studies, one in Kenya (1994-2000), the other in Malawi (1997–and continuing, thanks to generous funding from the National Institutes of Health). My Guggenheim project, Navigating AIDS in Rural Malawi, draws on a particularly rich set of data about what rural Malawians say to each other about AIDS to their friends, relatives, and neighbors, as they try to understand and respond to the AIDS epidemic. The data include a longitudinal survey that has permitted sophisticated analyses of the structure of local social networks as well as ethnographic data on what people say to each other about ways they can prevent infection, untimely death, and leaving orphans behind.

Consistent with this interest in networks, my research has always been highly collaborative, with particularly important contributions from Jere Behrman and Hans-Peter Kohler (both economists and Penn professors), Agnes Chimbiri (then Director of the Center for Reproductive Health at the College of Medicine, University of Malawi), Eliya Zulu (a former graduate student in demography, now Associate Director of the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya) and, more recently, Ann Swidler (UC Berkeley) and Adam Ashforth (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor). In addition, nearly 100 graduate students and faculty from multiple universities have been involved in data collection, many of them writing dissertations and papers—and by now, some of them are faculty themselves; we have also worked with outstanding Malawian field directors, supervisors, survey interviewers, and local ethnographers. The results of this collective work are at the project website, Navigating AIDS will use the data from rural Malawi to show, I hope persuasively, that the vast amounts of foreign humanitarian aid for AIDS have been less significant in stemming the tide of the epidemic than the multiple and creative strategies of rural women and men who, in collaboration with their friends, relatives, and neighbors, are trying to avoid infection, I think successfully.

Photograph by Jerry Cotts.

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