The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Government Undergraduate Wins Best Paper Award

Fri, June 25, 2010

Government student Nathan Abell has received the 2010 First Place Prize for Best Undergraduate Student Paper at the 18th Annual Illinois State University National Conference for Students of Political Science. Abell won the award for his paper, “Theory and Practice of Structural Agenda Setting: A Case Study of U.S. HIV/AIDS Policy from 1979 to 1989.”

In his paper, Abell offers a truly novel approach to agenda setting studies by identifying a lack of emphasis in the current literature on the structure within which agenda setting decisions are made. Focusing on the federal government’s lack of timely response to the severity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Abell points out that the problem was not simply lack of medical knowledge, nor active homophobia, but a combination of the two that can only be understood by accounting for the embedded social structure in which medical research progressed.

Prevailing social attitudes about homosexuality, within the medical and scientific communities as well as the public at large, predisposed scientists to identify HIV/AIDS as an explicitly homosexual disease. For example, when the medical community discovered HIV/AIDS in an individual who was both homosexual and an IV drug user, standard classificatory procedure was to categorize the individual only as homosexual, thereby swelling the numbers of cases identified solely with homosexuality. This research-generated connection between HIV/AIDS and homosexuality subsequently translated into a homophobic political response. Crucially, neither dynamic was rooted in empirical reality. Both the medical and political communities were defining the policy space based on inherited social biases about homosexuality. Studying agenda setting can therefore not simply be about studying processes and the power relationships competing within them, but must also adequately account for the structure of beliefs conditioning public actions. It was a fundamental shift in public perceptions, rather than a shift in empirical reality, which ultimately secured a place for HIV/AIDS on the policy agenda.

In explaining why the federal government was so slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Abell points out that one of the most shocking features of the government’s response was the utter reluctance to even discuss whether the issue should be on the policy agenda, let alone make the issue a public policy priority. While active homophobia alone cannot explain this, the lack of response can still only be understood by taking into account the broad social prejudice against certain affected groups – such as homosexuals, heroin addicts, and Haitians – that was channeled through the medical and political communities. When the HIV/AIDS pandemic first emerged, the Center for Disease Control took notice and initiated action to understand and control the disease. Nonetheless, the popular and scientific perception of HIV/AIDS was that it was a ‘gay’ or ‘degenerate’ disease, prompting Abell to ask how HIV/AIDS came to be defined as a ‘gay’ disease, rather than an immune disease disproportionately affecting homosexual men. Part of the answer, he finds, is that the research methods employed by the scientific community were biased toward a finding of sexual identity as the driving factor, as scientists imported homophobic background knowledge into their initial studies.

The public was made aware of the pandemic in 1981, but President Ronald Reagan did not publicly, at his own initiation and for the explicit purpose of addressing the pandemic, mention the disease until 1987. The Reagan administration feared the issue politically, not wanting to associate itself with the affected populations. Due to pervasive homophobia, HIV/AIDS research and outreach became conflated with a homosexual agenda, and the political universe consequently feared association with it. The result was an overall delay in the issue becoming a subject of public discourse. A history of prejudice within the medical establishment toward homosexuals, as homosexuality had, for a long time, been classified as a mental disease, combined with anti-homosexual social attitudes input into scientific research and the public mind, and consequent political fears of association with specific groups, actively kept the issue off the public agenda. Only when the possibility of nonsexual and heterosexual transmission was documented and acknowledged within the broader public, aided by the revelations of prominent, beloved, and infected public figures, such as Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson, did the structure within which agenda setting occurs change such that actively pushing for congressional action became politically tolerable.

Jeffrey Tulis supervised Nathan’s paper. This is the fourth student Tulis has supervised who has won a best paper award at the Illinois State conference; Abell is the first to take the top prize.

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