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Nursing resistance as ethical action: literature review


  • Elizabeth Peter PhD RN,

  • Valeria Lerch Lunardi PhD RN,

  • Amy Macfarlane BScN RN

Elizabeth Peter,
Faculty of Nursing,
University of Toronto,
50 St George Street,
Ontario M5S 3H4,


Background.  Much has been written about nursing as a predominantly female profession whose members display passivity, submission, obedience and powerlessness. Alternatively, some authors have presented evidence of nurses’ capacity to exercise power, revealing the possible relationship between powerlessness and ethical compromise. Thus, empowerment strategies for nurses can yield ethical action.

Aim.  The aim of this paper is to use analysis of the literature to demonstrate how the actions and responses of nurses to ethical concerns are examples of nurses exercising power.

Method.  Empirical studies published in the nursing literature between 1990 and 2003 have been analysed to illustrate how nurses’ actions of resistance can ensure that moral values are realized in practice. Foucauldian notions of power relations and feminist ethics provide the theoretical framework.

Conclusions.  Nurses were found to resist in situations where they experienced moral conflicts in relation to the actions of health professionals; however, instances were cited where they did not. Consequently, strategies for nursing education and management are proposed to increase nurses’ understanding of the potential acts of resistance that they could employ in situations of moral conflict or concern.