Publication Details

Chenhall, R., Martinelli, L., McLaughlin, J., Paulsen, B., Senior, K., Svalastog, A. L., Tunon, H. & Werdelin, L. (2014). Culture, science and bioethics: Interdisciplinary understandings of and practices in science, culture and ethics. New Zealand Online Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 1 (2), 100-124.


This paper presents insights from four years of interdisciplinary discussions and analysis focusing on the complex and multidimensional character of the relationship between culture and ethics. This work started off with a clear perception of the present and cross-disciplinary importance of culture and ethics, in areas such as analysis of quality of life and familial and organizational cultures, as well as in bioprospecting, epidemiology, research ethics and clinical ethics. For example, we see the influence of culture in how contentions arise within bioprospecting linked to calls that values associated with traditional knowledge and benefit-sharing be recognised. While in studies of organisations, including healthcare organisations, we see culture explored as a tool of change and communication, and at other times as an intrinsic part of how organisations set norms, boundaries and hierarchies. This paper explores a number of ways in which understanding and responding to areas of bioethical concern benefit from a consideration of culture. It encompasses some of the ways in which each of us is engaging with those relationships in order to make the case for the necessity of thinking through how culture, science and bioethics do and should intersect. Our discussions have deepened our understanding of how interdisciplinary knowledge operates within our individual projects. They have also highlighted for us how analyses of culture, whether examining bioprospecting, epidemiology, quality of life, or perceptions of the culture-nature divide, in addition to representing particular knowledge claims, are also always challenges to present social and economic power structures that influence intellectual and academic approaches and recognition. In the following we present some of the projects discussed and developed within our emerging research network. From these examples we generate a new understanding of present challenges in on-going analyses of culture, science and ethics in today's globalized society. This is supported by the broad areas of work our individual projects represent: analysis of quality of life, medical and cultural understandings of family, bioprospecting and biopiracy, epidemiology, research ethics and clinical ethics, the retention and handing back of materials gathered by archaeology (repatriation), and the quality of life and knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Multiple disciplines across the social sciences study culture. Our approach to culture is one which seeks to understand how values we know as cultural – that is embedded in and emergent from particular locations and groupings of people who develop shared understandings over time – are part of how groups are recognised (or denied), how knowledge is produced and understood, how people understand their position in the world and how history and change influence the boundaries between cultures and the differential valuing of cultures. While some of us are interested in the cultural values of particular groups, this does not mean we consider some groups to be more cultural than others (and subsequently less modern than others). Likewise, while some of us are interested in objects or disputes, which seem more obviously cultural than others, we do not think that culture can only be found in such things. Instead, our overall claim is that cultural dynamics are embedded in all areas of cultural analysis and bioethical or ethical debate (bioethical we use to denote questions that revolve around medicine, healthcare and biology, while we use ethical to refer to the broader landscapes of concern some of us work in). Our theoretical approach draws mostly from work across anthropology, sociology, folklore, ethics and philosophy. In particular we draw from perspectives that engage with the significance of culture to social practice, identity and meaning, including post-colonial and native theory/indigenous peoples' study. This last area of influence is very important because of the ways in which it has deconstructed the cultural underpinnings of dominant cultures' claims to reason and rationality, alongside explorations of how the cultural values of dominated or marginalized groups, locations (centre versus periphery, colonial versus colonialized areas), traditions (folk traditions and livelihoods), certain academic methods or fields of studies that have been in conflict to dominant science discourses have been comparatively framed as the other to modernity and to civilisation.

The structure of the paper is based around individual accounts of how we draw cultural analyses into our varied approaches to studying bioethics, ethics, science, knowledge and cultural and social lives. The aim of this structure is to provide insight into the multiple ways we can engage with the significance of culture as integrative to all areas of science and ethics. As culture is all-embracing, it represents resources intervened or inseparable from power relations, and as such, cultural analysis demands new ways of approaching areas of research interest that are reflecting inter- /trans-disciplinary analysis and competence.

What the paper produces is a case for seeing culture as a vital component to how we debate science and ethics and indicates several ways this can be done analytically and methodologically.