Social Theory & Health

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 53–69 | Cite as

Exploring Ambivalence about Genetic Research and its Social Context

  • Anne Kerr
  • Sarah Cunningham-Burley
  • Richard Tutton


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 


  1. Bauman Z (1991). Modernity and Ambivalence. Polity Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  2. Bauman Z (1993). Postmodern Ethics. Blackwell: Oxford.Google Scholar
  3. Bauman Z (1997). Postmodernity and its Discontents. Polity Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  4. Beck U (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage: New Delhi.Google Scholar
  5. Collins HM, Evans R (2002). The third wave of science studies: studies of expertise and experience. Social Studies of Science 32: 235–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dunkerley D, Glasner P (1998). Empowering the public? Citizens juries and the new genetic technologies. Critical Public Health 8: 181–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Epstein S (1996). Impure Science. AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge. University of California Press: Berkeley.Google Scholar
  8. Farsides B, Williams C, Alderson P (2004). Aiming towards ‘moral equilibrium’: health care professionals’ views on working within the morally contested field of antenatal screening. Journal of Medical Ethics 30: 505–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Giddens A (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy. Polity Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  10. Glasner P, Rothman H (1999). Does familiarity breed concern? Bench scientists and the human genome project. Science and Public Policy 16: 233–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Glasner P, Rothman H (2001). New genetics, new ethics? Globalisation and its discontents health. Risk and Society 3: 245–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goven J (2003). Deploying the consensus conference in New Zealand: democracy and deproblematization. Public Understanding of Science 12: 423–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kerr A, Cunningham-Burley S, Amos A (1997). The New Genetics: Professionals’Discursive. Boundaries. Sociological Review 45: 297–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kerr A, Cunningham-Burley S, Tutton R (forthcoming). Shifting subject positions: experts and lay people in public dialogue. Social Studies of Science.Google Scholar
  15. Nicholas B (2001). Exploring a moral landscape: genetic science and ethics. Hypatia 16: 45–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Merton R, Barber E (1963). Sociological ambivalence. In: Tiryakian EA (ed). Sociological Theory, Values and Sociological Change: Essays in Honor of Piritim A. Sorokin. The Free Press: New York. pp 91–120 reprinted in Merton, R. (1976) Sociological Ambivalence and Other Essays. The Free Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  17. Power M (1999). The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Prior L (2003). Belief, knowledge and expertise: the emergence of the lay expert in medical sociology. Sociology of Health and Illness 25 (Silver Anniversary Issue): 41–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Roberts C, Franklin S (2004). Experiencing new forms of genetic choice: findings from an ethnographic study of preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Human Fertility 7 (4): 285–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Scully JL, Rippberger C, Rehmann-Sutter C (2004). Non-professionals’ evaluations of gene therapy ethics’. Social Science and Medicine 58: 1415–1425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Wynne B (1996). May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive view of the expert-lay knowledge divide. In: Lash S, Szerszynski B and Wynne B (eds.) Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology. Sage: London. pp. 44–83.Google Scholar
  22. Wynne B (2002). Risk and environment as legitimatory discourses of technology: reflexivity inside out? Current Sociology 50: 459–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Yearley S (2000). Making Systematic Sense of Public Discontents with Expert Knowledge: Two Analytical Approaches and a Case Study. Public Understanding of Science 9 (2): 105–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Zeiler K (2004). Reproductive autonomous choice – A cherished illusion? Reproductive autonomy examined in the context of reimplantation genetic diagnosis. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 7: 175–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Kerr
    • 1
  • Sarah Cunningham-Burley
    • 1
  • Richard Tutton
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of LeedsLeedsUK

Personalised recommendations