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Am Sociol Rev. 2011 Dec 1;76(6):935-954.

Uncertainty and Fertility in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic.

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The Pennsylvania State University.


Sociologists widely acknowledge that uncertainty matters for decision making, but they rarely measure it directly. In this article, we demonstrate the importance of theorizing about, measuring, and analyzing uncertainty as experienced by individuals. We adapt a novel probabilistic solicitation technique to measure personal uncertainty about HIV status in a high HIV prevalence area of southern Malawi. Using data from 2,000 young adults (ages 15 to 25 years), we demonstrate that uncertainty about HIV status is widespread and that it expands as young adults assess their proximate and distant futures. In conceptualizing HIV status as something more than sero-status itself, we gain insight into how what individuals know they don't know influences their lives. Young people who are uncertain about their HIV status express desires to accelerate their childbearing relative to their counterparts who are certain they are uninfected. Our approach and findings show that personal uncertainty is a measurable and meaningful phenomenon that can illuminate much about individuals' aspirations and behaviors.

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