Suessmilch Lecture

Excerpts from in-progress book manuscript, An Epidemic of Uncertainty

Jenny Trinitapoli
Online Presentation, November 30, 2021

As part of the Suessmilch Lecture series, Jenny Trinitapoli from the University of Chicago gave a talk about her ongoing book project.


“Excerpts from in-progress book manuscript, An Epidemic of Uncertainty


The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is now nearly 40 years old. After a long battle, the standard metrics have started to point to good news: new infections are down, prevalence has stabilized, life-saving antiretrovirals are widely available, and AIDS-related mortality has declined. Using panel data from Tsogolo la Thanzi study collected in Balaka, Malawi between 2009 and 2019, Jenny Trinitapoli argues that in the wake of pandemic AIDS, an epidemic of uncertainty persists. AIDS-related uncertainty, she argues, is measurable, pervasive, and impervious to biomedical solutions. Put in the perspective of simple proportions, the TLT study shows that Balaka’s generalized epidemic of 12 percent generates an epidemic of about 40 percent uncertainty among young adults at any moment – 60 percent when considered on a 1-year time horizon. For understanding social behavior in an epidemic – HIV or any epidemic – the key quantity may not be prevalence at all but the proportion of people who don’t know their status. She links the prevalence of uncertainty to its consequences, showing that uncertainty is linked to a distinctive (accelerated) pattern of marriage and childbearing and to a variety of negative health consequences. When scholars approach HIV as a binary state, they completely miss the conditions of the uncertain population, which (in a generalized epidemic) could be a majority of the population.

About the Speaker

© Jenny Trinitapoli

Jenny Trinitapoli's training is in two areas: social demography & the sociology of religion. Bridging these two fields, her work features the demographer’s characteristic concern with data and denominators and an insistence on connecting demographic processes to questions of meaning. She has written extensively on the role of religion in the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2008 she has been the principal investigator of Tsogolo la Thanzi (TLT)— an ongoing longitudinal study of young adults in Malawi. Demographers use terms like “relationship instability” and “fertility trajectories,” but very plainly: TLT asks how young adults negotiate relationships, sex, and childbearing with a severe AIDS epidemic swirling around them.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.