Publication Date

April 2017


Anthony Hatch


Science in Society


English (United States)


This thesis examines the controversy around chronic Lyme disease, a contested medical entity that has emerged in recent decades among patients and doctors who claim that mainstream medical understandings of Lyme disease fail to recognize the disease’s chronic potential and the need for long-term antibiotic therapies to combat this. Sufferers of chronic Lyme disease claim a broad range of symptoms as signs of long-term infection with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium at levels too low to be detected on standard laboratory tests. At stake in this illness is the ability of sufferers and doctors to use chronic Lyme disease as a legitimate medical condition, and there is a stark divide between mainstream and fringe medical knowledge and epistemology about the disease. Many celebrities have also spoken publicly about their struggles with chronic Lyme disease, allying themselves with advocacy for it. This thesis explores the controversy along three theoretical arguments: criticisms to objectivity that emerge out of philosophy of science and feminist epistemologies, cultural meanings of illness that shape representation and may carry equal significance to biomedical meanings, and the legitimacy of the embodied experience of suffering. These arguments intersect with gender and allow an understanding chronic Lyme as feminized, embodied, and objective, despite mainstream medical disbelief in the condition’s legitimacy. Biomedicalization, the vast field of technoscientific transformations in medicine that shape how health, illness, and risk operate in culture, forms the historical context of chronic Lyme’s emergence and subsequent controversy. I use discourse analysis to examine medical literature, lay advocate media, mainstream media, and celebrity media accounts of chronic Lyme disease to interpret meanings of the disease.

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