Surveying risk subjects: Public health surveys as instruments of biomedicalization

Aaron T. Norton*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


In recent years, epidemiologists have conducted dozens of surveys asking men around the world if they would be willing to be circumcised to reduce their HIV-risk. Men's responses in turn constitute an important factor in predicting the overall success of circumcision campaigns. Whereas researchers often position survey responses as passive reflections of attitudes, my analysis reveals a more complex picture. The reviewed surveys invite men to consider a part of their bodies as posing a risk to themselves, their partners or their communities, and its removal as a means to permanently transition from the 'high' to the 'low' risk category. In the process, they position some bodies as inherently riskier than others, thereby carving out new HIV-risk subject positions based not on identity or behavior, but the body itself. Because claims about what one can do to mitigate the spread of HIV are not easily disentangled from what one ought to do, I suggest that these surveys simultaneously imbue willingness to be circumcised with a sense of ethical obligation. In doing so, I argue that circumcision-willingness surveys constitute a discursive technology integral to male circumcision's emergence as an HIV-risk reduction strategy, not simply a tool that identifies willing subjects passively awaiting the next public health intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)265-288
Number of pages24
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Biomedicalization
  • Epidemiology
  • Male circumcision
  • Public health surveys
  • Risk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy


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