Untangling Uncertainty: A Study of the Discourses Shaping Clinical Ethics Consultation as a Professional Practice


Salla Saxén


This qualitative social scientific interview study delves into the ways in which professional vision is constructed in clinical ethics consultation (CEC). The data consist of 11 semi-structured interviews that were conducted with clinical ethics consultants currently working in hospitals in one major urban area in the U.S. The interviews were analyzed with the qualitative research method of critical discourse analysis, with a focus on identifying the cultural structures of knowledge that shape CEC as a professional practice. The discourses were first identified as belonging to two higher discourse categories, order and agency. Order was divided into three lower categories, emotional, managerial, and rational order, and discourses of agency into the lower categories of exploration, technique, deliberation, and distancing. An additional discourse of neutral interaction was identified as a bridging discourse, activated to level tensions emerging out of conflicting goals and agencies embedded in CEC practice. This analysis brings out as its main observation that clinical ethics consultants draw on and shift between potentially ideologically conflicting social positions that can create built-in tensions within the professional domain. The study calls attention to these tensions and suggests for the professional group to discuss the possibility of defining priorities between different kinds of order, identified in this study, that shape the CEC domain.



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