Bauermeister & Stephenson (B&S) is a scoping review addressing the impact of location – ‘space’ and ‘place’ – on HIV prevention and care outcomes for young MSM (YMSM). It owes much to Diaz & Ayala and their concern to view human behaviour in terms of ‘social location’ ‘within a context of social oppressive factors’ rather than in terms of ‘individual identity’. It focuses on 17 studies, selected for inclusion much as in a systematic review, but analyzed according to scoping methodology (i.e. with a view to mapping out the investigative territory rather than addressing a specific question). Social location is translated by this study into concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’. Space here refers to the physical and geographical aspects of location such as proximity to services and transportation, and place to more socially constructed aspects – ‘the interpersonal exchanges and dynamics that result in physical and social resources in space’.
It is perhaps on account of the breadth of these goals and the methodology of scoping that no very conclusive findings emerge. Where location assumes the more geographically defined characteristics of ‘space’, the findings underscore the importance of geographic information system (GIS) approaches (see also: Simms & Petersen (STIs editorial); Petersen & Simms (STIs)). But elsewhere – especially where the concept of location shades into less physical definitions of context (i.e. ‘place’) – the evidence is more contradictory and sometimes appears counter-intuitive. For example, there are studies that find a positive correlation between social disadvantage and higher levels of adherence to HIV prevention and care recommendations. Apparently, however, income inequality (as measured by Gini ratio or male-to-female ratio of earnings) stands out across studies as an indicator of poorer YMSM outcomes.
In discussing the limitations of their study, the authors make the interesting point that in a field of investigation as hard to define and as open to fresh hypotheses as this, the tendency for studies reporting an insignificant or null finding not to make their way into the literature could contribute to a serious distortion of our understanding (i.e. ‘publication bias’). As is evident from their discussion of the review findings, well-conducted studies reporting non-significant findings on the influence of location can make a valuable contribution to the debate (such as, for example, Haley & Cooper (STIs), a paper published online on the related issue of influence of location on STIs).
A second intriguing question is raised by this review, even if it is perhaps not adequately discussed in it: whether social context is always translatable in terms of ‘geospatial’ location. Does the concept of ‘place’, for example, really extend to the case of ‘virtual space’ – or does virtual space effectively break free of any geospatial definition? The question is, of course, very pertinent, given the importance for this population in particular, of dating apps. Interestingly, Yu & Shang (STIs), in a paper published online, make a case for characterizing an important category of YMSM (occupying a specific ‘place’ in contemporary China society) in terms of extreme geospatial mobility. One would like to know how B&S would accommodate the paradoxical existence of social ‘places’ defined by the loss of geospatial definition. Are we still really talking about place?