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Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives for a Social Epidemiology of HIV Risk Among Injection Drug Users and Sex Workers

DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-2138-8_10 In book: Rethinking Social Epidemiology, pp.205-230
The transmission of HIV is shaped by individual-environment inter­actions. Social epidemiologic approaches thus seek to capture
the dynamic and reciprocal relationships of individual-environment interactions in the production and reduction of risk. This
presents considerable methodological, theoretical and disciplinary challenges. Drawing upon four research case studies, we
consider how methods and concepts in the social and epidemiologic sciences might be brought together towards understanding
HIV risk as an effect of social, cultural and political condition. The case studies draw upon different combinations of methods
(qualitative, ethnographic and quantitative) and disciplines (sociology, anthropology and epidemiology) in different social
contexts of HIV vulnerability (street settings in Russia, Serbia and North America and a cross-border setting in Mexico) among
a range of marginalised high-risk populations (injection drug users and female and transvestite sex workers). These case studies
illustrate the relevance of the social science concepts of “structural violence” and “structural vulnerability” for a social
epidemiology of HIV risk. They also explore how social epidemiologic work can benefit from the mixing of social science methods
and theories. We contend that social epidemiology cannot advance in its understanding of structural vulnerability without
embracing and relying upon ethnographic and qualitative approaches. We put ­forward the linked concepts of “structural violence,”
“structural vulnerability” and “risk environment” as building blocks for a theory-informed social epidemiology of HIV risk
among marginalised populations.

Full-text (PDF)

Available from: Steffanie A Strathdee
10.1 Introduction ................................................................................................................. 206
10.2 From the Individual to the Social ................................................................................ 207
10.3 Methodological Challenges ......................................................................................... 210
10.4 Four Case Studies ........................................................................................................ 211
10.4.1 Case Study One: Policing and the “Structuration” of HIV
Vulnerability Through Fear ........................................................................... 212
10.4.2 Case Study Two: Gendered Power Relations and HCV
Seroconversion Among Street-Based Youth IDUs ........................................ 215
10.4.3 Case Study Three: Structural Violence, Power and HIV
Prevention Among Female and Transgendered Sex
Workers in an Urban Setting.......................................................................... 218
10.4.4 Case Study Four: HIV Risk in the Context of Deportation:
The Modifying Role of Gender ..................................................................... 221
10.5 Discussion .................................................................................................................... 222
10.5.1 Structural Vulnerability ................................................................................. 223
10.5.2 Mixing Method and Theory ........................................................................... 225
10.6 Conclusions ................................................................................................................. 226
References ............................................................................................................................... 227
T. Rhodes (*)
London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 15-17 Tavistock Place,
London WC1H 9SH, UK
Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine, UC San Diego, California, USA
K. Shannon
Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia
and BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
P. Bourgois
Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania
Chapter 10
Structural Violence and Structural
Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment:
Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives
for a Social Epidemiology of HIV Risk Among
Injection Drug Users and Sex Workers
Tim Rhodes, Karla Wagner, Steffanie A. Strathdee, Kate Shannon,
Peter Davidson, and Philippe Bourgois
P. O’Campo and J.R. Dunn (eds.), Rethinking Social Epidemiology:
Towards a Science of Change, DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-2138-8_10,
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012
Page 1
T. Rhodes et al.
Abstract The transmission of HIV is shaped by individual-environment inter-
actions. Social epidemiologic approaches thus seek to capture the dynamic and
reciprocal relationships of individual-environment interactions in the production
and reduction of risk. This presents considerable methodological, theoretical and
disciplinary challenges. Drawing upon four research case studies, we consider how
methods and concepts in the social and epidemiologic sciences might be brought
together towards understanding HIV risk as an effect of social, cultural and political
condition. The case studies draw upon different combinations of methods (qualita-
tive, ethnographic and quantitative) and disciplines (sociology, anthropology and
epidemiology) in different social contexts of HIV vulnerability (street settings in
Russia, Serbia and North America and a cross-border setting in Mexico) among a
range of marginalised high-risk populations (injection drug users and female and
transvestite sex workers). These case studies illustrate the relevance of the social sci-
ence concepts of “structural violence” and “structural vulnerability” for a social epi-
demiology of HIV risk. They also explore how social epidemiologic work can benefit
from the mixing of social science methods and theories. We contend that social epi-
demiology cannot advance in its understanding of structural vulnerability without
embracing and relying upon ethnographic and qualitative approaches. We put forward
the linked concepts of “structural violence,” “structural vulnerability” and “risk envi-
ronment” as building blocks for a theory-informed social epidemiology of HIV risk
among marginalised populations.
GIS Geographic Information Systems
HCV Hepatitis C virus
IDU injection drug user
SRO single room occupancy
10.1 Introduction
HIV transmission is influenced by an interaction between biological, individual and
environmental factors. Social epidemiologic approaches thus seek to delineate how
the distribution of HIV in populations is shaped by the “risk environment,” that is,
by determinants that extend beyond “proximal” individual-level factors and their
behavioural mediators (Farmer 2009; Krieger 2008; Rhodes 2002). This presents
considerable methodological, theoretical and disciplinary challenges. In this chapter,
we consider how methods and concepts in the social and epidemiologic sciences
might be brought together towards understanding HIV risk as an effect of social,
cultural and political condition. Our interest is in mapping how social, political and
economic structures generate and reproduce vulnerability to HIV, especially among
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
socially marginalised populations, including injection drug users (IDUs) and sex
workers. This brings into focus how multiple interacting social factors create a
context of vulnerability to HIV risk across multiple marginalised populations. We,
therefore, outline a case for a “social epidemiology of structural vulnerability”
applied to HIV. In doing so, we emphasise the critical role of qualitative methods
and social science theory in capturing and representing the “lived experience” of
embodied structural vulnerability inside a mixed-method and cross-disciplinary
approach. We suggest that social epidemiology cannot advance in its practical
understanding of structural vulnerability without embracing and relying on
ethnographic and qualitative approaches. Our aim is not merely to outline a case for
a social epidemiology of structural vulnerability but also to reflect upon some of
the limits, opportunities and challenges likely to be created through such cross-
methodological and disciplinary work.
10.2 From the Individual to the Social
The field of public health, and in HIV specifically, has increasingly moved towards an
understanding that health is an outcome of social and structural conditions and, in
particular, sociocultural, economic and political inequalities (Farmer 1999; Navarro
and Mutaner 2004). Accompanying this understanding is a growing critique of
biomedical approaches to health research, which tend to emphasize individual-level
factors over environmental or structural ones and which fail to adequately capture the
social structural production of risk or the facilitators of change. In the case of HIV,
however, the interplay between health and social marginalisation is, or should be, so
visible as to be unavoidable (Farmer et al. 1996). This critique identifies a tendency in
public health and the behavioural sciences to operationalize risk as primarily resulting
from individual action and responsibility and, in doing so, cautions against an over
reliance upon individual-level models of rational choice decision making. Behavioural
interventions alone have been shown to only account for a modest reduction in HIV
incidence in the absence of social and structural interventions and policies (Copenhaver
et al. 2006). This critique also cautions against the “victim blaming” tendency of
individual-level models, which give sole or primary emphasis to individual choice and
agency as determinants of risk and risk behaviour. In contrast, social epidemiologic
approaches seek to situate risk and risk responsibility as something shared between
individuals, communities and environments – especially among the social and politi-
cal-economic institutions that have a key role in risk production. While epidemiologic
research has shown that physical, social, economic and policy environment factors are
independently associated with HIV infection among vulnerable groups such as drug
users, few studies have fully operationalized a social epidemiologic approach from the
outset (Strathdee et al. 2010). Here we advocate for a shift “from the individual to the
social” in public health, which emphasises, first, that the health of individuals and
communities is an embodiment of their social condition and, second, that health
improvement requires social and structural change.
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T. Rhodes et al.
One overarching heuristic for guiding research and intervention on HIV risk as
an effect of social condition is the “risk environment” framework (Rhodes 2002,
2009; Rhodes et al. 2005; Strathdee et al. 2010). This has been defined as the space,
whether social or physical, in which a variety of environmental factors interact to
increase the chances of risk occurring (Rhodes
2002; Rhodes et al. 2003). The risk
environment is conceptualised as comprising types of environment (physical, social,
economic and policy) interacting with levels of environmental influence (micro and
macro). This same logic implies an “enabling environment” framework of social
and structural change (Table 10.1). This heuristic has given impetus to a number of
studies investigating the primacy of social context in HIV and other risks related to
injection drug use and sex work (Strathdee et al. 2010, 2008b; Rhodes et al. 2005;
Moore 2004; Small et al. 2006; Shannon et al. 2008a, b; Cooper et al. 2009; Green
et al. 2009). Within an overarching framework of risk environment, there are a
number of overlapping (and to some extent competing) concepts in social science
that have provided the conceptual foundations for social epidemiologic work,
including in the field of HIV and drug use. These concepts include “political econ-
omy” and “structural violence.” Social epidemiologic approaches have long drawn
attention to an overlap with political economy (Krieger 2001, 2008; Doyle 1979).
For Krieger (2008), health “cannot be divorced from considerations of political
economy and political ecology.” This reflects parallel assertions in the social
sciences that the HIV risks of drug use or sex work are “virtually meaningless out-
side their sociocultural as well as political economic contexts” (Bourgois 2003) and
that drug use is “the epiphenomenonal expression of deeper, structural dilemmas”
(Bourgois 1995). Crucially, political-economic perspectives posit social conditions
as rendering particular sectors of the population vulnerable to harm. This “struc-
turation of risk” is illustrated through the incarceration and enforcement-based
policies that disproportionately affect those using drugs and working in the sex
industry as well as those already suffering intense and systematic discrimination,
including racial discrimination (Jurgens et al. 2010).
A related concept informing social epidemiologic work to date is structural
violence. Structural violence is distinct from personal or direct violence in that it is
embedded in social structures whereby “unequal power” shapes “unequal life
chances” (Galtung
1990). Poverty, racism and gender inequalities provide examples
(Farmer et al. 1996; Walter et al. 2004). Each of these may perpetuate constraints in
agency, leading to unequal opportunity and disproportionate social suffering for the
marginalised (Farmer 2010). Crucially, the institutionalisation and everyday inter-
nalization of structural violence can render it invisible or unnoticeable (Scheper-
Hughes 1996). The embodied effects of structural violence may be understood as
“oppression illness,” which is the “product of the impact of suffering from social
mistreatment,” a type of “stress disorder,” where the source of stress is “being the
object of widespread and enduring social discrimination, degradation, structural
violence and abusive derision,” whether overt or hidden (Singer 2004). Drug use,
itself, can be seen as a form of “self-medication” for oppression illness, providing
“pain intolerance,” “chemical intervention” and a “solution” (Singer 2004). The
internalization of social suffering (Kleinman et al. 1997) reproduces a cycle of
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
Table 10.1 The risk and enabling environment: selected examples related to HIV, drug injecting and sex work
Micro-environment Macro-environment
Physical Risk Drug using, injecting and sex work locations
Drug injecting in public spaces
Prisons and detention centres
Drug trafficking and distribution routes
Trade routes and population mobility
Geographical population shifts and population mixing
Intervention Creating safer drug using sites (e.g., sharps disposal, lighting)
Developing supervised injecting facilities
Prison-based harm reduction interventions and alternatives to
Changes to trafficking interdiction policies
Interventions at truck stops and train stations
Cross-border interventions
Changes to immigration laws and routine enforcement practices
Social Risk Social and peer group “risk” norms and intimate partner violence
Local policing practices and “crackdowns”
Community health and welfare service access and delivery
Gender inequalities and gendered risk
Stigmatisation and marginalisation of drug users
Weak civil society and community advocacy
Intervention Social network and peer-based interventions
Shelters for homeless and for battered partners
Police partnership and training projects
Developing low threshold accessible services for drug users
Fostering collective actions and political mobilization for social
and human rights in combination with policy changes
Mass media and social marketing of harm reduction
Strengthening civil society infrastructure and self-help
Economic Risk Cost of living and cost of health treatments
Cost of prevention materials
Lack of income generation and employment
Lack of health service revenue
and spending
Growth of informal economies
Uncertain economic transition
Intervention Subsidised and free treatment
Distribution of free prevention materials
Micro-economic enterprise and employment schemes
Increase investment in harm reduction relative to enforcement
National health insurance schemes
Laws governing employment rights
Policy Risk Availability and coverage of clean needles and syringes
Program-level policies governing distribution of materials
Access to low-threshold and social housing
Public health policy governing harm reduction and drug
Laws governing possession of drugs
Laws governing protection of human and health rights
Intervention Scaling-up pharmacy-based syringe provision
Secondary syringe distribution programmes
Hostel-based and housing neighbourhood development
Legal reform enabling the scaling-up of harm reduction
Legal reform enabling the protection of drug user rights
National policy changes regarding public health strategy
Source: Rhodes (
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T. Rhodes et al.
risk production in which those marginalised can become complicit, including
unconsciously, in their ongoing structural subordination (Bourdieu 2000).
Critiques of political economy perspectives and the ways in which structural
violence informs social epidemiologic work emphasise that they tend to be “over
deterministic,” underplaying the role of agency, subjectification and non-material
forces in the reciprocal processes of individual-environment interactions (Bourgois
and Schonberg
2009; Duff 2007; Giddens 1984; Biehl et al. 2007; Butler 1997;
Foucault 1995; Pine 2008). It is critical that social epidemiologic approaches capture
the dynamism of agency-structure transformations, in which environments constrain
as well as enable agency, and are thus also produced and reproduced by participant
practices. We take up these points below in the case study descriptions and discussion
of the “structural vulnerability” of HIV risk.
10.3 Methodological Challenges
Rather than relying on reductionist models that hypothesize direct, linear associations
between “risk factors” and “outcomes,” a shift towards a social understanding of
HIV vulnerability can “scale up” an understanding of risk to embrace the dynamic,
reciprocal associations amongst individuals and their social, physical and political-
economic environments. Attention to the multilevel, complex systems that influence
health outcomes, however, is not without its methodological challenges. In fact,
developing research methods that can delineate causal and theoretical pathways in
the social determinants of HIV is a critical step to informing social and structural
interventions for reducing HIV risk (Strathdee et al. 2010; Rhodes 2009).
Researching causal pathways to HIV transmission demands a shift from binary
epidemiologic models of simple “cause and effect” to “multilevel” models, which
emphasise HIV as an outcome of multiple contributing factors at once interacting
together (Galea and Vlahov 2002). Social determinants that derive from the risk
environment perspective are often “non-linear” and “indirect” in their effects, and
this presents considerable challenges to delineating causative relationships (Krieger
1994). Measuring the effects of structural violence, for example, is not as simple as
assessing phenomena such as the direct experience of physical violence or eco-
nomic dislocation; structural violence extends beyond the individual to the social
structures that perpetuate poverty, racism, gender inequalities and other forms of
systemic marginalisation, which ultimately shape HIV risk. HIV is thus an outcome
of a “complex system” of interactions occurring within and between individuals and
their environments, with the challenge being to better capture the dynamism of
these reciprocal relations through mixed-methods research.
Understanding these complex systems requires an iterative and multidisci-
plinary approach in which qualitative evidence and social science theory help to
map conceptions of “risk environment” and related risk pathways. Although there
is a rich theoretical and empirical tradition in the social sciences of investigating
health as an effect of social inequality and condition (Engels 1892), public health
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
has not dialogued systematically with social science theory and methods. In a
research environment increasingly characterized by transdisciplinary and mixed-
methods approaches, both social science and traditional epidemiologic approaches
can benefit from the strategic integration of the other’s theoretical approaches and
research methods (Mason
2006). Such a synthesis has the potential to increase the
public health impact of both fields by generating grounded conceptual frameworks
with testable causal pathways contributing to intervention development on the one
hand and by providing socially-situated interpretations of epidemiologic data on
the other.
10.4 Four Case Studies
We will draw upon four short case studies to illustrate the relevance of the concepts
of structural violence and structural vulnerability in social epidemiology studies of
the HIV risk environment. Our four case studies explore relationships between viral
harms (HIV and hepatitis C virus) and social condition. Case Study One explores
the “structuration” of HIV risk through the everyday internalization of fear induced
by policing practices among injection drug users in Russia and sex workers in
Serbia. Case Study Two explores the legitimization of violence against young
female IDUs in San Francisco leading to heightened vulnerability to hepatitis C
(HCV). Case Study Three focuses on police-enforced displacement of female sex
workers in Vancouver to remote, violent neighbourhoods that heighten their risk of
violence and limit their capacity to negotiate condom use. Case Study Four explores
gendered patterns of international migration and deportation associated with the
risk of HIV infection in the United States/Mexico border region.
Each case study employs a different design and, taken as a group, show the
strategic advantage of integrating multiple methodological approaches. Case Study
One emphasises the critical role of ethnographic and qualitative research in captur-
ing and representing the “lived experience” of embodied structural vulnerability,
including as a means of informing subsequent epidemiologic study. Case Study
Two demonstrates how the simultaneous use of ethnographic participant observa-
tion and epidemiologic survey research can both inform and refine research ques-
tions when ethnography uncovers associations that may be difficult to detect using
quantitative measures. Case Study Three uses a participatory research approach to
incorporate quantitative questionnaire data, social mapping and in-depth qualitative
interviews in an iterative design that explicitly accounts for the complex physical
and social environment in which HIV risk behaviour occurs. Case Study Four shows
how counterintuitive findings from a classically-designed epidemiologic cohort
study can be contextualized and interpreted through the use of supplemental
qualitative research informed by social science theory. Our aim is not only to make
a case for a social epidemiology of structural vulnerability (as applied to HIV) but
also to highlight some of the methodological and theoretical challenges facing
cross-disciplinary public health research.
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T. Rhodes et al.
10.4.1 Case Study One: Policing and the “Structuration”
of HIV Vulnerability Through Fear
Data were drawn from qualitative studies among injecting drug users in Russia, in 2003,
and sex workers in Serbia, in 2005, to capture the lived effects of HIV risk environment in
which policing practices played a key role (Sarang et al. 2010; Rhodes et al. 2008).
One of the most visible structural mechanisms perpetuating social suffering and
HIV risk among vulnerable populations of IDUs and sex workers is the criminal
justice system, especially policing practices. International evidence links policies
emphasizing repressiveness through law enforcement with higher levels of risk for
health and HIV, and a growing epidemiologic literature points towards policing prac-
tices and fear of the criminal justice system as important factors (Strathdee et al.
2010; Rhodes 2009; Cooper et al. 2009; Friedman et al. 2006; Pollini et al. 2008).
Russia provides an acute example (as do other parts of Eastern Europe witness-
ing massive outbreaks of HIV among drug injectors). The enactment of criminal
and administrative codes relating to drugs possession combine with aggressive
police surveillance, resulting in the mass incarceration of drug users and other
minority groups and a prison system linked to HIV outbreaks (Bobrik et al. 2005;
Sarang et al. 2006). Intense police surveillance fosters reluctance to seek help or
carry sterile needles for fear of arrest, caution, fine or detention (Rhodes et al.
2003). Police contact, from arrest to assault, is associated with increased risk of
syringe sharing (Strathdee et al. 2010; Sarang et al. 2010; Pollini et al. 2008;
Rhodes et al. 2004).
Qualitative research among 209 IDUs in three Russian cities (Moscow, Volgograd
and Barnaul) illustrates the “structural violence” of drug policies emphasizing crim-
inalization (Sarang et al. 2010). Everyday policing practices, and especially extraju-
dicial practices, generated a pervasive sense among drug injectors of being at risk,
in turn reinforcing a sense of stigma, powerlessness and, importantly, a fatalistic
acceptance of harm and suffering. Through the internalization of the effects of
policing practices, we see the embodiment of social conditions into everyday risk
perceptions and practices. Of key importance is the fear of policing practices and
how this acted as an indirect force of structural violence affecting capacity for HIV
risk avoidance.
First, drug injectors felt under inescapable surveillance (“You cannot hide from
them” and “They know everything about us”). While the sense of being under per-
vasive surveillance was presented as normative, it is what police might do with such
surveillance opportunity that drug users feared. The power of the police was ubiq-
uitously perceived among drug injectors as limitless (captured by the Russian term
bespredel ).
The extortion of money and the planting of evidence were, for example, presented
as common practices, with the latter also resulting in unjust incarceration. Yet extor-
tion was seen as mundane. Drug users were participants in, and complicit with,
extortion. It had an immediate function, for money was exchanged for freedom.
This was seen as a risk management strategy.
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But police physical violence and assault was perceived entirely differently. Physical
violence by the police was experienced as an extreme act of moral indignation, aggres-
sion and subordination. It was police brutality that induced most fear: “I’m very
afraid;” “I was so shit scared;” and “Fear, fear, that is the main thing.” Fear acts as both
an effect and a force of structural violence. Here, Sergei (aged 27), an occasional
injector from Volgograd, tells a story of how police violence produces fear:
We were just standing, talking, with my girlfriend. So a policeman comes by and asks to
show my passport, as they always do. I didn’t have them. …So he takes me out into his
booth. …After they searched me and couldn’t find anything, they just started to call
someone, peek into my eyes, and say like I’m high or something. And they just start to get
to me. Then my girl comes in. They searched her too, and found the pack of Russian ciga-
rettes [where the cannabis was]. And that was it. Now we’re 100% junkies, and things are
off and rolling. He locks us both on to these bars. There were maybe five other people in
there. And he just starts to bully my girl. He says, “Your girl is a bitch, she’s a toad, a turd,
I can see it in her eyes.” And he starts to wind me up. And when I start reacting, he just tears
me out of there and starts to beat me, methodically on my belly, legs, and other parts so as
not to bruise me too much. Then when he got tired, he just stretched me out on the floor, put
handcuffs behind my back, pulled my legs through my arms and just left me there. I don’t
know how long I just laid there, or why they bullied me, even though I didn’t even have
anything. No reason. I don’t know what to call that. This is just scary. …I don’t know. I’m
still in a trance from all this horror.
The physical suffering narrated by Sergei has human rights and public health
implications. It also has practical consequences, as the internalization of fear exac-
erbates structural vulnerability to HIV and other health risk. A state of fear height-
ens concerns to evade detection, resulting in rushed injections, short-cuts in needle
hygiene, injecting in “hidden” locations (such as at dealers’ houses) and sharing
needles and syringes to reduce the risk of arrest for carrying injecting equipment:
“Fear. This is the main reason [for syringe sharing]. …You just try and inject quick,
quick, quick, and you don’t give a damn whether it’s clean” and “I am afraid, and so
I hide. And so everything [drug injecting] takes place [on the street] in filth.” Fear
can also lead to avoiding pharmacies and other needle and syringe outlets in an
attempt to avoid arrest should the police be present. More subtly, all state represen-
tatives, including helping agencies, become feared as a source of risk: “Although the
pharmacy was two houses away from me, always, always, the police stood there”
and “Why I haven’t gone to the exchange? Well, shit, I’m scared, that’s why. It’s
dangerous. Who knows who is there.
It can be seen here how political processes of everyday violence cross over from
public space to traumatize personal space and then cross back as collective experi-
ence (Kleinman 1991). Policing practices feature inside a broader complex of
multiple interacting social and material inequalities, which over time become insti-
tutionalized and normalized. When internalized, the effects of such structural
violence may be expressed as individual deficits, as psychological harm, powerless-
ness, and fatalism to risk.
A second example of qualitative research, focusing on the policing of female and
transvestite sex workers in Serbia (Rhodes et al. 2008), illustrates further how polic-
ing practices targeting the vulnerable are best seen not in social isolation but as
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T. Rhodes et al.
institutionalized expressions of a wider complex of normative social and moral
regulation. Among street-based sex workers in Belgrade and nearby PanÄevo,
violence, especially police violence, was a primary concern. While client violence
was not uncommon, police violence was perceived as the greater threat and as less
open to risk management: “You can manage your clients somehow, but to be honest,
the greatest threat to us is the police.” Sexual services were provided to police with-
out payment as well as secured by them through deception and coercion, often
involving violence or the threat of it: “And at the end of the job he shows me his
badge, and says like ‘Give me my money back now’. That’s what he does” and
“They want blowjobs, fucks. I work for free, just so they don’t take me in.” Attempts
to resist such demands could also incite violence: “He wants me to blow him for
free. I don’t want to. Later, when he gets me on my shift, he beats me silly. Beats me
silly” and “He beats me up with a baton. And several times I had to be [have sex]
with him. I really had to. I was forced.
Being coerced into providing sex to police in this setting was described as an
exchange for freedom (from detainment, arrest or fine) enforced by a pervasive risk,
sometimes realized, of physical violence (Rhodes et al.
2008). Again, we see fear
induced by policing practices acting as an indirect force of structural violence.
Embodied fear produced fatalist risk acceptance to the inevitability of violence
(“I can’t fight destiny”) and an internalized sense of police “rights” to victimize
(“They have a right to beat us because we do this prostitution thing”).
This study shows that while serving to protect state and public interests, policing
practices can reproduce underlying societal injustices, fears and inequalities, includ-
ing regarding gender, sexuality, drug use and ethnicity. Enforced sexual acts and
payments to police were experienced as a form of governmentality, as if for moral
wrong doing, to “bring sex workers to their senses.” Significantly, police “moral
punishments” for selling sex were inextricably linked inside a broader complex of
social discrimination, especially towards Roma and transvestites. In Serbia, Roma
are a minority ethnic group subjected to immense social discrimination and Roma
sex workers, most of whom were Kosovo refugees and all of whom were working
as transvestites, were subjected to extreme acts of police violence:
They [police] kicked, kicked, kicked the hell out of us. Just transvestites. They took me to
the woods, down by the bridge. They stripped everything off me. Flashlight in the eyes. I
said a million times “Take me away. Did you come to arrest me? Arrest me then, but do not
beat me up”. That makes it worse: “Shut up, motherfucker, shut up!”
They [police] started going wild, only on us transvestites. They let the girls go. They just
pick us up, and go to the woods, and go wild on us. …First, they beat us in the woods, and
then they take us to the station. And then, they tell us at the station “Hey, freshen up”, and
they beat us up in the bathroom.
I didn’t know where the blows were coming from. …They just have this hate. Whether
it’s towards prostitutes or specifically trannnies. But it’s terrible.
We see in these examples how qualitative research documents the everyday lived
effects of the risk environment, shaping risk identities. Mapping pathways between
individual risk actions and their structural contexts is inherently complex because
these effects are reciprocal as well as often indirect and non-linear. They shape
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
values and patterns of subjectivities that can promote risk-taking practices. In this
case example, fear and discrimination have direct as well as indirect effects on
individual and collective capacity to reduce risk. Fear and discrimination are vectors
of structural violence that can promote HIV risk. It is unlikely we could have
uncovered their importance through traditional epidemiologic methodologies.
10.4.2 Case Study Two: Gendered Power Relations
and HCV Seroconversion Among Street-Based
Youth IDUs
Data were drawn from a prospective cohort study of young out-of-treatment IDUs in San
Francisco (2000–2002) that included the simultaneous coordinated collection of epidemio-
logic survey research and anthropological participant observation.
In coordination with a prospective epidemiologic study of HCV and HIV
transmission among out-of-treatment youth injectors, we simultaneously collected
classic anthropological participant observation data among participants involved in
an epidemiologic study. The epidemiologic study screened young (< 30 years old)
IDUs for HCV and HIV and enrolled HCV-negative individuals into a prospective
cohort. Participants were re-tested for HCV and HIV and quantitatively interviewed
on a quarterly basis. A central aim was to explore behavioural differences between
those who seroconverted for HCV and those who did not. The primary ethnographer
was a young woman (approximately the same age as the average age of the youth
injectors) and also a former outreach worker and epidemiologic questionnaire
administrator for the project. She befriended and accompanied members of a series
of extended social networks of neighbourhood-based youth injectors in their natural
environment on the street. This involved frequenting street corners, parks, single
room occupancy (SRO) hotels, hidden injection locales, homeless encampments,
jails, hospitals, clinics, social service waiting rooms and needle exchange sites. She
also accompanied the youth injectors in their daily search for drugs and income
(primarily through panhandling, shoplifting, street-based sex work and retail drug
sales). Ethnographic participants were initially selected through a classic opportu-
nistic snowball sample of young women and men. Over time participants were then
more strategically selected through the infrastructure of the epidemiologic project
to develop causal explanations for social processes that might explain or contradict
the emerging findings on risky practices and seroconversion.
Almost immediately, because of the positionality of the ethnographer, the subject
of intimate partner violence within romantic relationships emerged as the primary
theme organizing the lives of the young women surviving on the street in these
social networks. The ethnographer was able to triangulate observational and self-
report data on how romantic sexual relationships affected the details of heroin and
methamphetamine injection practices as well as income generating strategies.
The ethnographic data revealed that newly arrived young women – especially those
under 18 – entering this adolescent drug scene developed romantic relationships
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T. Rhodes et al.
with older, more experienced men who had violent reputations and who displayed
jealous dispositions. These relationships protected them from harassment and rape
by other men and also initially provided them with abundant access to drugs and
advice on how to be street smart. Because of their number of years on the street,
almost all of these “successful” domineering male street injectors were HCV
infected. Some women were self-consciously aware of the protective benefits of
selecting a partner with a “macho” and violent reputation. Most, however, under-
stood their choice of partner in romantic terms. Many interpreted violent male love
as inevitable and even desirable: “The more he hits you the more he loves you.
The male partners generally attempted to oblige the women to conduct all their
drug consumption exclusively with them. They often insisted on maintaining physi-
cal control over needle use and administered injections to the women. This allowed
them to consume more than half of all the drugs they consumed together. It also
reduced the opportunities for the women to meet other men and form alternative
romantic relationships. Almost all the women eventually gravitated towards sex work
to raise money for drugs, both for themselves and for their romantic partner. Over
time, they would become the primary income generators within the relationship.
The ability to explore and document the details of the social logics for gendered
violence was informed by social science theories of gender power relations with an
emphasis on the concept of structural violence and the normalization of everyday
interpersonal violence. The ethnographer’s findings about the prevalence of violence
against women among street youth injectors and the romantic discourse surround-
ing it was also consistent with Bourgois and colleagues’ (
2004, 2009) simultaneous
documentation of violence against women in other street-based drug use scenes.
Regular monthly meetings with the epidemiologic team allowed the project to
compare the emerging qualitative and quantitative findings and to redefine priorities
for both qualitative data collection and for statistical analyses. The primary epide-
miologic outcome measure for statistical analysis was seroincidence. At first
there was no detectable association between HCV seroincidence and gender,
despite the fact that the ethnographic findings strongly suggested that gender and
violence were primary factors driving risk for bloodborne pathogen infection. The
epidemiologists worried that the qualitative findings were driven by an ideological
bias towards feminist theory and had “no basis in the science.” Unfortunately, there
were no questions in the epidemiologic survey that assessed the factors uncovered
in the ethnographic research – particularly with respect to exposure to violence and
the details and influence of romantic relationships. New questions were drafted, but
the field staff responsible for quantitative interviewing expressed concerns that
asking sensitive questions about intimate partner violence and related issues might
be potentially traumatic for respondents. The field staff felt that asking such questions
might be considered unethical, given their lack of psychological therapeutic training
and dearth of services available. A number of the investigative team concurred, and
the proposed questions were never added. In contrast, using ethnographic methods
to discuss intimate violence was not ethically problematic. The research partici-
pants actively sought the company of the ethnographer to discuss their personal
concerns over violence in their lives. This occurred in the context of warm, long-term
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
friendship relationships in their natural environment. It sometimes led to improved
self-protective behaviours on the part of the women.
By the end of the second year, the epidemiologic project documented an elevated
rate of seroconversion among women compared to men (34.4% versus 23.4%), but
this association did not reach statistical significance, possibly due to the inadequate
number of seroconverters (approximately 27 seroconversions per year). We searched
the epidemiologic survey for proxy variables for the social dynamics that were
being documented ethnographically. One factor we were able to document was an
age differential in sexual partnerships (i.e., men older than women). Also docu-
mented was a biologically implausible predictor of HCV seroconversion in the
survey data, i.e. having a sexual partner who is an injection drug user, despite the
current understanding that hepatitis C is very rarely sexually transmitted. This same
biologically implausible association has also been reported in the literature on other
large epidemiologic studies of HCV seroconversion (Miller et al.
2002). We were
able to draw on our qualitative data to identify this finding as being a proxy variable
reflecting gender power dynamics in romantic or sexually active dyadic relation-
ships generally permeated by violence, jealousy and control.
This case study highlights one of the multiple challenges of integrating theory
and methods into a social epidemiology of risk. The association between being a
woman and HCV risk was tenuous and difficult to document through the quantita-
tive data, despite the overwhelming qualitative evidence of the young women being
at consistently more elevated risk then young men immediately upon entering the
street scene. How can this lack of concordance between the two approaches be
explained? One explanation is that variables that measure significant social power
categories (such as gender and race/ethnicity) are highly correlated with many other
variables and behaviours; therefore, it is difficult to disentangle them from other
closely related variables. This is further complicated by the fact that significant
power categories often have contradictory effects on risk. In certain contexts they
can be protective and in others risk-enhancing. As an example, a woman in a
relationship with an older, violent, highly controlling male who forbids her to inject
with others may be both protected by the power relationship (in that the size of the
pool of people she injects with shrinks) and put at risk by that same violent power
relationship (if the male partner is infected with hepatitis C and controls all aspects
of injecting). The complexity of overlapping disjunctive risks and vectors propelled
by social dynamics may explain the often contradictory findings across studies and
within studies around the category of gender and sexuality in the United States (e.g.,
Bourgois 2002; Bourgois et al. 2004; Collier et al. 1998; Strathdee et al. 2001; Hahn
et al. 2001). These inconsistent quantitative findings illustrate the utility of introduc-
ing the social science concept of “social structural plausibility” in conjunction with
that of biological plausibility and statistical association (Auerbach 2009).
A second explanation for the lack of concordance rests in the differing aims and
methodological foci of the epidemiologic and ethnographic components of the
research. The stated aims of the quantitative research were to find behavioural dif-
ferences between those active injectors who became infected with hepatitis C and
those who did not. Within this framework, an ideal outcome would have been to
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T. Rhodes et al.
discover a significant association between seroconversion and a specific injecting
practice, leading to an individualized behavioural intervention that would assist
individual injectors to avoid infection. By contrast, the ethnographic research was
inherently more oriented toward exploring and describing structural risks – in this
case, the complex interplay between gender power roles and the normalization of
romantic violence and seroconversion described above. It is, therefore, perhaps
unsurprising that the micro-practice-oriented quantitative data did not speak well to
the broader structural issues emerging from the qualitative data.
Large-scale epidemiologic projects also have what might be termed a “logistic
inertia.” Statistical methods usually hinge on testing specified hypotheses, which, in
turn, tend to require large sample sizes to produce statistically significant outcomes.
As such, re-purposing a quantitative study in midstream to respond to emerging
findings requires a fundamental re-design of the study. In anticipation of this logisti-
cal inertia, the co-investigators and project directors of the ethnographic arms of the
study held discussions during the grant writing phase before beginning the study to
develop one neutral, quantifiable question about whether respondents had “pooled
money with others to buy drugs to inject.” This question tested an anthropological
hypothesis about the risk imposed by the reciprocal obligations for paraphernalia
sharing imposed by the “moral economy” of drug exchanges (Bourgois
1998). This
variable had no biological meaning, in that pooling money in itself cannot result in
the transmission of a bloodborne virus, but it did have clear connections to the social
contexts in which paraphernalia sharing can occur. Interestingly, this variable was
one of only four variables independently associated with HCV seroconversion in
multivariate analysis (Hahn et al. 2002).
The overarching pragmatic lesson from this collaborative study was that planning
for mixed-methods studies must go beyond the boilerplate text now often used to
justify such collaborations on grant proposals and must assume from the beginning
of the study that both qualitative and quantitative processes will generate observa-
tions that can be tested or explored by the other. As such, thought needs to be given
to how this will be carried out, for instance, through regular meetings, circulation of
fieldwork notes and preliminary statistical analyses, development of proxy variables,
additional targeted sampling and so on.
10.4.3 Case Study Three: Structural Violence, Power and HIV
Prevention Among Female and Transgendered Sex
Workers in an Urban Setting
Data were drawn from a multi-methods, community-based research study (2005–2008) in
partnership with a local sex work agency in Vancouver, Canada.
This study was developed as a community-based research partnership between an
academic institution and a local sex work agency to examine the factors shaping HIV
prevention among street-based sex workers over a 2-year period (Shannon et al.
2007). The study was conceived as a multi-methods study using a participatory action
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
research approach, including an open prospective cohort (interview- administered
research questionnaire and HIV screening at baseline and semi-annual follow-up
visits over a 2-year period), social mapping completed alongside each questionnaire
study visit and purposive sampling for qualitative in-depth interviews with a subset
of the study sample (street-based sex workers). The study was purposefully designed
to integrate a team of current and former sex workers as “peer researchers.” This
team of peer researchers served as both key informants or experts and research facili-
tators. They were involved in content and questionnaire development and facilitation
and interpretation of results, together with the academic research team. Their lived
experience as sex workers and sometimes inconsistent consumers of public health
messages provided critical “insider” insight into the complexities and dynamics
shaping HIV prevention in the street-based sex industry.
Within Vancouver, Canada, as in many other international settings, the buying
and selling of sex is legal, and yet criminal sanctions exist around most aspects of
sex work (such as communicating and soliciting in public spaces, operating a brothel
and living off the avails of prostitution). This study contributes to the growing litera-
ture on how enforcement of criminal sanctions facilitates the exacerbation of “risk.
Specifically, despite substantial program availability of HIV prevention resources in
the inner city community of Vancouver (an area known as the Downtown Eastside),
this study’s findings collectively revealed how structural violence mediates
individual agency, reducing the capacity of sex workers to access resources and
negotiate risk reduction (Shannon et al.
2008a). Our analyses of narratives drew on
the risk environment framework (Rhodes 2002) and theoretical constructs of vio-
lence and power that emphasize the interconnectedness of interpersonal (Scheper-
Hughes 1996; Bourgois et al. 2004), structural (Farmer 2004) and symbolic (Epele
2002; Bourdieu 2001) violence. We drew on a broad understanding of power and
agency, building on earlier ethnographic studies (Bourgois 1998; Wojcicki 2002;
Wojcicki and Malala 2001), which explored ways in which sex workers’ decision
making and interpersonal risk negotiations might be rational, economic coping
strategies in the face of social and structural violence. This relational understanding
of power is developed in post-structural feminist critiques of institutionalized forms
of social control and the discursive production and regulation of sexuality (Foucault
1981; Nencel 2001; Weedon 1987). At the micro level, the ubiquitous “everyday
violence” of “bad dates” (i.e., violent clients) intersected with a discourse of dis-
posal of symbolic violence and a lack of legal recourse to violence at a macro level
in forcing sex workers to prioritize the immediate threat of violence over the nego-
tiation of condom use with clients. At the meso level, local policing and enforce-
ment of criminal sanctions (such as legal restrictions on working indoors) affected
sex workers’ control over dates and their ability to negotiate HIV risk reduction,
both directly through the threat of police violence, harassment and coercion and
indirectly through displacement to isolated public spaces and lack of access to safer
indoor spaces to service clients.
This study’s qualitative work was conducted by the same team members in
parallel with social mapping and baseline quantitative data collection and helped
inform questionnaire development and subsequent social epidemiologic constructs,
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T. Rhodes et al.
theory and analyses that provided empirical confirmation of the qualitative findings.
For example, social epidemiologic analyses using mapping and questionnaire data
revealed a geographic correlation between physical areas of avoidance due to
violence and police harassment and the health access core (i.e., the area with the
highest concentration of services and resources for vulnerable populations), which
resulted in displacement of sex workers to outlying, isolated areas away from health
and harm reduction resources (Shannon et al.
2008a). The use of mixed methods
allowed us to elucidate the social meanings ascribed to place among sex workers
that initially emerged from the qualitative interviews and to explore and map the
empirical associations with HIV risk. For example, analyses of mapping data using
geographic information systems (GIS) combined with questionnaire responses
identified geographic clustering (or “hotspots”) of coercive, unprotected sex by cli-
ents among sex workers working in isolated public spaces compared to main streets
and commercial areas (Shannon et al. 2009b). In multivariate analyses, adjusting for
potential confounding effects of individual and interpersonal factors, structural fac-
tors, including enforced displacement, servicing clients in cars or public spaces and
client-perpetrated violence, were independently associated with reduced ability to
negotiate condom use among sex workers (Shannon et al. 2009a, b). The construct
of structural police violence identified in qualitative studies by ourselves and others
(Rhodes et al. 2008) emerged as being directly related to elevated likelihood of rape
and client-perpetrated violence among sex workers (Shannon et al. 2009a, b). This
study moved forward the importance of analysing the relational and gendered nego-
tiation of condom use in HIV prevention studies with sex workers rather than rely-
ing on an overly simplistic construct of “unprotected sex” coded as a binary variable
at the individual level in traditional epidemiologic analyses. This study also under-
lined the importance of upstream contextual factors in the casual pathway to gen-
dered condom negotiation and subsequent risk for HIV transmission.
These results document how structural and everyday violence mediate the
negotiation process of condom use and other risk reduction practices among sex
workers, resulting in a heightened risk of HIV transmission. At the same time, the
lived experiences of sex workers documented from the qualitative research
articulate how certain risky sexual and drug use practices are rational coping strate-
gies in the face of large scale social and structural violence and, as such, highlight
the importance of active inclusion of sex workers’ experiences in redefining
prevention policies and programmes. For example, sex workers describe how
informal self-regulation mechanisms (e.g., prices charged for dates) can help pro-
mote a work culture of condom use, underscoring the importance of enhanced
structural support for sex work collectives (e.g., networks, unions) in regulating
safer industry practices. This initial work is now being tested through social cohe-
sion measures in follow-up questionnaires. Adopting a social epidemiologic
approach that combines qualitative, mapping and quantitative data sources helped
us to capture the complexity of the daily lived experiences of sex workers in
informing a re-conceptualized HIV prevention response and move beyond individ-
ual-level strategies. These results point to a critical need for safer environment
interventions (e.g., managed sex work zones and safer indoor work spaces) and
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
structural policy support (e.g., legal reforms, sex work collectivism and empower-
ment) in stemming violence and, in turn, facilitating an “enabling environment”
for condom negotiation in the sex industry.
10.4.4 Case Study Four: HIV Risk in the Context
of Deportation: The Modifying Role of Gender
These data were drawn from a prospective epidemiologic study of injection drug users in
Tijuana, Mexico (2006–2008) that employed quantitative survey data supplemented by
subsequent in-depth qualitative interviews.
The initial study was a classically designed, epidemiologic study examining HIV
risks among male and female IDUs in Tijuana, Mexico. Baseline data from this
study were examined in a logistic regression model to identify correlates of HIV
infection, through which a significant association was found between HIV risk and
years spent living in Tijuana (Strathdee et al. 2008b). Further exploration showed
that this association was modified by gender (Strathdee et al. 2008a). Females who
had lived in Tijuana longer had higher HIV risk; whereas, among males, the converse
was true (shorter time periods lived in Tijuana were associated with greater HIV
risk). Since this finding was counterintuitive, additional descriptive analyses were
conducted to study the motivations for moving to Tijuana by gender. This revealed
that most females moved to Tijuana voluntarily, primarily for reasons associated
with employment or family. In contrast, males were primarily involuntary migrants,
with the most common reason for living in Tijuana being deportation from the
United States (i.e., 55% of male migrants were deportees). Indeed, further logistic
regression models revealed that deportation explained the association between
shorter time span lived in Tijuana for males and higher HIV risk. From an epidemio-
logic perspective, the question remained: how does deportation create an elevated
risk for HIV among males? Is it a marker for a high-risk subset of male migrants
who became HIV-infected in the United States prior to deportation? Or is deporta-
tion a true risk factor for HIV infection, representing a destabilizing force that dis-
rupts social networks and creating economic and social vulnerabilities? In either
case, research strategies employing a strictly epidemiologic perspective had reached
their limit in terms of being able to identify how these sociopolitical forces were
influencing HIV risk either directly or indirectly.
To explore these questions in more depth, subsequent studies were undertaken
that drew from a social science perspective, both methodologically and theoreti-
cally, to “scale up” our understanding of the observed statistical association between
deportation and HIV risk among men to consider the sociopolitical context in which
HIV risk is produced. Methodologically, the studies were qualitative in nature,
employing in-depth interviews to help “unpack” deportation as a construct among
male drug injectors (Ojeda et al. 2010). In-depth interviews among male deportees
explored themes of social isolation, stigma, unemployment, limited access to health
and social services and cultural identity. Pre-deportation influences included social
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T. Rhodes et al.
factors (e.g., friends and/or family and post-migration stressors) and environmental
factors (e.g., drug availability) that were perceived to contribute to substance use
initiation in the United States. Post-deportation experiences pointed to the role of
shame and loss of familial, social and economic support that exacerbated drug use
and led to a sense of hopelessness and despair. From a theoretical perspective, the
research identified deportation and United States-Mexico relations as a form of
structural violence – a macro-level change in the risk environment that arises as a
result of sociopolitical and cultural forces. This research provides a rich context for
understanding the interplay between deportation and HIV risk in a manner that
moves beyond the identification of statistical associations signifying individual-
level “risk factors” into a depiction of the structural and environmental context in
which bi-national politics, economic opportunity (or lack thereof) and sociocultural
factors produce a system of structural violence that elevates HIV risk for certain
individuals. Through the integration of epidemiologic and social science methods
into a “social epidemiology of deportation,” this research also suggests multilevel
targets for intervention. At a micro level, it suggests the need to implement support-
ive services for deportees. At a macro level, it points to the need to examine factors
such as the United States’ health and immigration policies and whether they are
working at odds.
10.5 Discussion
Conventional public health interventions and research primarily target individuals
by promoting behaviour change through imparting knowledge, skills, motivation
and/or empowerment using a cognitive model of rational choice theory in medical
decision making. There is a growing recognition in the fields of public health and
medicine, however, of the ways social inequality imposes risk on vulnerable popu-
lation groups. This recognition is informed by an acknowledgement that a larger
“risk environment” precedes and influences individual decision making (Rhodes
2002, 2009). In the case studies presented above, we have highlighted how a behav-
ioural science perspective focused solely on individual-level constructs often fails to
recognize the broader sociocultural and structural political economic framework in
which risk behaviour occurs. A failure to incorporate an appreciation for socioeco-
nomic and cultural context in public health research often also fails to uncover
causal pathways. Moreover, it tends towards the design of primarily individual-level
interventions that, at best, have limited impact and, at worst, result in victim blam-
ing or further harm to already vulnerable individuals. These case studies advocate
for the use of an approach that integrates social science and epidemiologic methods
to enable a focus on social inequality at the local level while avoiding the tendency
to individualize risk. It also offers a way to understand the reciprocal relationships
between political-economic structures and the internalization and embodiment of
vulnerability and harm. Social science concepts emerging as especially useful in the
development of social epidemiologic approaches include: the Marxist structural
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
violence framework (Farmer 2010); theories of “structuration” (Giddens 1984),
including the “logics of everyday practice” (Bourdieu 1977, 1990); the destructive
effects of “symbolic violence” (whereby socially vulnerable populations come to
accept their location in an oppressive social hierarchy that imposes risky practices
on them for which they blame themselves) (Bourdieu
2000, 2001); and Foucault’s
(1995) approach to discursive power and subjectification.
10.5.1 Structural Vulnerability
We propose that a “social epidemiology of HIV risk vulnerability” can elucidate the
ways structural violence (Scheper-Hughes 1996; Farmer 2004; Galtung 1969) and
structural vulnerability (Quesada et al. 2011) within the risk environment (Rhodes
2002, 2009) affect the health of individuals within distinctly patterned population
groups and social contexts. The term “vulnerability” refers to a location in a social
structure that makes an individual of a particular group prone to suffering from the
effects of structural violence. It opens a linear, structural political economy analysis
to broader theoretical domains to address the individual embodiment of the cultural,
psychodynamic, symbolic and discursive dimensions of power. This is especially
important in our contemporary historical moment because it counteracts the rhetoric
of blame that creeps inadvertently into individualized approaches to behaviour
change. A critical theoretical analysis of how larger structural and/or cultural forces
shape intimate ways of being in the world also de-legitimizes punitive approaches
targeted towards stigmatized populations, such as drug users and sex workers.
Structural vulnerability thus draws attention to the larger upstream forces and
processes that place specific population groups at a disadvantage for health and
well-being by highlighting the biological and embodied effects of economic, social,
gender and racial discriminations. It draws attention to how the embodied suffering
of particular population groups is not only historically located but also reproduced
through every day cultural practices interacting with the repressive effects of state
One critique of political economy perspectives is that they underplay agency,
positioning individuals as largely passive in their complicity to “structural determi-
nants.” The relationship between individuals and their environments is ongoing and
reciprocal. Risk environments constrain how agency is enabled, but they are at once
also a product and adaptation of agency. It is critical that social epidemiologic
approaches capture the dynamism of the reciprocity of individual-environmental
interactions. Risk environments thus feature in a process of what Giddens has
termed structuration (Giddens 1984). Structuration posits that structure is not
“external” to individuals, for the “constitution of agents and structures are not two
independently given sets of phenomena, a dualism, but represent a duality” (Giddens
1984). This means that “social systems are both medium and outcome of the
practices they recursively organise” and that structure is “not to be equated with
constraint but is always both constraining and enabling” (Giddens 1984). Foucault
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T. Rhodes et al.
(1981) would refer to this as the “positive” effects of power and would identify them
as processes of “subjectification.” Bourdieu (2000) might identify this dynamic as a
process of “habitus formation.” We, therefore, caution against models of risk envi-
ronment that perpetuate dichotomous models of “structure” and “agency.” We see
risk environments as capacitating individuals to act according to particular kinds of
habitus, wherein socially acquired practices and habits are reproduced iteratively,
and often unconsciously, through every day practices (Bourdieu
1977, 1990) that
also incorporate processes of governmentality and the positive effects of power
(Foucault 1981). Risk environments, then, are embodied through participation,
through ways of being in the world and of understanding the ethics of self-formation
or subjectivity.
The concept of vulnerability implicates social conditions and is intended to
transcend the conceptualization of “at risk populations” (as the Vancouver case
study emphasizes with respect to condom negotiations by vulnerable sex workers)
in which individuals engage in risky practices with an accompanying connotation
of individual guilt (e.g., Quesada et al. 2011; Hernandez-Rosete et al. 2005; Rocha
2006). As Bronfman et al. (2002) note, “while risk points to a probability and
evokes an individual behaviour, vulnerability is an indicator of inequity and social
inequality and demands responses in the sphere of the social and political struc-
ture. It is considered that vulnerability determines the differential risks and should
therefore be what is acted upon.” Vulnerability is produced as the outcome of
position in a hierarchical social order and a network of power relationships that
constrain agency. Structural positioning influences personal decision making, lim-
its life options and frames choices. It also determines how vulnerable populations
make sense of their ailments and afflictions. Structural vulnerability is both a
“space of vulnerability” (Rocha 2006) and an “embodiment of social hierarchy;” it
is a “space that configure(s) a specific set of conditions in which people live, and
sets constraints on how these conditions are perceived, how goals are prioritized,
what sorts of actions and responses might seem appropriate, and which ones are
possible” (Bronfman et al. 2002 as cited in Quesada et al. 2011). As an embodi-
ment of social hierarchy, risk taking can be understood as the result of forms of
violence enacted through cultural rationales and managed through modes of gov-
ernmentality, often in a social milieu and political context of marked indifference
to those afflicted (Watts and Bohle 1993).
Our case studies dealt with the gendering of risk as one, often core, way of
exploring the structuration of vulnerability to HIV and related infectious diseases.
They also examined the ways embodied distress at the individual level is shaped by
criminalization and law enforcement, in this instance, through everyday street-level
policing practices in Vancouver, Russia and Serbia that may, themselves, structure
risk differentially by gender. Gender is particularly interesting because of the
multiple and complex ways it articulates, with distinct material forces, cultural
values, individual practices and political policies (including immigration and law
enforcement), and it becomes a primary vector for structural violence. The Tijuana
case is illuminative because it suggests that males and females are differentially
propelled across the United States/Mexico border by subsistence crisis as well as by
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
immigration and/or deportation law enforcement, resulting in HIV risk taking across
gender divides. The San Francisco case demonstrates the gendered, dissonant pat-
terns to subjectification effects of normalized romantic violence against women.
The Russia and Serbia case study highlights how day-to-day policing practices tar-
geting the vulnerable induce an internalized state of oppression illness characterized
by a subjectivity of fear that not only limits HIV prevention capacity but that repro-
duces and reinforces wider social, gender and racial inequalities in these societies.
10.5.2 Mixing Method and Theory
Our case studies employed different approaches to the use of mixed methods for
documenting and analyzing complex social structural dynamics. Thus, in addition
to the heightened understanding engendered by the integration of theoretical
approaches, these case studies also illustrate both the challenges and added benefit
of integrating the methodological approaches that are hallmarks of the disciplines.
For example, the San Francisco case study illustrates the limitations of using proba-
bilistic statistical analysis based on quantifiable individual-level variables to mea-
sure higher order social and cultural dynamics because variables that reflect social
structural power relations, by definition, interface with multiple confounding and
risky practices. The same gendered logics that normalize violence against women
can sometimes prevent them from taking risks with other infected injectors. The
jealous dyadic relationships that isolate them socially can be protective or toxic
depending on the serostatus of the dominating partner. Simply describing a statisti-
cal association between HCV incidence and gender in San Francisco failed to
describe the complicated structural and social processes that influenced this associa-
tion. It was through the added contribution of in-depth ethnographic work that we
were able to unpack the mechanisms behind the observed statistical pattern. In the
Tijuana case, the initially counterintuitive statistical associations served as an inspi-
ration for both additional quantitative analyses and a new qualitative component to
the study that was designed to explore and contextualize the findings. In the
Vancouver case, simultaneous implementation of geographic mapping, quantitative
and qualitative data collection capitalized on local knowledge of study participants
to explain the relationships between HIV vulnerability, social meanings and the
built environment.
It is important to note that the San Francisco, Vancouver and Tijuana case studies
each used a different mix of cross methodological dialogue, revealing the flexibili-
ties of mixing methods. As the field of public health research increasingly adopts
mixed-methods designs in order to capitalize on their ability to broaden and contex-
tualize our understanding of complex multilevel influences on health, more research-
ers will face the challenge of successfully synthesizing data derived from multiple
sources and methods. While integration of data from various sources is often stated
as a goal of mixed-methods designs, both epistemological and methodological bar-
riers to such integration have been identified (Bourgois 2002; Moss 2003; Bryman
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T. Rhodes et al.
2007). Synthesis and integration, however, does not require absolute agreement
between data generated through different methods; the integration of mixed- methods
results may, in fact, provide a sum that is greater than the individual qualitative and
quantitative parts (Mason
2006; Bryman 2007). In the case studies presented here,
we have demonstrated how ethnographic and qualitative methods can be used to
develop and refine epidemiologic research questions in order to quantify associa-
tions that were observed in the field (Case Study Two) or to begin to understand the
mechanisms behind counterintuitive associations detected through quantitative
analyses (Case Study Four). A particular challenge facing mixed-methods design is
the difficulty inherent in distilling broad social or cultural constructs down into
variables that can be measured using epidemiologic approaches. A second chal-
lenge is to make the shift from deterministic, linear models to a greater emphasis on
the dynamic systems in which individuals are embedded. Systems thinking requires
an attention to the interactions, processes and, often contradictory, feedback loops
inherent in complex social and environmental systems (Strathdee et al. 2010).
10.6 Conclusions
Bringing the concepts of structural violence, structural vulnerability and risk
environment into the basic lexicon of social epidemiology would revitalize our
subdiscipline’s distinguished mid-nineteenth century historical roots. As Rudolf
Virchow, one of the discipline’s founders (who was trained as a physician, an anthro-
pologist and as a pathologist) wrote about his experience with the typhus epidemic
of 1847–1848 in Upper Silesia: “Medical statistics will be our standard of measure-
ment: we will weigh life for life and see where the dead line thicker among the
workers or among the privileged” (Taylor and Rieger 1984). The very real conse-
quences of structural vulnerability are shorter lives subject to a disproportionate
load of suffering. Recognizing the analytical terms structural violence and structural
vulnerability within the risk environment is only a first step for the challenge of a
critical social epidemiology that moves beyond the classroom, the laboratory and
the clinic to develop upstream interventions that impact larger populations who are
systematically subject to risk taking because of their subordinated status in society.
Already many public health and medical schools have instituted curricula to
address “socially vulnerable populations” (King and Wheeler 2007). The paradigm
of structural violence and structural vulnerability within a concrete risk environ-
ment extends this focus by linking health, political economy, culture and subjectiv-
ity to re-conceive risk as a structural outcome. Methodologically, it draws upon
“thick” qualitative descriptions and critical analysis of the quantifiable relationship
between risk taking and specific relations of power (Doyle 1979; Bourgois et al.
2004; Singer 2001). Despite the danger of reification inherent in any diagnostic tool,
we envision that a clinical or public health outreach translation of structural vulner-
ability might take the form of administering screening protocols in clinics and on
the street or in social service or carceral settings (Quesada et al. 2011). The goal
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10 Structural Violence and Structural Vulnerability Within the Risk Environment…
would be to widen the public health gaze towards an awareness of the embodied
effects of social positioning in order to legitimize the allocation of increased
resources (medical, social service and political) to the disenfranchised in the name
of public health and to improve the quality of outreach services and care for the poor
in the name of “best medical practices,” “public health efficacy” and “evidence-
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also a question of establishing viable institutional practices for health practitioners.
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  • Source
    • "Globally, persons who inject drugs (PWID) have an increased likelihood of acquiring HIV infection given the nature of risks associated with injection drug use (Decker et al., 2012; Kuo, Galai, Thomas, & Zafar, 2015; Rhodes et al., 2012; Sarin, Singh, Samson, & Sweat, 2013 ). A critical predisposing factor to HIV among PWID is poor mental health. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: This study describes the prevalence and factors of depressive symptoms among a sample of persons who inject drugs (PWID) with a history of deportation from the US in Tijuana, Mexico. In 2014, 132 deported PWID completed a structured questionnaire. Depressive symptoms were measured using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Short Depression Scale (CESD-10) screening instrument. Eligible participants were ≥18 years old, injected drugs in the past month, spoke English or Spanish, and resided in Tijuana. Multivariate analyses identified factors associated with depressive symptoms. Among deported PWID, 45% reported current symptoms of depression. Deported PWID who were initially detained in the US for a crime-related reason before being deported (adjusted odds ratio (AOR): 5.27; 95% CI: 1.79–15.52) and who perceived needing help with their drug use (AOR: 2.15; 95% 1.01–4.61) had higher odds of reporting depressive symptoms. Our findings highlight the need for effective strategies targeting deported migrants who inject drugs to treat mental health and drug abuse in Tijuana. Investing in the mental health of deported PWID may also be a viable HIV prevention strategy.
    Full-text · Article · Apr 2016 · Global Public Health
  • Source
    • "We selected a 90-day time frame to assess mobility in order to match the 90-day time frame for assessing HIV risk behaviors and as an optimal time frame for recall[37]. Risk environment: We examined a number of physical, economic, and risk environment factors as defined by Rhodes[38], including the following: Income level was categorized as whether or not a participant's income was above or below the living wage in Kazakhstan (identified as 15,999 tenge per month in 2011)[39]. Financial status: Participants were asked whether they sent money home (remittances) to family members who live elsewhere, and whether they were currently in debt. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Objectives: We examined whether mobility, migrant status, and risk environments are associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV risk behaviors (e.g. sex trading, multiple partners, and unprotected sex). Methods: We used Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) to recruit external male migrant market vendors from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as well internal migrant and non-migrant market vendors from Kazakhstan. We conducted multivariate logistic regressions to examine the effects of mobility combined with the interaction between mobility and migration status on STIs and sexual risk behaviors, when controlling for risk environment characteristics. Results: Mobility was associated with increased risk for biologically-confirmed STIs, sex trading, and unprotected sex among non-migrants, but not among internal or external migrants. Condom use rates were low among all three groups, particularly external migrants. Risk environment factors of low-income status, debt, homelessness, and limited access to medical care were associated with unprotected sex among external migrants. Conclusion: Study findings underscore the role mobility and risk environments play in shaping HIV/STI risks. They highlight the need to consider mobility in the context of migration status and other risk environment factors in developing effective prevention strategies for this population.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2016 · PLoS ONE
  • Source
    • "In contrast, characteristics of quantitative data collection believed to potentially reduce validity and reliability include mode of administration (e.g., in-person interview, telephone interview , paper-and-pencil questionnaire, computer-assisted instrument), complexity and duration of the task, clarity of instructions, and instrument design (e.g., item wording , question sequencing, response format; Del Boca & Noll, 2000). Although qualitative data are generally not relied upon exclusively to assess prevalence and frequency of drug use, such data are increasingly being used in combination with quantitative data in mixed method designs (Gibson et al., 2011; Lopez et al., 2013; Mayhew et al., 2009; Pollini et al., 2010; Rhodes et al., 2012; Wagner, Davidson, Pollini, Strathdee, & Palinkas, 2012 ). Each set of methods possesses a distinct set of strengths and limitations (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2011; Palinkas, 2014; Patton, 2002; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2003 ). "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background: Self-reports are commonly used to assess prevalence and frequency of drug use, but it is unclear whether qualitative methods like semi-structured interviews are as useful at obtaining such information as quantitative surveys. Objectives: This study compared drug use occurrence and frequency using data collected from quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews. We also examined whether combining data from both sources could result in significant increases in percentages of current users and whether the concordance between the two sets of data was associated with the type of drug use, age, gender and socioeconomic status. Methods: Self- reports of recent marijuana, heroin, crack, cocaine, crystal/methamphetamine, inhalant, and tranquilizer use were collected using both methods from a cohort of Mexican female sex workers and their non-commercial male partners (n = 82). Results: Participants were significantly less likely to report marijuana, cocaine and tranquilizer use and frequency of use during the qualitative interviews than during the quantitative surveys. Agreement on frequency of drug use was excellent for crystal/methamphetamine, heroin and inhalant use, and weak for cocaine, tranquilizers and marijuana use. Older participants exhibited significantly higher concordance than younger participants in reports of marijuana and methamphetamine use. Higher monthly income was significantly associated with higher concordance in crack use but lower concordance with marijuana use. Conclusions: Although use of such data can result in an underreporting of drug use, qualitative data can be quantified in certain circumstances to triangulate and confirm the results from quantitative analyses and provide a more comprehensive view of drug use.
    Full-text · Article · Dec 2015 · Substance Use & Misuse
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