Mapping, framing and shaping: a framework for empirical bioethics research projects

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There is growing interest in the use and incorporation of empirical data in bioethics research. Much of the recent focus has been on specific “empirical bioethics” methodologies, which attempt to integrate the empirical and the normative. Researchers in the field are, however, beginning to explore broader questions, including around acceptable standards of practice for undertaking such research.

The framework:
In this article, we further widen the focus to consider the overall shape of an empirical bioethics research project. We outline a framework that identifies three key phases of such research, which are conveyed via a landscaping metaphor of Mapping-Framing-Shaping. First, the researcher maps the field of study, typically by undertaking literature reviews. Second, the researcher frames particular areas of the field of study, exploring these in depth, usually via qualitative research. Finally, the researcher seeks to (re-)shape the terrain by issuing recommendations that draw on the findings from the preceding phases. To qualify as empirical bioethics research, the researcher will utilise a methodology that seeks to bridge these different elements in order to arrive at normative recommendations. We illustrate the framework by citing examples of diverse projects which broadly adopt the three-phase framework. Amongst the strengths of the framework are its flexibility, since (as the examples indicate) it does not prescribe any specific methods or particular bridging methodology. However, the framework might also have its limitations, not least because it appears particularly to capture projects that involve qualitative – as opposed to quantitative – research.

Despite its possible limitations, we offer the Mapping-Framing-Shaping framework in the hope that this will prove useful to those who are seeking to plan and undertake empirical bioethics research projects.
Original languageEnglish
Article number86 (2019)
Number of pages8
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2019

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