Social Theory & Health

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 53-69

First online:

Exploring Ambivalence about Genetic Research and its Social Context

  • Anne KerrAffiliated withSchool of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds
  • , Sarah Cunningham-BurleyAffiliated withSchool of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds
  • , Richard TuttonAffiliated withSchool of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds

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Recent developments in genetics have provoked considerable controversy and involve various kinds of ambivalence about contemporary biomedicine and its social context. Rather than arguing that lay and professional ambivalence are problems to be overcome, this paper suggests that ambivalence may bring reflexivity and protect against exploitation. This paper explores some of the different kinds of ambivalence about genetics expressed in 12 focus groups by a range of publics and professionals. Within the professional groups participating in the study, we found ambivalence was seldom foregrounded in favour of a discourse of risk management and education of the public. When ambivalence was expressed, it seemed to be circumscribed and solved by rational action although we did identify moments of reflexivity and personal ambivalence. The lay groups expressed ambivalence and concern about some of the same issues as the professional groups and once again ambivalence often remained muted. However, it was less easily countered by proposed regulatory or commercial solutions. Personal experience sometimes fostered critical reflection. Moral ambivalence was evident, sometimes based on religious values. Our analysis suggests that neither the stories of ambivalence as a force for democratization or professional domination ring true. The professionals and lay people in our study were struggling to manage expertise, risk and morality, as they examined and reflected upon the social and ethical aspects of the new genetics. Ambivalence then should be actively fostered, extending Bauman's recourse to individual conscience towards dialogue and collective responses.


ambivalence genetics lay and professional discourses focus groups