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Keywords:

  • Sociology;
  • ethics;
  • life sciences;
  • phronesis;
  • Public sociology

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

There are growing debates about the relationship between the two disciplines of sociology and ethics, particularly as they each become increasingly involved in research and policy formation on the life sciences, especially genetics. Much of this debate has been highly abstract, often stipulating the seemingly different character of the two disciplines and speculating on their theoretical potential – or lack thereof – for future collaborative work. This article uses an existing collaboration between a sociologist and an ethicist, on a study of participation in genetic databases, to explore some of the challenges, for both disciplines, of working together. Building upon this case study, we examine the suggestion that the Aristotelian concept of ‘phronesis’ provides the grounds for establishing one possible theoretical framework with which the disciplines can be bridged. Further exploration of this approach leads to suggestions for ways of thinking about the apparently fundamental divides between the disciplines and for ways of adding to notions of a ‘public sociology’.


I. Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

A proliferation of morally challenging circumstances in contemporary societies arises from developments in, and applications of, the life sciences, particularly genetic and reproductive technologies. The last ten years have seen a rapid growth in sociological interest in such matters and recently the potential contributions of social scientists to policy debates surrounding these developments have been recognized.1 What was seen (however inappropriately: Haimes 2002) as the domain of the ethicist has been opened up to social science involvement. Partly as a consequence of this there has been an increase in sociological writing on ethics. It is also apparent from the literature that growing opportunities to work together, in the same field, present challenges for both sociologists and ethicists, however willing they are to attempt to overcome these in pursuit of more effective analyses and critical engagement with policy and practice. This article uses a collaboration between a sociologist and an ethicist to examine some of these challenges and to explore one possible theoretical framework through which they can be diminished: that of a ‘phronetic’ sociology.

We begin by outlining previous theoretical analyses of the relationship between sociology and ethics and argue that these would be sharpened by reference to an example of collaboration. We then provide such an example: an empirical project studying participation in genetic databases. These databases raise many social and ethical concerns, the awareness of which prompted a sociologist and an ethicist to bring their disciplinary resources together to attempt to understand how practice and policy around databases could be improved and concerns resolved. We briefly indicate the sorts of concepts that emerged in the original analysis of this project, to show how respective disciplinary priorities shaped that analysis. We also show, in a self-critique, how those concepts, whilst providing valuable insight into the core research issues, left questions unanswered for both disciplines. We then provide a reflexive theorization of the search for common ground to enable both disciplines to work together in such a way to facilitate their joint contribution to wider social debates on morally challenging matters. A focus on ‘practical knowledge’, approached through Aristotle's notion of phronesis, proved particularly valuable in adding to the ways in which the sociologist and the ethicist could each strengthen their analytical purchase on the subject matter, and in furthering theoretical reflection on the broader relationship between the two disciplines. From a sociological point of view (and the balance of consideration for this journal is towards the sociological) this leads us into a final consideration of the relationship of this approach to emerging notions of a ‘public sociology’.

This paper is necessarily broad in its scope and somewhat schematic in approach. This is justified by the need to consider both the theoretical complexities of collaboration and to tie these into an actual example (since this is part of what is missing from the extant literature) in order to draw out, and warrant, claims, not just for possible future collaborations but also for the conduct of sociology in a rapidly changing global context.

II. Sociology and ethics

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

Whilst the relationship between these two disciplines has been given some attention in sociology (Haimes 2002) it was not of much interest to philosophers until the early 1980s and even then was largely confined to medical ethics. However, since then interest has grown, particularly in the USA, and a range of issues has been identified as either assisting or hindering potential dialogues or collaborations. More recently these ideas have been revisited and extended by a number of writers publishing in both sociology and bioethics journals. Since these authors draw upon (to varying extents) much of that same literature from the 1980s onwards we shall not repeat it here; however we shall briefly review these more recent pieces (for example Haimes 2002; Hedgecoe 2004; Lopez 2004; Borry, Schotsmans and Dierickx 2005) to see where discussions currently stand.

A shared aim in the above work is to see how the two disciplines might contribute to each other's insights into practices and technologies in medicine and the life sciences, since it is claimed (or assumed) that their combined efforts will produce better insights (though what constitutes ‘better’ is not always specified). The fact-value/is-ought, distinction is seen as an obstacle to achieving this improvement though the nature and validity of that distinction is also questioned, particularly by the sociologists. There is also a common assertion of the importance of empirical research, either (from the bioethicists' view) to assist the bioethicists' task or (from the sociologists' view) to demonstrate the problematic nature of the fact/value distinction and to substantiate their claims concerning the socio-cultural embeddedness of seemingly universal ethical issues. Brief examples of empirical research by social scientists are cited to illustrate: that they do engage with fundamental ethical issues; the nature of that engagement; and the contributions of empirical research to enhancing understanding of those issues. Whilst there are different views of the role of empirical research, such research is now established as an important resource in gaining clearer insight into the questions raised by developments in the life sciences. Even normative bioethicists (Borry, Schotsmans and Dierickx 2005) acknowledge the emergence of empirical research as ‘an important shift’ in the bioethical movement. However, they caution:

. . . a problematic relationship cannot simply and easily evolve into a perfect interaction. A new and positive climate for empirical approaches has arisen but the original difficulties have not disappeared. (2005: 49)

Solutions proffered to these difficulties include the development of a ‘critical bioethics’ (Hedgecoe 2004) and the suggestion that both ethics and sociology are best understood as Foucauldian ‘discursive formations’ (Lopez 2004). It is too soon to judge whether these solutions have been adopted but their very existence is a measure of the felt need for resolutions and progress. Part of this need arises from the growing awareness of the very real difficulties (and opportunities) created by developments in medicine and the life sciences as well as the fact that policymakers and practitioners are seeking inputs from both disciplines, to assist their deliberations.

Another strand in this literature has been a call for a ‘sociology of ethics’ (Haimes 2002) since the emergence, definition, and re-definition, of a field of professional study, and its appropriation (and exclusion) of particular topics, is itself a process open to genealogical analysis (Whong-Barr 2003). Dingwall (2002), examining the social construction of dominant approaches in bioethics, refers to bioethics as a social movement, with a particular ideology of citizenship, and Konrad (2005) offers an anthropological perspective on the recent development of ‘genethics’. However this strand is primarily an interest, albeit an important one, internal to the social sciences (rather than to ethicists or policy makers).

More relevant to this article is the extent to which any of the authors consider it possible for sociology and ethics to collaborate as equal disciplines. Haimes (2002) calls for a dialogue between the two, to avoid charges of ‘sociological imperialism’ and Hedgecoe (2004) aims for an ‘equitable’ social science contribution to philosophical bioethics; Lopez (2004) suggests how ‘sociology can save bioethics . . . maybe’. Each implies, at best, a collaboration between a senior and junior partner (whilst differing in their views as to which discipline is which).

Whilst this recent literature is useful for establishing the importance of the debates to which we wish to contribute, additional factors are worthy of consideration. The above work tries to characterize disciplinary differences, investigate disciplinary disputes and consider disciplinary collaborations at an abstract level. There is an expressed desire for the disciplines to be closer and an acknowledgment of intellectual distance between them. However there are some sites where efforts are expended to overcome this distance. For example, key social agencies in the non-academic community assume that the two disciplines can work together to assist the resolution of practical problems, and so sociologists are increasingly invited to join ethics advisory boards.2 It could be claimed that, on certain levels and in certain ways, the boundaries between the two disciplines are increasingly permeable.

The above literature gives only limited space to understanding the actual practice of empirical research, despite assertions of its importance. Very brief examples of studies are provided but these are highly filtered through the meta-interpretations of the authors. Also, all are examples of how sociological research can contribute to understandings of ethical analysis: none is actually based on a collaboration between ethics and sociology, even though that is a goal of the authors' engagement with this topic. Missing from this literature (for understandable reasons since such collaborations are still very rare) is consideration of the social and cognitive relationships that exist between disciplinary experts as they puzzle over analytical insights as part of ‘collaboration’. Theoretical assertions about inter-disciplinary relationships need to be supplemented with understandings of the nature, possibilities and limits to real-life collaborations between two discursive traditions. It is likely that there is no single ‘relationship’ but rather multiple and highly variable relationships: at times competing, complementary, fused or even confused. This though can only be determined by examination of actual instances where the two domains come together.

Our aim is to open up possible ways of understanding this (these) relationship(s). In presenting a case study of a collaboration we expose some of the limitations of the original analysis whilst also exploring another possible framework for drawing sociology and ethics together – that of ‘phronesis’– within a very specific domain: that of conducting empirical research with a view to building a critical engagement with policy and practice. This will not provide the definitive answer to the points raised in the literature so far nor for future work. It will provide one way of opening up other routes for further analysis.

III. A case study of collaboration

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

1. The North Cumbria Community Genetics Project (NCCGP)

The NCCGP is a genetic database3 in the north-west of England, the purpose of which is to collect and store DNA samples from newborn children and their mothers, plus parental lifestyle information, in order to compile a database resource for other researchers wanting a ‘normal population’ for investigations into gene-disease-lifestyle associations.

Social and ethical commentaries on genetic databases raise concerns about: the adequacy of procedures for gaining informed consent from donors; confidentiality, security and access by parties other than the researchers; the ‘use’, ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’ of samples; feedback to donors on health status; levels of public and potential donors' awareness of these concerns (Knoppers 2003; Haimes and Williams 2006). The NCCGP raises additional concerns that illustrate the presence of global issues (gender, power, risk, commerce) at the local level. First, it requests samples from a ‘captive audience’ of pregnant women, who might feel obliged to donate through gratitude for maternity care.

Second, samples are derived from babies so questions have been raised about their usage until the children are old enough to give their own consent. Third, the NCCGP requires named lifestyle information about mothers' partners even though their involvement has not been subject to separate consent procedures. Finally, the NCCGP received initial funding from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd who have a major nuclear reprocessing base in Cumbria. Given fears associated with the effects on children's health of such bases, some were sceptical about the objectivity of the database research.4 However, the NCCGP achieved a very high response rate, with over 90 per cent of women agreeing to donate their babies' samples (although not all agreed to give lifestyle information: see below).

Despite these concerns, there have been few studies of how individuals decide to donate, or not, to a genetic database (Williamson et al. 2004), yet assertions as to why people donate are common and usually appeal to coreethical concepts. The Medical Research Council characterizes genetic donation as a ‘gift relationship’ which ‘underlines the altruistic motivation for participation in research’ (MRC 2001: 8). Another report claims that altruism is ‘the one primary motivating force that stimulates people to volunteer’ to donate genetic samples (People, Science and Policy 2002: 11). Claims such as these prompted the two researchers5 to design an empirical study to shed light on the extent to which ‘altruism’ features in individuals' accounts of their participation; whether, if found, its contours are those of the uni-dimensional concept found in more formal expositions, and whether its mention is explicable as a ‘reason for donating’. Our main research questions were: what was the repertoire of considerations that women raised when deciding whether to participate in the NCCGP, and were there differences in the considerations raised by those who donated and those who refused? Interviews were conducted with four groups: women asked to donate; members of the NCCGP research team; midwives responsible for asking pregnant women to donate; local groups who opposed the NCCGP (mainly because of the funding arrangements). We speculated that these four groups might provide contrasting normative statements as to why women should or should not contribute to the database.

2. The original analysis

There is no room to give more than a flavour of the findings from the collaborative study but the following three papers contain detailed data and analysis: Haimes and Whong-Barr 2003; Haimes and Whong-Barr 2004a and 2004b. We examined ‘donation’ from a number of angles, to capture the range of meanings and processes attached to this social act. We found that respondents distinguished subtly between both levels and styles of participation and that the usual distinction between ‘donors’ and ‘non-donors’ required clarification. Using ‘official’ NCCGP categories, it is possible to be a ‘full participant’, a ‘partial participant’ and a ‘non-participant’, depending on whether one donates the baby's sample, plus a maternal blood sample, plus full lifestyle information, or just the baby's sample, or nothing at all. In practice, these distinctions were blurred. As mentioned earlier, the NCCGP team refer to a ‘participation rate of ninety per cent’ but this is actually only a partial participation rate. Also women were not clear whether they had participated ‘fully’: they were not sure if they had given a maternal blood sample and could not always remember if they had completed the lifestyle questionnaire. Women also had different styles of donation: ‘active’ participants were keen to help because of perceived benefits to medicine; ‘cost-benefit’ participants were happy to help because they could see no harm to their baby or themselves from donating and it was ‘no trouble’ to do so; ‘passive participants’ could see no reason not to donate; one ‘reluctant participant’ regretted donating.

Therefore we argued that donation cannot be explained by simple reference to the ethical principle of ‘altruism’. Rather, the four interview sets suggest that all parties are constructing themselves as more complex, responsive ‘ethical beings’ who bring a range of ethical and social considerations to decision making. They are keen to show that they appreciate the multiple moral dimensions of their role in the NCCGP and of what constitutes ‘being ethical’ in this context. The NCCGP team demonstrate this through their reported insistence on ‘not pressing’ women to donate; opposition groups show they understand the imperative to ‘help medical research’ and seek to show that their fight is not with the women or the research but with the funders of the research; participating mothers are keen to show their ‘willingness to help a worthy cause’, and non-participating mothers show that ‘helping’ is as important to them as it is to participants, just that it did not apply in these specific circumstances. It is also clear that each instantiation of ‘being ethical’ was presented by interviewees within a larger account of a particular context within which these motivated actions were accountably reasonable (for example, being ‘a responsible researcher’, being ‘a good mother’). No one referred to an overarching systematic set of principles, external to these contexts, by which they felt their actions were guided, other than the very general notion of ‘helping’.

In trying to analyse these data in ways that accorded with our interests as ethicist and sociologist, we recognized the social embeddedness of ethical understandings and moral reasoning whilst noting the strongly ethical nature of the discourse used to express ideas about donation. We sought concepts that helped to articulate ideas that straddled both disciplinary domains and assisted the formulation of second-order understandings of data. Our original analysis therefore favoured ideas such as Foucault's notions of ‘aesthetics of the self’ and ‘practices of the self’: the ways in which individuals construct themselves ethically ‘without recourse to over-riding moral norms’ (Rabinow 1997: 255–6). Osborne's adaptation of Foucault's work in his concept of ‘ethical stylizations’ was also useful since it refers to the ways in which individuals, within certain social contexts, construct and sustain an acceptable sense of self, acceptability being based on certain socio-cultural frameworks for particular groups. Osborne argues that we now have many ethical stylizations but few rules about ethical content (Osborne 1998: 221–31). Three refereed papers were published from this sixteen month project (Haimes and Whong-Barr 2003; Haimes and Whong-Barr 2004a and 2004b), which suggests this analysis had a reasonable robustness.

3. Further disciplinary reflections

Whilst theoretical notions of ‘ethical selves’ and ‘ethical stylizations’ were useful in gaining analytical purchase on complex data, they forced us to confront further, more searching, questions about broader sociological and ethical reasoning. For example, from a sociological perspective, what does the notion of the aesthetics of the self, a conscious crafting of oneself as a certain type of person, imply about the macro-level historical and social circumstances that facilitate or constrain this accomplishment? And what does this have to say about the ways in which individuals construe and manage choices between alternative courses of action as ethical dilemmas and puzzles? Equally, from an ethics perspective, what can be gained from considering ‘ethical stylizations’, and what value might that concept have in informing the substance of longstanding ethical debates about informed consent, altruism, autonomy and standards of conduct, let alone reaching normative judgments about these matters? Each discipline strained to take the analysis off into divergent directions, though we agreed there was a core distinction between notions of ‘ethical beings’ and ‘being ethical’. ‘Ethical being’ invokes an individual's standing in the moral universe and/or their degree of adherence to a particular moral code. This is a traditional trope of ethics; virtue ethics, for instance, is concerned with an individual's moral character and seeks to address questions such as, ‘what kind of person should I be?’ The prescriptive task of ethics is to judge that status and to suggest ways of improving it. ‘Being ethical’, however, suggests a concern with process: with the actions and practices that define ethical behaviour in certain settings and is therefore primarily a concern for (a certain type of) sociology.

It might seem that, with the gradual move towards a greater appreciation of empirical work (Borry, Schotsmans and Dierickx 2005), some (applied) ethicists and philosophers could align themselves with this view of the importance of the analysis of settings and contexts for moral accounting. However, the leading philosopher Onora O'Neill warns:

Some philosophically interesting writing lacks clear implications for medicine, science and biotechnology because it is oblivious to institutional and professional realities and diversities. These problems can be avoided but not solved by separating philosophical writing from work intended to contribute to policy debates in bioethics. That has so far been my practice; its costs are rather high. (O'Neill 2002b: x)

This reminds us that a brief assertion of the importance of settings and contexts cannot easily bridge the two disciplinary perspectives though it clearly has some mileage. It is necessary, therefore, to work this through in greater detail to see how far it can take us in our goal of pursuing further collaborations between sociology and ethics. Accordingly the next section of this paper describes one approach that assists the consideration of grounded instances of ethical deliberations.

IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

Phronesis refers to the domain of Ethics. Deliberation about values with reference to praxis. Pragmatic, variable, context-dependent. Oriented towards action. Based on practical value-rationality. The original concept has no analogous contemporary term. (Flyvbjerg 2001: 57)

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics describes the ‘intellectual virtues’ and distinguishes ‘five ways in which the soul arrives at truth’: art, science, prudence, wisdom and intuition. ‘Prudence’ is also referred to as the deliberative virtue of practical wisdom, practical reasoning or ‘phronesis’: a ‘true state, reasoned and capable of action in the sphere of human goods.’ (Aristotle 1976: 1140b12–33). It is this virtue of phronesis on which we rely when we have to determine what it is to act well or badly and choose between alternative courses of action. It is generally accepted that this kind of practical rationality differs from ‘episteme’ or deductive scientific reasoning as it replaces a focus on universal necessity with attention to the ‘ultimate particulars’ of situated human conduct. It involves deliberation and the weighing of alternatives and depends on judgment for the determination of relevant facts and the choice of responses to those facts. Such practical wisdom is concerned with the analysis of concrete particulars, grasped through experience, guided by knowledge of rules, generalities and general principles. For Nussbaum (1990), practical rationality of this kind is necessitated by three ineradicable features of the situated character of human action, and the values that direct it: ‘mutability’, ‘indefiniteness’ and ‘particularity’. ‘Mutability’ refers to the fact that much of social life involves having to confront novel actions by using skills of improvization and flexibility combined with perceptiveness; ‘indefiniteness’ refers to the observation that individual actions cannot be grasped separately from their surrounding circumstance; and ‘particularity’ derives from the distinctiveness of individual persons and the history of their relationships, so that no two circumstances of their joint action can ever be treated as interchangeable.

Some ethicists have shown concern with the extent to which phronetic inquiries may simply chart the contours of culturally differentiated discursive resources, practices and judgments without then evaluating such resources. However, from a sociological perspective, there seems little dispute that any analysis of conduct that ignores the existence of such repertoires of accountable actions runs the risk of failing to engage with what matters most to real individuals, as well as failing to grasp how and why they make the ethical choices they do (see for example, Banks, Scully and Shakespeare 2006). Perhaps for this reason, a range of twentieth-century social science scholars have considered the potential of this approach to the analysis of human conduct and the values that direct it. There was a long dispute between Gadamer and Habermas about its usefulness (see especially Gadamer 1982; Habermas 1970; Bernstein 1982), and others have pointed out correspondences between Foucault's studies and the phronetic impulse (see Flyvbjerg 2001: 99–121; Rose 1999; Schatzki 2002: 135–7; Bertilsson 2000: 498;6Svenaeus 2003: 409).

Most recently Flyvbjerg (2001) has made a systematic case for a phronetic social science, drawing on a reading of Aristotle whilst emphasizing its resonances with other social science inquiries, especially Foucault's work on ‘situational ethics’, the ‘genealogical approach’ and relationships of power. In terms reminiscent of O'Neill's claim about philosophy, Flyvbjerg argues that ‘despite their importance, the concrete, the practical and the ethical have been neglected in modern science’ (Flyvbjerg: 59). He commends Foucault for his studies focused on the ‘context-dependent world view and interests among a reference group’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 101) and on ‘the particular . . . the deep, concrete detail [in which] genuinely important interrelationships are expressed’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 114).7

For Flyvbjerg and others this approach to social science research involves: focusing on values; placing power at the core of analysis; getting close to reality; emphasizing little things; looking at practice before discourse; studying cases and contexts; asking ‘how’ and producing narrative; joining agency and structure; and encouraging dialogue amongst a polyphony of voices. Such a focus provides a clear sense of the common but contested terrain of sociological and ethical inquiries and connects with the recent re-emergence of an interest in ‘public sociology’:

The task of phronetic social science is to clarify and deliberate about the problems and risks we face and to outline how things may be done differently, in full knowledge that we cannot find ultimate answers to these questions or even a single version of what the questions are. (Flyvbjerg 2001: 140).

Central to such a task then is to explicate precisely how individual and collective deliberations and actions are informed by value considerations as part of the lived texture of practical reasoning. Furthermore, to make knowledge of this texture available to others so that future deliberations are informed less by stipulations of what should matter to those who want to make wise judgments, and more by understandings of the multiplicity and distinctiveness of how individuals are able accountably to determine right or wrong courses of action in specific social contexts. It is important to note, however, that this orientation can be distinguished both from the working preferences of many contemporary ethicists as well as from several sociological approaches. It does not begin by focusing on ethical principles and then interrogating the relationship between these and specific local contexts of use, since it is not an attempt to contribute to formal philosophical discourse. Nor does it begin by focusing on abstract assertions of the relationship between values and social structure and then interrogating the extent to which individual instances of conduct can be explained by reference to such assertions, since it is not an attempt to stipulate structural determinants of this kind.

V. Revisiting the NCCGP study

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

A phronetic approach provides new tools with which to sharpen our original analysis of the NCCGP, tools which can be brought to other sites of policy making and evaluation, to interrogate, support and inform more comprehensive deliberations. Accordingly, in this section, we discuss ways in which our analysis might have been different if such an approach had been more fully deployed from the outset.

First, such an approach encourages us to examine more carefully what some may simply gloss as ‘interviewees' intuitions’ about their reasons for donating, or not, to the database. This is important since many of those with an interest in ‘public opinion’ or ‘lay reasoning’ about scientific and ethical matters become frustrated at the apparent lack of explicit cognitive support given for particular decisions and actions. For example, when asked why they had donated to the NCCGP, some women gave responses such as ‘it just seemed right to donate’; ‘I just trusted what the doctors said’; ‘I couldn't see any reason not to donate’; ‘it didn't seem right to donate my baby's tissue’. When encouraged to expand they did not seem able to provide any clearer reasons. However, far from being the result of a lack of reasoning or care about the matter in hand, this sort of situated response signals its embeddedness in commonplace understandings of what kinds of decisions require detailed explications (‘I couldn't see any reason not to donate’), in assumptions about what kinds of social relationships imply particular decisions (‘I just trusted what the doctors said’), as well as its reliance on commonly available knowledge of the relevance of specific identity categories (‘doctors’, ‘my baby’ and ‘researchers’). A phronetic orientation would take such appeals to the ‘obvious’ appropriateness of an action to both rely on, and exemplify, the context-dependent experience and knowledge being realized in the course of such interviews, rather than constituting a ‘lack’ of formal specification or the ‘absence’ of reference to specific ethical principles (see also Hoeyer 2003). Thus, identifying what constitutes for this cohort of actors accountably intuitive action and what counts as accountably counter-intuitive or, indeed, surprising or troubling action and ideas, is an important part of the process of understanding the contextual deployment of practical reasoning, along with understanding how such reasoning contributes to the shaping of those contexts.

Here, we note that a weakness of the study was the researchers' failure to gain access to settings in which donation requests were made or where consent was given (or was considered to have been given) despite efforts to do so. Whilst vital to a full understanding of the process referred to as ‘informed consent’, actual observation of that process was prohibited on the grounds of patient confidentiality. A concern for ethical practice acted as a barrier to empirical research on ethics. This meant that since we could only collect the reports given by our interviewees, our work is necessarily confined to the analysis of occasions of ‘classical accountability’ (Garfinkel 2002) in which individuals are asked to report on the course of their previous deliberations, rather than occasions of ‘natural accountability’ in which such deliberations are practically accomplished. Although we have sought to understand how interviewees arrived at decisions informed by wider interests and biographies, our inability to witness the delivery of these decisions is something we would hope to overcome in subsequent studies.

The same orientation also reminds us of the need to look more explicitly at how individuals formulate decisions against assumptions of the autonomy of their actions, and understandings of the power and authority of others. The phronetic approach discourages us from stipulating, in advance of inquiry, the existence of a particular power relationship between medical researchers (whose primary concern may be seen as getting an adequate response rate) and potential donors (who may be seen as needing ‘protection’), while emphasizing the need to understand the ways in which many relationships of power and influence are realized in the course of routine social encounters. In medical studies such as the NCCGP, power is held not only by those making requests but also by those responding. In this study it would be important to identify other relationships of authority and power that are relevant to participants' accounts. These might include those existing throughout the wider West Cumbria community, within the local media, within the NCCGP researchers' wider professions, in research funding systems, and in global institutional frameworks that condition all of these local arrangements.

The autonomy of individual actions and their relationship to issues of authority and power need to be examined through their realization in communicative interaction between researchers and potential donors (as well as between the potential donors and their wider community). For this reason, a variety of contextual considerations become highly relevant. When, where and how are potential donors first introduced to the database? What does communication look like in NCCGP? What versions do the various parties present of themselves in that communication? How do participants understand power relations to operate, particularly in relation to ‘informed consent’? Do individuals within antenatal settings asked for consent necessarily co-construct an unequal power relationship between those requesting consent (or interestingly in medical parlance, those ‘taking the consents’) and those giving it, the pregnant women? Are current notions of informed consent ‘rituals of truth’ (O'Neill 2002a; Corrigan 2003; Barr 2006) or are they more nuancednegotiations between individuals whose identities are fluid and shifting in the course of these clinical dialogues?

Finally, there is the question of the relationship between the descriptions of socio-moral reasoning that we want to explicate through the application of a phronetic orientation and the philosophically rational assertions and arguments that take place in professional philosophical contexts, including those public (or semi-public) deliberative contexts in which professional expertise of various kinds is brought together in support of policy-making. For the majority of contemporary ethicists, Aristotle's interest in the collection of culturally and contextually specific moral reasoning is no more than a prologue to his own prescriptive ethical arguments. To a considerable extent, the intellectual authority of professional ethicists also depends on such stipulative conclusions. In seeking to conduct our analysis without responding to this impulse we acknowledge that, at least in this respect, our interests as sociologists do not converge with theirs as ethicists, and that we are consciously resisting demands for explanatory accounts of ethical preferences. Equally, however, we are resisting other, sociological, demands for analytical critiques of power relationships and the production of systematic theory about socio-moral accountings (Lynch and Bogen 1996: 273). Instead we seek a sociology responsive to the ways that factual and moral considerations are brought together in accountable conduct; one that ‘develops from inquiry and not from theorising; it aims at discoveries enabling us to locate ourselves in the complex relations with others arising from and determining our lives.’ (Smith 1996: 195).

VI. Commentary

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography

We argue that ethics and sociology share a common interest in the ways in which individuals and institutions are both shaped by and shape a range of moral imperatives. At the same time there remain significant differences in the ways in which practitioners of the two disciplines have previously approached this interest. However, we see in phronesis, the possibility of an analysis of the moral texture of human actions that maximizes the potential for an informed dialogue between sociologists and ethicists as well as providing an opportunity for such analysis to contribute to wider public and policy debates.

It is also the case, though, that a simple exhortation to a phronetic approach may underexplicate certain aspects of inquiry and analysis, especially for those of us seeking to find ways of establishing collaborations between sociology and ethics. From our exploration of this approach, and from our attempts to sharpen an existing analysis through its application, we were confronted by this vagueness in certain areas. Therefore we now seek to be more explicit about certain preferences that seem to underpin it, which we offer for further scrutiny, since although we ourselves favour their contributions, we can see that they require further discussion.

We argue that phronesis itself is informed by choices made from a series of fundamental theoretical and methodological alternatives that recur across the social sciences. In particular, it seems to support several positions, preferring: ‘constitutive contextualism’ to ‘stipulative contextualism’; ‘rule finitism’ to ‘ethical principalism’; a fact-value couplet to a fact/value dichotomy, and the ‘prioritization of particulars’ to ‘privileging theoretical constructions’. We outline what these preferences mean before going on to indicate some ways in which a phronetic analyses might be related to recent suggestions for the encouragement of publicly significant sociology.

•  Constitutive contextualism rather than stipulative contextualism. Whilst reference to ‘context’ is a commonplace of much contemporary social science, the nature of the context in question, as well as the sense in which it shapes actions, are stipulatively asserted by the social analyst. The alternative approach, of constitutive contextualism, recognizes that neither the concrete contexts of conduct nor the actions undertaken await such stipulation: they are already orderly and intelligible to the actors who construct and respond to them. Actors are ‘simultaneously reproducing, developing or modifying the institutional realities which envelop those actions’ (Heritage 1984: 180) as the necessary grounds for the construction and co-ordination of meaningful action.

Consequently, the analytical attention of both disciplines needs to be focused on the ways in which wider structural configurations are brought into play and made relevant to the morality of individual and collective conduct, as well as the ways in which roles are performed to constitute and reinforce a common ethical orientation to a collectively constructed social context.

•  Rule finitism rather than ethical principalism. Ineradicable properties of the social (‘change’, ‘surprise’, ‘complexity’) require a particular view of rules and their relationship to social actions and situations. Rules are only ‘summaries and guides’ and meaningful action requires ‘the ability to recognise, acknowledge, respond to, pick out certain salient features of a complex situation.’ (Nussbaum 1986: 305). Wittgenstein, Garfinkel and others make it clear that there is always a question of which rules are to be applied to specific situations since no rules present themselves ‘with duty labels on them’, and there is an ‘essential insufficiency of rules in the determination of conduct’ (Heritage 1984: 120). Thus, with this preference, sociological accounts of human actions as rule-governed, and ethical examinations of whether courses of action accord with one or a series of ethical ‘principles’, are both replaced by consideration of the ways that individuals deploy references to such rules and principles in the course of their deliberations and actions. This emphasizes the primary importance for both disciplines of detailed descriptions of real instances of human accounting, in place of the general characterization of such accounts as exemplifying versions of one kind of ethical theory or another.

•  A fact-value couplet rather than a fact/value dichotomy. Earlier in this paper we noted that the dichotomy between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, between the factual and the normative, has been seen as a fundamental challenge to collaboration between sociology and ethics. Yet, while it is true the dichotomy has been a feature of philosophy since Kant and of the social sciences since Weber, disciplinary assertions about its significance remain in unknown correspondence to the ways in which ordinary persons provide accounts of individual instances of their actions or deliberate over alternative courses of action. Wittgenstein (1958) asserts that an examination of the logical grammar of ordinary concepts reveals that moral concepts are necessarily embedded in a network of social practices. Louch argues that normative features of actions and accounts should prompt the realisation that ‘the investigation of action should be sensitive to appraisal as a constitutive feature of that action’ (Louch 1966: 235). Factual descriptions and normative evaluations are necessarily intertwined in and through the course of accounting for actions, and ‘moral concepts and beliefs turn out not to inhabit a high ground that overlooks the terrain of action or “fact”– rather they are constituents of these, and practical reasoning turns out to be morally organised’ (Jayyusi 1991: 235). Recognition of the essential entanglement of the moral and the factual, and working out the consequences of this entanglement for both actors and analysts, provide opportunities that can fuel ethical and sociological collaborations of the kind we have advocated throughout this paper. When seen as a couplet rather than a dichotomy, considerations of the fact-value relationship are a resource for, rather than a barrier to, the two disciplines working together.

•  Prioritizing particulars rather than privileging theoretical constructions. For Garfinkel (2002) and Rawls (1996, 2001 and 2002), Durkheim's aphorism to ‘study social facts as things’ warranted a commitment to the description and analysis of the ‘concrete details of social practices’ (Rawls 2002: 20). Yet this early interest in ‘enacted local practice’ (Garfinkel 1996: 8) was replaced by a preference for the analysis of ‘generic features’ of social institutions and assertions of the socio-historical circumstances which are said to condition them. Wittgenstein's (1958: 17–18) call for the abandonment of such a ‘craving for generality’ (based on ‘philosophical confusions’, a correspondence theory of meaning, and a ‘preoccupation with the method of science’) has been taken up in studies influenced by Garfinkel in which descriptions are provided of the ‘intelligible and recognisable actions, events, gestures, utterances.’ (Lynch and Bogen 1996: 265) that make the orderliness of specific social settings. It is the mark of such studies that the scientific concern with universal necessity is replaced by detailed attention to the ‘ultimate particulars’ of situated human conduct, and here again we assert the potential fruitfulness of shared sociological and ethical inquiries directed by this preference.

We suggest therefore that the explicit adoption of these preferences through an approach informed by phronesis will not only facilitate collaboration between sociologists and ethicists, but will also shape the kinds of engagement that such a jointly accomplished analysis might allow with the wider public world within which all such socio-ethical inquiries are located. As such, consideration of the features of a phronetic approach is relevant to several recent efforts to situate sociology within this wider sphere. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Burawoy's 2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address ‘For Public Sociology’ (Burawoy 2005) which reiterated and developed Gans' (2002) earlier advocacy of a sociology explicitly, but critically, engaged with current politico-moral debates, the ethical discourses within which they are framed, and the social and public policies which instantiate their resolution.

There have already been commentaries on the nature and significance of this renewed vision of sociology (see the special issue of the British Journal of Sociology Volume 56 Issue 3 2005 and http://sociology.berkeley.edu/faculty/burawoy/workingpapers.htm#public_sociology), but here we simply note the ways in which several of these commentaries have called for the recognition both of the permeable boundary between descriptive and normative accounting, and of the complex relationships that exist between different kinds of empirical research and the formulation, implementation and evaluation of public policy.8 Ericson has argued that, from its origins, sociology has always been used to contribute to ‘governmental programmes of security, well-being, prosperity and self governance’ (Ericson 2005: 367) and has pointed to the ways in which sociology's interest in what he calls ‘principled courses of action’ necessarily entails both factual and moral assessments of such phenomena. These assessments recur throughout the process of knowledge production: at the stage of topic selection and formulation, category development and data collection, interpretation and dissemination.

We argue that this necessary entailment is one of the main reasons to recommend an approach to sociological analysis which articulates its relationship to ethical analysis, albeit with a particular interest in the historical contingencies that underlie the ‘intellectual traditions and institutional formations’ (Calhoun 2005: 337) which shape contemporary professional ethical discourse. In particular we have suggested ways in which those interested in what count as ethical issues and ethical analysis in policy formulation and implementation can explore individual instances of practical socio-ethical reasoning carried out by a range of actors in specific local contexts, as well as provide an analysis of such instances capable of informing national and global policy deliberations. Successful investigations guided by this approach would provide a detailed understanding of what individuals and groups claim accountably to ‘know’ about the particular scientific and medical fields under discussion (a question which still does not get asked often enough), a description of how that knowledge is structured, distributed and utilized, as well as an account of the role that their espousal of values and interests plays in articulations of, and disputes about, that knowledge.

It is of course necessary to remember that, as Etzioni (2005: 373–8) argues, significant challenges face any efforts of the kind we have described above, seeking to inform practical policy-making, since what are defined as alternative practical policy options are necessarily focused on only those aspects of individual or collective conduct already conceived as capable of being shaped by relevant agencies. This means that an invitation to policymakers and practitioners to engage in empirically and normatively informed conversations which address recurrent questions of ‘where are we going? Is this desirable? What should be done? Who gains and who loses?’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 130–1) will not always be accepted, or when accepted, may be subject to more constraints than we would wish. Nevertheless, such conversations are central to a vision that ‘restore[s] social science to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks and possibilities we face as humans and societies, and at contributing to social and political praxis.’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 4)

Notes
  • 1

    For example, the main UK policy advisory body in this field, the Human Genetics Commission, has had two prominent social scientists as successive members.

  • 2

    For example, both authors have worked with, and served as members of, a range of policy advisory bodies such as The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Human Genetics Commission, UK Biobank Interim Advisory Group on Ethics and Governance.

  • 3

    The NCCGP stopped collecting new samples in early 2003 but the database still functions as a resource for other researchers.

  • 4

    The NCCGP was approved by the local research ethics committee and the research team appointed an Ethics Advisory Group, whose members have well-deserved reputations for their contributions to these debates.

  • 5

    The researchers gratefully acknowledge the funding of the Wellcome Trust for the empirical study referred to here. Erica Haimes and Michael Whong-Barr conducted the research. This article is based on further reflections by two sociologists after a number of conversations involving Michael Whong-Barr, whose contributions we fully and gratefully acknowledge.

  • 6

    Bertilsson says, ‘The task of finding a moderate balance between Antiquity's three ideals for creating understanding, that is, episteme, phronesis, and poietic-techne,is and will remain, a greater challenge for modern (social) science than it probably ever was for ancient philosophers.’ (Bertilsson 2000: 505).

  • 7

    Whilst Flyvbjerg argues that notions of power are neglected by Aristotle, he also concedes that the question of how power is exercised and a concern with the actual practices of power must be central to any contemporary social science analysis (Flyvbjerg 2001: 118).

  • 8

    Another recent and influential study which raises many of these issues by focussing attention on forms of ‘reason giving’ in social life is Tilly (2006).

Bibliography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. I. Introduction
  4. II. Sociology and ethics
  5. III. A case study of collaboration
  6. IV. Ethics, sociology and phronesis
  7. V. Revisiting the NCCGP study
  8. VI. Commentary
  9. Bibliography
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