Older adults’ experiences of ageing, sex and HIV infection in rural Malawi.
PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
This thesis contributes to understanding two demographically important phenomena: African ageing, and the ageing of the African HIV epidemic. Building on the body of interpretivist demography that privileges context and meanings, it explores older adults’ experiences of becoming old, sexuality and living with HIV in rural Malawi. The research uses a constructivist grounded theory framework. It is based primarily on data produced using repeat dependent interviews (N=135) with older men and women(N=43). These are supplemented by fieldwork observations, as well as data from a three-month multi-site pilot study, interviews with HIV support groups (N=3), and key informant interviews (N=19) and policy documents. The thesis identified sets of meanings surrounding old age and ways of discussing ageing that, taken together, formed an analytical framework. The framework is focused on the importance of maintaining an ‘adult’ identity and draws insights from sociological
and psychological identity theories. The adult identity was aligned with personhood. It was situated within the body-centred livelihood system of rural Malawi, and associated
with physical production. Old age was understood to limit productivity and thereby an individual’s adult identity. This thesis argues that ostensibly contradictory narratives
about ageing experiences can be understood as rhetorical strategies respondents employed to maintain their adult identities. A central tenet of the thesis is that the adult
identity (and its childlike counter identity) influenced older adults’ broader experiences and behaviours. This framework is used to explore ageing, as well as sex and HIV
infection. The grounded understandings of older adults’ experiences developed in the thesis are presented against dominant understandings of the situation of older adults
documented by the academe and in policy and programmatic arena emerging in Malawi. The findings highlight the centrality of wider experiences of ageing for older adults’
experiences of sex and HIV, as well as the broader importance of identity for understanding demographic behaviours and processes. In addition, they demonstrate
how grounded theory and repeat dependent interviewing can be used within demographic studies to produce nuanced analytical accounts of the experiences that are
most salient for the population of interest.
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