Bioethics: The View from Social Science


Since the inception of professional American bioethics, social scientists have been invested in participating in the debates surrounding the definitions and solutions to bioethical problems. The relationship between the social sciences and professional bioethics, however, has been tenuous, given the different disciplinary methods and ideas that undergird both fields. At present, the social sciences contribute to bioethics in two central ways. As outsiders, or as social scientists of bioethics, researchers place the profession of bioethics as their object of empirical study; as insiders, or as social scientists in bioethics, researchers work within the framework of professional bioethics. The former is more critical, often challenging assumptions in professional bioethics, and the latter is more positivistic, supplying empirical data about opinions, values and experiences that help improve existing practices within professional bioethics.

Key Concepts

  • In American bioethics, there are four jurisdictions that a variety of professionals engage in: cultural bioethics, research bioethics, health care ethics consultation and public policy bioethics.
  • The profession of bioethics is a group of professionals that have a common set of methods and ideas for posing and solving problems.
  • The social sciences have had a complex relationship with professional bioethics because often social scientists challenge the methods and ideas that form the basis of professional bioethics' authority.
  • It is helpful to think of social sciences of bioethics and social sciences in bioethics to differentiate between the ways in which social scientists engage with the study of bioethics.
  • Social scientists of bioethics empirically study the profession of bioethics, situating its claims to expertise, institutionalisation and practices within the broader cultural and social context.
  • Social scientists in bioethics empirically study questions originally raised or delimited in scope by the profession of bioethics, hoping to improve the decisionā€making processes or implementation practices within the jurisdictions of bioethics.
  • While social science of bioethics and social science in bioethics have historically existed in tension, it is important that they remain distinct areas of inquiry while moving towards constructive conversations.

Keywords: jurisdictions of bioethics; profession of bioethics; social science of bioethics; social science in bioethics; public engagement


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Evans, John H, and Olsen, Lauren D(Dec 2016) Bioethics: The View from Social Science. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027019]