Ethnography and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: An Interview with Joseph Kotarba

Dr. Joseph Kotarba, professor in the Department of Sociology, was interviewed by the oH Project: Oral Histories of HIV/AIDS in Houston, Harris County, and Southeast Texas. This formal interview elicited his personal and professional history conducting research on and advocating for people living with or at risk of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. The interview was commissioned by and archived by the Woodson Research Center at Rice University in May, 2019.

In the early 1980s, Kotarba joined a National Institute on Drug Abuse project to study the risk of AIDS in the male gay community and among intravenous drug users. This interview-base study not only generated public health knowledge of the risk of AIDS, but also provided great insight into the everyday life and culture of these two previously unfamiliar groups. In the ‘90s, he published an article, “Ethnography and AIDS: Returning to the Streets,” about the personal difficulties faced by people at risk then, but that also described the courageous mobilization of gay community groups to deal with this tragedy.

Ethical issues emerged during the study. For example, many of the study participants were struggling with addiction to heroin or methamphetamines as well as living with HIV/AIDS. Kotarba and his staff were concerned that their respondents would use the $25 they were given for participating in the interviews to purchase drugs. After much deliberation and consultation with ethics experts, they concluded that any participants in ethnographic studies who are compensated will use the money any way they want, including people with drug problems.

Kotarba organized the first course on HIV/AIDS at the University of Houston and worked with nurse researchers from Texas Woman’s University and the University of Texas School of Nursing on numerous AIDS-related projects, including some of the very first studies of women at risk of AIDS. The real magic of the personal ethnographic approach came from a study of the McAdory House, a volunteer hospice facility for HIV/AIDS patients. Kotarba observed the ways volunteers interacted with patients and got to know each other on a deeper level beyond HIV positive or negative, or gay and straight.

Kotarba’s research has moved on to studies of translational science research, the impact music has on the life course, and the role music can play in the management of dementia. Nevertheless, Kotarba hopes that discussions of and education on HIV/AIDS never stop. New medications and clinical resources are important, but so is education, research, and safer sex practices.