Private acts, public consequences: AIDS volunteers as positive deviants
This qualitative research initiates a grounded theory of positive deviance. Intensive interviews of AIDS volunteers in a small midwestern grass roots AIDS service providing agency revealed that the volunteers were predominantly female, heterosexual, and well-educated. Four structural-functional types of volunteering emerged: companions, fundraisers, speakers, and office workers. Most volunteers engaged in multiple functions for the agency. The companion volunteers defined themselves as fighting for the cause of AIDS mitigation, while the others defined themselves in terms of the agency and what they did for the agency. Half of the volunteers defined themselves as vocal or rebel which created a role conflict between the need for confidentiality and the desire to fight for the cause. These volunteers were proactive seeking out an agency for which to volunteer without personally knowing anyone HIV+ or AIDS challenged.
When the volunteers shared their identity as an AIDS volunteer with their families, friends, employers and co-workers, and strangers, four patterns of reactions, rewards and stigma, emerged in all four structural affiliations: unconditional support, initial support followed by silence or no follow-up inquiries, homophobic condemnation of the clients but not the volunteer, and fear of contagion. Thus, the volunteers were both rewarded and stigmatized for their altruistic behavior. Additionally, family and friends simultaneously rewarded and stigmatized the volunteers. Family supported the volunteers' efforts but condemned the homosexual clients, and friends praised their efforts but said they were crazy to do this kind of work.
The volunteers' altruistic behavior exceeded the norm of helping others by providing assistance to an already stigmatized group of people, primarily homosexuals, therefore, making the volunteers, by a normative definition, deviant. Because the volunteers were stigmatized for their association with AIDS clients, they were recipients of Goffman's courtesy stigma, and therefore, by a reactive definition, deviant. These AIDS volunteers violated the norm in a positive expression of exceeding the norm of altruism, and they were stigmatized for their efforts, therefore, providing empirical evidence that these are persons in the category "positive deviant" as proposed.
The research revealed much sociological ambivalence. It calls into question whether or not altruism extended to a highly stigmatized group is normative or deviant by exceeding the norms and asks if it is positive or negative behavior to help such a stigmatized group. The research also questions the degree of courtesy stigma assigned to the volunteers because of the perceived positiveness or negativeness of their altruism.
0628: Personal relationships
0573: Public health