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Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME)

New paper by Supriya Subramani: The Social Construction of Incompetency: Moving Beyond Embedded Paternalism Toward the Practice of Respect.


his article illustrates the less-acknowledged social construction of the concept of ‘incompetency’ and draws attention to the moral concerns it raises in health care encounters in the south Indian city of Chennai. Based on data drawn from qualitative research, this study suggests that surgeons subjectively construct the idea of incompetency through their understanding of the perceived circumstantial characteristics of the patients and family members they serve. The findings indicate that surgeons often underestimate patients and family members’ capacity based on constructed assessments, which leads to paternalistic practice. In this article, I illustrate how these assessments influence the surgeons’ practices and provide the moral and practical justifications for their actions. The constructed knowledge becomes a source for drawing normative justification for surgeons’ actions and, in conjunction with socially enforced power relationships, results in patients and family members to be on the receiving end of disrespectful attitudes. Based on the data analysis and by drawing on philosophical analysis, I emphasize the need to focus on ‘respect for persons,’ to rethink the framework of ‘capacity,’ and to practice respect in hospital settings.



India · Paternalism · Respect · Social construction · Incompetency · Qualitative inquiry


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