This article argues for a conceptual shift away from the static, singular term ‘trial community’ towards ‘experimental publics’. The authors observe that the term ‘community’ is often employed uncritically and assumes that ‘communities’ pre-exist research; that they are timeless and undifferentiated wholes. ‘Experimental publics’, by contrast, are dynamic, multiple, and impermanent in nature.

The article draws upon literature on the mechanisms through which governments act upon the conduct of those they wish to govern (described as “technologies of government”). The article argues that clinical trials (through techniques such as surveillance, observation, measurement and examination) are themselves technologies of government.

The article also builds upon work on literature on inclusion-and-difference by looking at the way clinical trials create particular publics through strict inclusion and exclusion criteria.In order to explore this, the article draws upon evidence from Zambia in 2008 to examine the case of a phase III trial for a microbicide candidate designed to prevent HIV infection in women. Through the discussion of this case study, this article proposes that:

  1. The practices of clinical trials create publics

  2. These publics did not pre-exist the research

  3. Publics are dynamic and transient

This supports their argument for a move away from the use of ‘trial communities’ towards ‘experimental publics’. Alongside a linguist change, implications for researchers should be:

  • A greater awareness of the consequences of their practices, such as clinical trials

  • Recognising the contexts and infrastures in which their research is situated

  • Seeking to create ongoing forms of participation

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