Persons, Places, and Times: The Meanings of Repetition in an STD Clinic

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In this article we work the tensions between the way clinical medicine and public health necessarily construct the problem of “repetition” in the context of a sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic and the ways patients narrate their illness experiences. This tension—between clinical and epidemiological exigencies and the messiness of lived experience—is a recurring theme of work conducted at the intersections of epidemiology, anthropology, and clinical medicine. Clinically, repeated infections are a threat to the individual body and to “normal” biological processes like reproduction. From a public health perspective, “repeaters” are imagined to be part of a “core group” that keeps infections in circulation, endangering the social body. Yet patients’ accounts are anchored in particular social histories, and their experiences rely on different time scales than those implicated in either of these types of readings. Extended analyses are provided of two such accounts: one in which repetition can be “read” as part of a performance of recovery, and one in which repetition is bound up in the effort to avoid becoming the involuntary subject of institutionally administered intervention. We argue the need to open up the category of repeaters to include the social and draw on work by Cheryl Mattingly to suggest that one way to do this in the context of the STD clinic might be to adopt forms of therapeutic practice that make use of interpretive, in addition to technical, skills.

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