Condom semiotics: Meaning and condom use in rural Malawi

Iddo Tavory, Ann Swidler

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article examines the widespread resistance to condom use in sub-Saharan Africa by describing the major semiotic axes that organize how people talk about condoms and condom use. These axes include the "sweetness" of sex, trust and love between sexual partners, and assessments of risk and danger. Using data from rural Malawi, we show that framing the meaning of condoms as a simple choice between risky behavior and rational attempts to protect one's health ignores the complex semiotic space that Malawians navigate. Based on data from more than 600 diaries that record rural Malawians' everyday conversations, our analysis charts the semiotic axes related to condom use. Semiotic constraints operate most powerfully at the level of relationships. Condom use signifies a risky, less serious, and less intimate partner. Even when people believe that condom use is appropriate, wise, or even a matter of life and death, the statement that condom use makes about a relationship usually trumps all other meanings. We call for a more nuanced analysis of culture, one that is attentive to the ways agents navigate multiple, contested meanings, and that demonstrates how specific semiotic axes are brought to bear in particular interactional contexts.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)171-189
    Number of pages19
    JournalAmerican sociological review
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - 2009

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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