Economic and political instability and related "big events" are widespread throughout the globe. Although they sometimes lead to epidemic HIV outbreaks, sometimes they do not-and we do not understand why. Current behavioural theories do not adequately address these processes, and thus cannot provide optimal guidance for effective intervention. Based in part on a critique of our prior "pathways" model of big events, we suggest that cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) may provide a useful framework for HIV research in this area. Using CHAT concepts, we also suggest a number of areas in which new measures should be developed to make such research possible.