When sociologist Amy Kaler was an undergraduate student at McGill University in the 1980s, she became heavily involved in student anti-Apartheid activism. She was part of a student-led team that convinced McGill to divest its investments from companies that did business in South Africa, which was the first ever university divestment in Canada.
That experience sparked an interest in Africa that has guided her career and research over the past 25 years. Today, Kaler is a professor in the Department of Sociology who studies the social structure of power, identity and culture, with a specific focus on the organization of fertility, sexuality and human reproduction.
“You often have the notion of fertility and sexuality as something to be controlled, regulated, managed for the collective benefit.”
Kaler first became interested in the social control of fertility after working in Zimbabwe, observing firsthand how women’s ability to control their reproduction could be a huge determinant of their wellbeing. This led her to focus her PhD research on the history of family planning in Zimbabwe and how that history became politicized. Family planning in Zimbabwe began being heavily promoted in the 1970s, primarily as a tool of population control to keep the African population low by the white minority regime in power at the time. However, many women saw family planning as emancipatory because it gave them a certain measure over their lives and future that they hadn’t had before.
“You often have the notion of fertility and sexuality as something to be controlled, regulated, managed for the collective benefit; while at the same time, it’s also something extremely individualized and extremely personal. And the choices that people make for themselves as individuals don’t always line up with what the conventional wisdom says we should be doing for the betterment of society,” explains Kaler. She was fascinated by how family planning and its related technology could be repressive on a population-wide scale, but become liberating for individuals and their lives.
Kaler has been intensively involved in several research projects on fertility and sexuality — for example, one project looks at the history of the female condom — but the one she is most passionate about is an ongoing project based in Malawi. The project tracks how households and communities respond to the risk of AIDS. “The Malawi government has done some amazing work in reducing the AIDS prevalence, but at the time [the project] started, it was really high and it was climbing. There was no treatment for it; if you had AIDS, you were going to die,” says Kaler.
Participants were asked to keep handwritten journals and write down news they overheard from friends and neighbours, or conversations they participated in over the course of the day on an ongoing basis. The project was interested in examining how ideas and understandings of AIDS circulate in a community, and determining how people change or don’t change their behavior in the face of a high HIV/AIDS risk.
The project, which started in 1999, has amassed between 12,000-13,000 pages of data over the last 15 years. Kaler says it’s like reading a long, epic Tolstoy novel; since the villages are densely networked, it’s possible to follow certain “characters” throughout the journals over time.
“The interesting thing is…that epidemics don’t stay fixed, they change and they evolve as well,” says Kaler. Over the years, the Malawi research project has followed the participants as quick and reliable HIV testing became accessible, and then later, observed how communities changed when treatment options were available and participants realized HIV/AIDS was no longer the death sentence it was in the past.
Sociology can impact public health
Kaler’s research shows that social and cultural values play an important role in decisions about health. In other words, “grassroots” information sharing is more likely to inform health-related behaviour changes. “What came out very clearly is that people…put faith in what they see around them and what they hear people like them saying. They do not have that same faith in what comes from the clinic, the doctor, or from official sources. So a big part of the journal’s project is showing that this informal, casual circulation of information — like gossiping at the pub or going to the well to get water — is actually the way that people get their understanding of HIV/AIDS,” explains Kaler.
She suggests that sociology and the social sciences should be incorporated into medicine and public health to make intervention efforts more effective. “The piece that is often missing from the medical side is the social and cultural meaning-making going on behind technologies…. Technologies are never fixes to problems, especially when you’re dealing with fertility, with reproduction, with sexuality.”
Kaler’s research shows that social and cultural values play an important role in decisions about health.
Other research from Kaler looking at devices such as birth control and contraceptives yields the same findings: people are more likely to adopt new health technologies and devices if they witness someone they personally know benefiting from it.
Child bearing in Alberta
Kaler is currently completing work on a book that looks at the social history of reproduction in Alberta in the first half of the 20th century. Titled Baby Trouble in the Last Best West: Making new people in Alberta 1900-1950, the book examines how child bearing became politicized in Alberta similar to the way it has in Zimbabwe, despite being halfway across the world.
Moving forward, she wants to continue looking at how social, cultural and political dynamics shape individual choices, and how individual choices re-create or transform the conditions in which people live. “We’re constantly recreating the social world around us. We exercise agency and choice, and we reason; we make decisions, but we do so with constraints on us, either the result of history, religion, economics or politics. That’s what interests me intellectually.”