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The influence of liberal political ideology on nursing science


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     Political theorists typically use the terms political theory and political philosophy interchangeably, arguing that both articulate a normative vision of the ‘good society’, and seek to interpret and determine principles and concepts such as democracy, freedom, equality and justice that inform social organization (Jagger 1983; Love 1998).

    2 In this paper, I use ‘structural’ to refer to those fundamental structures in society — the state, the polity’s social and economic status, local and global political economies, globalization and racialization, and dominant institutions including health, legal, educational and government systems — that define, determine and reproduce unequal power relations, racialization, class, and patriarchy as a basis for social relations. These ‘structural forces and social relations impinge upon and determine the range of choices available to social subjects’ (Roman and Apple 1990, 42). To say that social and economic inequities, power differentials, racialization and sexism are structural is to suggest that they exist in the institutions and social practices of our society and cannot be explained as merely situational or by the intentions of individuals (Weedon 1997). These structures are viewed as constraining the interests of some members of society while promoting the interests of others (typically members of the dominant society). In examining structural constraints, inequities based on race, class, gender, power differentials, sexual orientation and age become the primary analytical interests within larger health, social, political and economic analyses (Roman and Apple).

    3Gramsci (1971), the Italian Marxist jailed by fascists in the 1920s, was influential in forming our current understanding of ‘hegemony’ as the ways in which specific institutions operate in the social reproduction of power relations through ideology. Hegemony can be defined as ‘the power exercised by one social group over another’ and as ‘the ideological/cultural domination of one class by another achieved by “engineering consensus” through controlling the content of cultural forms and major institutions’ (Jary and Jary 1991, 271). Building on Gramsci’s works, Stuart Hall (1996) explains that hegemony is not simply imposed or dominative in character. Rather, it results from (a) ‘the installation of a profound measure of social and moral authority’, (b) the ‘winning over’ of the popular consent of substantial proportions of the population including subaltern and dominated groups, and (c) exercise of this authority in a diversity of sites (for example, healthcare arenas, economic sectors, and popular media) (424).

    4 For a fuller discussion of racism in nursing, see, for example, Barbee (1993); Shaha (1998); Eliason (1999); and Taylor (1999).

    5 Such inquiries are needed to build on existing work in nursing informed by critical, feminist, postmodern and poststructural perspectives developed by scholars such as Allen (1999), Cheek (1999), Drevdahl (1999), Anderson (2000a), and Francis (2000), among others.

    6 The term political economy has its origins in the nineteenth century as the usual name for the discipline of economics, reflecting the inherent relationship between economic theory and political action (Jary and Jary 1991). Given the political nature of economics, globalization and free trade, current political economic theory focuses on patterns of economic organization — including, among others, the free market economy and advanced corporate capitalism — and their importance in shaping all other social relations (Hale, 1995).

    7 In Canada, the term Aboriginal refers to indigenous peoples including First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups. Specifically, the term First Nation replaces the term Indian, and Inuit replaces the term Eskimo (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996). The terms Indian or Eskimo, however, continue to be used in federal legislation and policy (for example, the Indian Act), and in reports and data generated by the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

    8 Several noteworthy exceptions to this apolitical application of CST should be mentioned here, including, among others, Thompson (1987), Kendall (1992), Holmes and Warelow (1997), and Boutain (1999).

Annette J. Browne, Nursing Program, University of Northern British Columbia, 3333 University Way, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, V2N 4Z9. E-mail: <>

The influence of liberal political ideology on nursing science

Previous notions of science as impartial and value-neutral have been refuted by contemporary views of science as influenced by social, political and ideological values. By locating nursing science in the dominant political ideology of liberalism, the author examines how nursing knowledge is influenced by liberal philosophical assumptions. The central tenets of liberal political philosophy — individualism, egalitarianism, freedom, tolerance, neutrality, and a free-market economy — are primarily manifested in relation to: (i) the individualistic focus of our science; (ii) our view of society as essentially egalitarian and equitable; (iii) our preference for politically neutral knowledge development, and (iv) an economy of knowledge development that supports rather than challenges the status quo. I argue that exposing, rather than ignoring, the liberal ideological values inherent in nursing science will render these assumptions open to debate, stimulate ongoing development of critically oriented knowledge, and increase our capacity to influence the social, political and economic determinants of health.