Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

The Anthropology of AIDS in Tanzania: An Discussion with Hansjörg Dilger

Hansjörg Dilger is the editor, along with Ute Luig, of Morality, Hope and Grief: Anthropologies of AIDS in Africawhich was published by Berghahn Books in paperback in December 2012. 




What drew you to the study of AIDS in Africa?


HD: I started my research on AIDS in Tanzania as a master student. AIDS hadn’t been at the center of “mainstream anthropology” in the mid-1990s, at least not in Western Europe, and I wanted to do “something useful” for my thesis project. Initially, my fieldwork on HIV/AIDS focused on the moral discourses of young men and women on sexuality, modernity, and social transformation in the context of the epidemic in western Tanzania. Later on, this led me to the study of social and kinship relations and how they transform in the context of illness, death, and rural-urban mobility.


What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging?  Most rewarding?


HD: The most rewarding part of editing this volume was probably the conference from which it grew. Five days of inspiring conversations with wonderful scholars from Europe, Africa, and North America – in the scenic wintery-snowy setting of an old castle 40 kms from Berlin… The challenging parts were the editorial decisions my co-editor, Ute Luig, and I had to make in creating a coherent volume – and the long waiting time until one finally sees the book in print.



To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates amongst anthropologists researching AIDS or sub-Saharan Africa?  Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars?


HD: The major contribution of this volume is probably its focus on the moral dimensions of HIV/AIDS – and more specifically, the way moral challenges such as care, healing, and solidarity are experienced, negotiated, and acted upon in situations of crisis and suffering. Some chapters also address how these themes have been transformed by the more recent introduction of antiretroviral therapy.

While anthropologists tend to highlight the agency that people have even under very difficult circumstances, the necessity of such studies may not always be comprehensive to everyone. Especially in the early years of my research, I was occasionally asked why anthropologists spend long time on their fieldwork when people “are actually dying”? However, I think that today there is a lot of agreement that complex human challenges such as HIV/AIDS do not have a “quick fix.”



What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?


HD: I was told that I am good in painting and drawing – and I love gardening; though I do not have much time for both at the moment. More recently I have returned to growing cactuses, they don’t mind my traveling…



If there is one particular area of interest or question which you feel is especially pertinent to anthropology today and in the future, and which has not been the focus of much attention?


HD: Anthropology has much to contribute to the understanding of emergent cultural and social formations in globalizing and transnational settings. I think there is still a need to address the theoretical and methodological implications of such an endeavor – as well as the specific contributions anthropology can make in interdisciplinary studies of these topics.


Hansjörg Dilger is Junior Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Between 1995 and 2003, he carried out long-term fieldwork on AIDS and social relationships in rural and urban Tanzania. He is the author of Living with Aids. Illness, Death and Social Relationships in Africa. An Ethnography (Campus, 2005 in German). His recent research has focused on histories of social and religious inequality and the growing presence of Christian and Muslim schools in Dar es Salaam.


Ute Luig is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin. She has conducted long-term field work in Uganda, Ivory Coast and Zambia on gender, AIDS, religion and modernity. She is co-editor of Spirit Possession, Modernity and Power in Africa(University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). At present she is involved in a project analysing the role of Buddhism in the reconciliation process in Cambodia after the civil war.