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What Would You Do?

Juggling Bioethics and Ethnography

In hospital rooms across the country, doctors, nurses, patients, and their families grapple with questions of life and death. Recently, they have been joined at the bedside by a new group of professional experts, bioethicists, whose presence raises a host of urgent questions. How has bioethics evolved into a legitimate specialty? When is such expertise necessary? How do bioethicists make their decisions? And whose interests do they serve?

Renowned sociologist Charles L. Bosk has been observing medical care for thirty-five years. In What Would You Do? he brings his extensive experience to bear on these questions while reflecting on the ethical dilemmas that his own ethnographic research among surgeons and genetic counselors has provoked. Bosk considers whether the consent given to ethnographers by their subjects can ever be fully voluntary and informed. He questions whether promises of confidentiality and anonymity can or should be made. And he wonders if social scientists overestimate the benefits of their work while downplaying the risks.

Vital for practitioners of both the newly prominent field of bioethics and the long-established craft of ethnography, What Would You Do? will also engross anyone concerned with how our society addresses difficult health care issues.


“Charles Bosk provides in these pages a rich and rigorous account of the ways in which medical ethics, ethnography, and social science illuminate the human condition. He is the finest ethnographer of his generation, and he offers to future generations a standard of ethnographic practice and reflection that is unrivaled in its appreciation of the nuances and complexities of making sense of people’s lives.”

Jonathan B. Imber, Wellesley College

“This is a brilliant book: astutely observed and elegantly written. Charles Bosk is the Erving Goffman of bioethics. He sees things the rest of us overlook.”--Carl Elliott, University of Minnesota

Carl Elliott

"Bosk’s reflexive reflections show ethnography and the ethnographer auto-ethnographised and found wanting. . . . There are complexities and riches in Bosk’s apologia pro vita sua. While the elegant, thoughtful writing is mostly nuanced, subtle and careful, occasionally a brutal, self-flagellatory honesty leaps from a book written at the end of a long professional career."

Times Higher Education

"[Bosk] brings to bear on a host of ethical concerns over 30 years’ experience in medical ethnography, in a text both thought-provoking and engaging. He examines both the social organization of bioethics as a growing occupational domain in health care, and the everyday ethical dilemma of sociologists who conduct ethnography in health care settings, including studying medical ethics."

Brenda L. Beagan | Canadian Journal of Sociology

"The chapters stand as loosely coupled explorations of issues that are critcal in bioethics, and with Bosk’s deft hand they are always enlightening."

John H. Evans | Social History of Medicine

Table of Contents


Introduction • What Would You Do? Juggling Bioethics and Ethnography


1. Professional Ethicist Available: Logical, Secular, Friendly

2. The Licensing and Certification of Ethics Consultants: What Part of "No!" Was So Hard to Understand?
3. Institutional Ethics Committees: Sociological Oxymoron, Empirical Black Box

4. Margin of Error: The Sociology of Ethics Consultation

5. Bureaucracies of Mass Deception: Institutional Review Boards and Ethics of Ethnographic Research with Raymond G. De Vries


6. Invitation to Ethnography

7. A Twice-Told Tale of Witnessing

8. Irony, Ethnography, and Informed Consent


9. The Field-Worker and the Surgeon

10. An Ethnographer’s Apology, A Bioethicist’s Lament: The Surgeon and the Sociologist Revisited

11. A Moment of Silence: On Not Giving Up Dr. Arthur’s Ghost


Counterfeit Courage and the Noncombatant


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