‘Bioethics’ is a field which is concerned with ethical questions and issues in context. To this end, it can be both philosophical and empirical (Zeiler and De Boer, 2020). Often though, bioethics research raises practical ‘ought’ or ‘should’ questions (Sheehan and Dunn, 2013). ‘Should psychedelics be used as a treatment tool in psychiatry?’ for example, or ‘what ought the policy on diminished responsibility be?’
Such research questions lend themselves to qualitative research. Qualitative approaches can be used to provide a ‘depth’ of understanding that is complementary to the ‘breadth’ of understanding that can be afforded by quantitative methods (Palinkas, 214). For example, methods such as focus groups, interviews and qualitative surveys can help to elicit perspectives of people being studied. Indeed, as Clarke and Braun (2013, p.12) eloquently put it – ‘qualitative approaches […] afford us a privileged insight into worlds we have no direct personal experience of.’ Within psychiatry, this might include service users such as patients, carers, clinicians and healthcare managers. It can also include a range of other stakeholders. Qualitative research can also help to develop concepts and theories, and to explore issues that have not been well studied before.
Mixed methods, in which qualitative and quantitative approaches are combined, can also be helpful in addressing bioethical questions. For example, a quantitative systematic review might help us to assess what the current evidence base is on a particular topic (Denyer, and Tranfield, 2009), such as what has already been reported on the use of psychedelics as a treatment tool. Or, a large-scale survey could help to understand wider-scale perceptions, such as whether the public or policymakers believe the policy on diminished responsibility ought to change.
Ultimately, the methodology employed in bioethical research will depend upon the research question being asked. However, it ought to be recognised that there is value beyond purely quantitative methods and paradigms – and this is particularly the case when it comes to undertaking research in bioethics.
Bessie O'Dell is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford reading for a DPhil in Psychiatry. She is part of the Neuroscience, Ethics and Society group (NEUROSEC) and the Oxford Precision Psychiatry Lab (OxPPL),
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2013). Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. Sage.
Denyer, D., and Tranfield, D. (2009). Producing a systematic review. In D. A. Buchanan & A. Bryman (Eds.), The Sage handbook of organizational research methods (p. 671–689). Sage Publications Ltd.
Palinkas, L. A. (2014). Qualitative and mixed methods in mental health services and implementation research. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 43(6), 851-861.
Sheehan, M., & Dunn, M. (2013). On the nature and sociology of bioethics. Health Care Analysis, 21(1), 54-69.
Zeiler, K., and De Boer, M. (2020). The Empirical and the Philosophical in Empirical Bioethics: Time for a Conceptual Turn. AJOB empirical bioethics, 11(1), 11–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/23294515.2019.1708515