A Transatlantic War of Words: HIV Researchers’ Contests for language and symbolic power in the 1980s

New York and Los Angeles emerged as epicenters of an unidentified ‘cancer’ in the early 1980s. As the disease spread, it evoked panic, naive complacency, and/or determination to quickly overcome the malady (Shilts 2003).  The mysterious disease also inspired contests over narrative and the power to name the epidemic.

As  the ‘cancer’s’  link to gay men became clear, it attracted biblical references to ‘plague’ and eschatological  statements about imminent apocalypse and judgement.  Jerry Falwell’s passionate pronouncements arguably tower over all other declarations of doom of the period. AIDS, he asserted, was a ‘definite form of judgement upon a society’. This theme would be replayed at several points as the new disease inspired hysteria and fear (Rowan 1983). Yet, the confusion surrounding the disease and the battle to find words to describe it was not confined to the ignorant masses, the self-righteous, and those seeking justice.  Cooler heads engaged in scientific research on AIDS also passionately disagreed over the nature of the disease and its implications.

Transatlantic Inter-laboratory Wars for Recognition and Credit

Relationships among scientists studying the disease  in the United States and Europe gathered tensions of their own, even as public debate pitted gay AIDS activists against unsympathetic opponents:

By 1983 the effects of AIDS upon the immune systems of gay men were well known yet the genesis of the pathology remained mysterious. The suspected causes of AIDS included two types of the Human T-Cell leukemia virus,  and other previously unimaginable suspects, as scientists sought to unmask the cause for the weakened immune systems of gay men (Gallo and Montaigner 2003).

Parisian scientists at the Pasteur Institute reported having been first to have finally identified HIV as the ‘unknown virus that was causing immunodeficiency in humans’ (Barré-Sinoussi 2003).

However, the Parisian claim would be fiercely contested by US scientists in what is argued by Rawling (1999) to be the the “most long-standing and protracted public arguments in contemporary science”. Indeed, across the Atlantic, the National Cancer Institute claimed and gained widespread  credit for the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS (Rawling 1994).

Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘Language and Symbolic Power’ 

Read alongside Pierre Bourdieu’s (2001) explorations of ‘language and symbolic power’, the conflict over credit for discovering HIV in the early 1980s makes for an  instructive study in  the ‘economics of linguistic exchanges’.

Bourdieu contends that the study of language needs to transcend more ‘intellectualist’ approaches to linguistics that approach language as ‘an object of understanding’ rather than ‘ an instrument of action’.  Where the former, ‘intellectualist’ approach departs from an ‘objective’  conception of language, and as such confronts it as structured by convention and principles – Bourdieu attends, rather, to the social context(s) from which language emerges. In Bourdieu’s view, language is not solely concerned with “grammaticalness”  but is concerned with the social ‘acceptability’ of words.

In a similar manner, while more objectivist understandings of language attend to ‘relations of communication’,  at the centre of Bourdieu’s approach is an understanding of  language as situated within ‘relations of symbolic power’. Thus the process of communicating is not only a quest to generate and establish meaning but it is also an exchange of words that carry ‘value and power’.

Communication thus is a reflection of one’s position within a broader social structure and their relative ‘symbolic power’ within a given context. Indeed,  context  is  key in Bourdieu’s thinking:  language is viewed as not only a ‘competence’ but a social knowledge of when and where to speak. The right to speak and the acceptability of one’s words are intricately tied to  social context and the degree to which one’s audience in a given ‘field’ legitimize and validate one’s speech.

Language is thus produced and circulated depending on the ‘structure’ of the given ‘field’ (the ‘field’ being a hierarchy  and network  of social relations).  That is to say, while  words may have a ‘kernel’, root meaning, as they are exchanged across hierarchies within a given context, they begin to mirror structures of power. The more dominant within a given field, then, influence and determine what  constitutes ‘legitimate’ language, and the contrary.

The Medico-Scientific field, language and symbolic power

The discovery of  HIV as the cause of AIDS inspired protracted conflict over credit for the breakthrough: perhaps revealing the degree to which  science around HIV and its discovery was enmeshed in power struggles – even as gay activists were engaged in similar struggles in the public square.  Over the course of the 1980s, scientific clashes over the discovery of HIV became tied to nationalistic narratives and battles to demonstrate US scientific dominance. Indeed, Rawlings (1999) and Altman (1986) argue that the struggle for first credit for the discovery of HIV was intricately tied to the need to project US power.   More particularly, the claims of Robert C Gallo on having been first to discover HIV were constructed in Americanist terms and deployed as evidence of American  scientific supremacy.  Rawlings also recounts the interventions of Prime Minister Chirac and Ronald Reagan as the conflict over attribution of credit assumed diplomatic implications.

To borrow from Bourdieu, it could be argued that scientific discourse over HIV  gave rise to a power struggle to ‘structure’ the  research field alongside nationalistic and maybe even linguistic lines. The contest for credit superceded the need to  produce  knowledge about the disease as science became a means to establish a transatlantic power structure and assign symbolic power to those who could claim precedence in the discovery of HIV. The ability to gain credit arguably not only offered a means to narrate history correctly, it  was also tied to concerns about the social hierarchy of the HIV research ‘field’.

Bourdieu contends that “language is worth what those who speak it are worth.”  Perceived through this sociolinguistic lens, the battle for dominance was a contest to determine the value and worth of Parisian and French research on HIV, which in itself would be a ‘symbolic asset’ to be deployed at a later stage. Winning the argument would act as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ that could be subsequently used to increase the ‘value’ of French research. Being able to establish their dominance in this debate would underscore the distinctiveness of French research and create the capacity for future  (symbolic and perhaps even material?) ‘profits’.

This case of transatlantic conflict not only serves to challenge assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of ‘science’, it also underscores the degree to which struggles for power in the early days of HIV  and AIDS extended beyond the more public debates (over delayed government responses and such) to the more cocooned fields of scientific research.

Author: George Katito


Altman, Dennis. AIDS in the mind of America. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.Barré-Sinoussi, Françoise. “The early years of HIV research: integrating clinical and basic research.” Nature medicine 9, no. 7 (2003): 844-846.

Pierre, Bourdieu. “Langage et pouvoir symbolique.” Paris, Fayard (2001).

Gallo, Robert C., and Luc Montagnier. “The discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS.” New England Journal of Medicine 349, no. 24 (2003): 2283-2285.

Rowan, C. ‘Jerry Falwell, God, and AIDS’ in Gainsville Sun, July 15 1983

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th-Anniversary Edition. Macmillan, 2007.


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