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Why is This Field Philosophy?

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Before delving into the challenges that arose as part of this project, I want to take a moment to discuss why our project constitutes field philosophy. I think this is important, given we were unaware of the concept of field philosophy when commencing our research and had not, therefore, intended or framed the project as an instance of it. If anything, we conceived of our project as one in bioethics.5

Frodeman and Briggle (2016) identify six elements they regard as central to what constitutes field philosophy. In brief, these have to do with its goals (being concerned with ‘real-world’ policy problems), the approach taken (case-based and driven by stakeholder problems), the audience to which the research is addressed (non-disciplinary stakeholders), its method (pluralistic, context sensitive and bottom-up), how research is evaluated (primarily by non-disciplinary metrics), and the institutional situation of the research (not only within the academy). As will become apparent below, much of our project can be characterized as field philosophy when assessed using these criteria.

Our research was clearly focused on probing the philosophical dimensions of so-called ‘real-world’ problems with policy implications, and so satisfied this fundamental criterion of field philosophy. Although our research had a casebased dimension, was motivated by stakeholder problems, and had as its main audience the various stakeholders involved in surgical innovation (such as surgeons, surgical teams, hospital managers, and so on), our approach and research questions were not identified and driven by those stakeholders involved in the research. Rather, the aims of our research emerged from engagement with the relevant professional literature in surgery and medicine.

As might be expected of a project in field philosophy, we used a variety of channels to connect with our non-disciplinary stakeholders, including targeted workshops, articles in professional venues such as practitioner and interest group newsletters, and also papers in prominent medical journals such as The Lancet and Annals of Surgery (Hutchison et al. 2015). The methods we adopted were suitably responsive and varied, designed to elicit information relevant to the project from different players in different contexts. For instance, we used recorded interviews to secure the views of crucial players such as surgeons, nurses, and managers, and ran workshops with stakeholders and non-academic players to develop a sense of how problems and our solutions were perceived by various groups. We also embedded a postdoctoral philosopher at SWAHS with the intention of developing relationships and informal networks with key stakeholders, as well as securing a sense of how surgical innovation operated ‘on the ground.’

The project stands up to evaluation according to standard academic metrics (for instance, we won the 2015 Macquarie University Award for Excellence in Research—Resilient Societies), in addition to impact outside academia. Our findings have informed professional guidance of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, changes in international guidance on evaluating surgical innovations, revisions to Australian research ethics guidelines, and local health district practice. The Macquarie Surgical Innovation Identification Tool or MSIIT (a conceptual tool our team developed as part of the project to help healthcare professionals identify surgical innovation prospectively and trigger appropriate supports) has been piloted in two hospitals. Although our core research team is located within academia, our research partners include non-academic members and our team routinely engages with stakeholders outside the academy.

Key Challenges

Many of the key challenges and tensions that arose in our project had less to do with the project’s intellectual content (perhaps in part because we were more familiar with how to deal with these) and more to do with its nature as field philosophy. These challenges broadly fell into differences between academia and ‘industry’ over skill sets, expectations, norms, and ways of operating.


Already, in attempting to develop and fund our initial proposal, a number of fundamental challenges emerged, including the limited skill set of our team. Navigating and negotiating with organizations outside academia (whether public sector, charitable, or corporate) requires a skill set that diverges from that demanded of academics occupied with conventional research and teaching roles. Identifying, connecting, and communicating with people within organizations who were able to understand our research and who had the authority to formally support our project proved difficult. On occasion, we were unable to even penetrate the gate-keeping mechanisms of organizations in order to connect with appropriate personnel.6 This was in spite of our confidence in the value of what we could offer such organizations and the potential for a productive synergy. And, on occasion, when we were actually able to arrange meetings with the relevant people, they turned out to be unable to understand the rationale behind our research, or could not see its relevance for their organization. At other times we invested considerable time and effort persuading people within organizations about the value of our research, only to find out later that they were not the relevant contact person or decision-maker after all.

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