AIDS Prevention: Consensus and dissension regarding the meaning of messages

Pascal Singy, Céline Bourquin, Brenda Spencer, Patrice Guex, Alexei Prikhodkine, Manuel Schaffter

CHUV-University Lausanne, Switzerland


Aim: In Western Europe, HIV/AIDS prevention has been based on the provision of information intended to lead the public to voluntarily adapt their behaviour so as to avoid the risk of virus transmission. Whether conveyed in a written or oral form, the messages of prevention are essentially verbal. Sociolinguistic research confirms that, even within a given culture, the meaning attributed to lexical items varies. It was hypothesised that understandings of the terms used in HIV/AIDS prevention in French-speaking Switzerland would vary, and research was undertaken to identify the level and nature of this variation both between and among those who transmit (prevention providers) and those who receive (the public) the messages.

Method/issue: All HIV/AIDS prevention material available in French-speaking Switzerland in 2004 was assembled and a corpus of 50 key documents identified. Two series of lexical items were generated from this corpus: one composed of technical terms potentially difficult to understand, and the other, of terms used in everyday language with implicit, and therefore potentially variable, meaning. The two lists of terms were investigated in qualitative interviews in stratified purposive samples of the general public (n=60) and prevention providers (n=30), using standard socio-linguistic methodology. A further quantitative study (CATI) in the general population (17 – 49 yrs.; n=500) investigated understandings of 15 key prevention terms found in the qualitative research to have been associated with high levels of dissension.

Results/comments: Selected aspects of the results will be presented. In illustration: meanings attributed to the different terms in both the public and the providers varied. For example, when a relationship is described as “stable”, this may be understood as implying exclusive sexual relations or long duration, with an interaction between the two traits; the term “sexual intercourse” may or may not be used to refer to oral sex; “making love” may or may not necessarily include an act of penetration; the pre-ejaculate is qualified by some as sperm, and by others not… Understanding of frequently used “technical” terms in prevention was far from universal; for example, around only a half of respondents understood the meaning of “safer sex”. Degree of understanding of these terms was linked to education, whereas variability in meaning in everyday language was not linked to socio-economic variables.

Discussion: Findings indicate the need for more awareness regarding the heterogeneity of meaning around the terms regularly used in prevention. Greater attention should be paid to the formulation of prevention messages, and providers should take precautions to ensure that the meanings they wish to convey are those perceived by the receivers of their messages. Wherever possible, terms used should be defined and meanings rendered explicit.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on interaction, discourse, media, professional settings
Friday, April 4, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer