The Waiting Room

I sat waiting for my turn to see the doctor. I watched as women went in and out. I listened as names were called.  Eventually, there were only two of us left in the waiting room: another young woman and I. Quite unexpectedly, she started speaking to me – no one had said anything during the entire hour or more I had been there – but even more unexpected was her question: “Êtes-vous une anthropologue?” – are you an anthropologist?

I was completely taken aback, because yes, I was, and I was waiting to see the doctor not because I was sick but to interview her. How could this woman have known? “Because I am an anthropologist, too,” she responded; “I noticed you.”

The waiting room is a peculiar sort of place, a space of liminality, suspended time, even containment. It is a space defined as temporary, only intended as a lead-in to another place. The goal is to get into or out of the doctor’s office. And in that office, one is transformed into a patient: a business suit is shed for a medical gown. In biomedical terms, this can mean that one’s body becomes visible in quite different, but also very particular, ways.  It is the individual body that counts, the body outside everyday time and space. Or, rather, time is detected through ideas like heredity. And space takes form through concepts such as environment or population. One ceases to be a father, daughter, unemployed, wealthy or jilted; while one’s diagnosis may take those into account in secondary ways, the body in the doctor’s office is snatched out of its regular life, and held in abeyance while another system of recognition imposes itself.

But at the threshold of that biomedical reality, in the waiting room, the body is still recognized as part of larger collective stories and smaller everyday practices. That day, a mother and daughter sat together, clearly resembling one another; there was a couple, holding hands; there was a woman sitting alone, wearing a hijab. While one may be an impending patient, in the waiting room one is recognizable to oneself and others in both social and medical terms. In this sense, the waiting room is a place to diagnose not just bodies but the politics of bodies, and the politics of illness.

Indeed, the waiting room can be an extremely potent site of political diagnosis. It was in French state medical waiting rooms in the mid-2000s that I watched the politics of immigration collide with the politics of illness as a result of what would prove to be an expanding waiting room. Thanks to a special “illness clause” lobbied for by humanitarian organizations, undocumented immigrants could request legal papers from state nurses and doctors for exceptional humanitarian reasons; that is, for having an illness serious enough that deportation could lead to one’s death. With the proper diagnosis, the nurses and doctors could issue an “illness permit” that would allow immigrants legal residency and medical care, from anywhere from a few months to an indeterminate length of time. This humanitarian clause had been created in an attempt to bypass the politics of immigration for higher moral causes, such as the sick, suffering body. Yet the doors to many legal forms of entry gradually closed in France. As a result, there were more and more immigrants lining up in the state medical office’s waiting rooms. The few individuals sitting on chairs in the early 2000s gradually changed into people lining the corridors, and queues winding down the stairs.

The expanded waiting room suddenly made other state officials see these not as individual bodies outside time and place, fit for a doctor’s office, but as a group called immigrants; suddenly racial epithets were used by the same officials who had previously understood them as patients-in-waiting. In this case, the waiting room rendered visible and material the larger context of humanitarianism, and the social bodies it attended to; and as such, it revealed that humanitarian exceptions were not moral exceptions to the politics of immigration, but a key part of the politics of immigration itself. It was apparent in those queues and stairwells that humanitarianism never exists outside of time or place, even if one might try to make it seem that way. Sure enough, the service was shut down.

The waiting room displays individual bodies not-yet-desocialized, or rather not quite resocialized into new regimes of care; and if one takes the time to look, it can reveal quite a different truth. No wonder two anthropologists were hanging out there.


Miriam Ticktin teaches anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Her publications include Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (University of California Press, 2011), and In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care, co-edited with Ilana Feldman (Duke University Press, 2010). She is co-editor of the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development.


Image: “Strafjustizzentrum des Landgerichtes München,” Mattes, wikimedia.

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