Giving Birth to Gonolia: “Culture” and Sexually Transmitted Disease among the Huli of Papua New Guinea

Abstract

The “culture concept” has been challenged on a number of fronts, both by medical anthropologists researching AIDS and in the discipline of cultural anthropology more generally. Medical anthropologists have argued against the “etiologization” of culture, and cultural anthropologists have taken issue with the tendency to treat beliefs and practices as static and seamlessly shared. Using the narrative of one Huli woman’s shifting explanation of a diagnosis of syphilis, this article argues that, rather than avoid the notion of culture, we should strive for representations that demonstrate how individuals use discourses in expedient, ad hoc, and yet deeply felt ways. This article also argues for the importance of a sociology of knowledge approach to understanding local notions of etiology. The woman’s understanding of her situation was strongly influenced by her entry into a new “community” of women who had similarly been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease.