Empirically grounded ethics of care

Ethics of care – with its emphasis on care instead of fairness, relationships instead of rules, conflicting responsibilities instead of competing rights, contextual and narrative thinking instead of formal and abstract thinking – originates in the empirical research of Carol Gilligan and her co-workers.

Many care ethicists, including Margaret Walker, Marian Barnes and Joan Tronto, have stressed the importance of doing empirical research into practices of care.

Practices of care

Without empirical research, ethics of care would not be able to do justice to the complexity, dynamics and emergent nature of care practices, the insights and practical wisdom of care professionals and the knowledge and the perspective of vulnerable and suffering human beings and their relatives. In empirical research, often-used care-ethical concepts as relationality, bodiliness, vulnerability and dependence, can become specified and grounded. In my empirical and theoretical research, I am interested in how to do empirical research into practices of care with the aim to contribute to empirically grounded care-ethical theories.

Empirical material

In order to elucidate the methodology and epistemology of empirically grounded ethics of care, we have to think about the relationships between the generation and analysis of empirical material, the development of theory, and ethical reflection. I am using the expression “empirical material”, adopted from Mats Alvesson and Dan Kärreman, to express the insight that what is often called “empirical data” is always co-constructed, generated by particular methods. Because of these methods, usually adopted from the social and behavioral sciences, and because of the fact that empirical material is always generated from (a segment of) social reality, empirical material is not without theory and concepts and not without morality and ethics. Discussions about grounded theory methodology (“emergence vs. forcing”) on the one hand and empirical bio-ethics (“no ought from is”) on the other hand are relevant, but in the end not satisfactory.

Practically proven “stepping stones”

Together with Andries Baart and Frans Vosman, I am developing a proposition regarding a way of doing research that aims at helping promote and strengthen good care. We think, and have partial proof from past research, that what is good in practices of care can be found inside practices of care and does not have to be brought-in from the outside (by principles, values et cetera). Therefore, we are looking for practically proven “stepping stones” enabling professionals to deal with new moral issues. Although we refrain from moralizing, we sometimes have strong intuitions about what is good and what is bad. The methodology and epistemology of empirically grounded ethics of care has to be able to account for that too.

Empirically groundedness

In our proposal for an empirically grounded ethics of care, theory development and the generation and analysis of empirical material are interrelated and intertwined. Theoretical and conceptual reflections are used in order to recognise particularly relevant and very complex details, to look more closely at what is seen, and also see what was unseen before. The generation and analysis of empirical material is being carried out to repair and enlarge deficient concepts and to further develop theories of limited scope. Gradually, we gain deeper understanding of the situation, practice or phenomenon, develop so to speak “clearer” theoretical concepts, and avoid empirical naivety on the one hand and fact free reasoning on the other hand.

Three sources

The normativity of the research findings and the developed concepts and theories emerge from three sources: the central position of acting and its internal ends, the elaboration of the critical correctives in the practice itself and in the ethos, that can be found within this practice, as well as the ethical reflections by the ethicists who carry out the empirical research.

Political phenomenology

The connection between the interaction between empirical material and theory on the one hand and the interaction between empirical material and ethics on the other hand is situated in our phenomenological interest in the lived experience of the persons who act and suffer, and their first-person perspectives. For reasons following from care ethics and from extensive qualitative empirical research, we position ourselves not in the epistemological-egological tradition of phenomenology (Husserl, Schütz), but in the tradition of political phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty), and the “responsive phenomenology of the alien” by Bernhard Waldenfels.

Developing a proposition…

With this phenomenological concern, we use methods for the generations and analysis of empirical material that are adequate and effective regarding the particular research aim, the practice that is researched, and the nature of the empirical material at hand. These methods can be adopted from phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, discourse analysis, institutional ethnography, intuitive inquiry, ethnomethodology, visual data analysis, responsive evaluation et cetera.

Publications Guus Timmerman


Baart, A. (2014). Empirically grounded ethics of care: A methodological perspective, Lecture at the seminar series Care practices: towards a re-casting of ethics, organised by the University of Oxford, December 3th.

Baart, A., & Timmerman, G. (2016). Plädoyer für eine empirisch begründete Ethik der Achtsamkeit, Präsenz und Sorge. In E. Conradi & F. Vosman (Eds.), Praxis der Aachtsamkeit: Schlüsselbegriffe der Care-Ethik (pp. 129-146). Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag.

Timmerman, G., Baart, A., & Vosman, F. (2017). In search of good care: The methodology of phenomenological, theory-directed “N=N-case studies” in empirically grounded ethics of care. European Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Proceedings, (pp.82-89) Leuven.

Timmerman, G., & Vosman, F. (2014). Steuermannskunst als empirisch begründete Metapher in der Seelsorge: Zur Methodologie und Epistemologie qualitativ-empirischer Forschung in der Moraltheologie. In W. Schaupp (Ed.), Ethik und Empirie: Gegenwärtige Herausforderungen für Moraltheologie und Sozialethik (pp. 277-289). Freiburg Schweiz/Freiburg-Wien: Academic Press Fribourg/Verlag Herder.

Timmerman, G. (2010). Respect for autonomy and authenticity: The pastor’s responsiveness to the person of the pastoree. Ethical Perspectives, 17(2 (Special Issue: Ethics and Empirics – Strange and Fragile Bedfellows)), 309-341.

Image at the top is ‘Pieta’,  by artist Emile van der Kruk. Museum Het Depot.

About the author: Guus Timmerman

Guus Timmerman

Guus Timmerman (PhD) is postdoc researcher in aid of the endowed chair ‘Presence and Care’ of the Presence Foundation and interested in empirical research methodology, professional and research ethics, practical wisdom, and technology and ethics. Guus is also member of the programme committee of the Research Network Critical Ethics of Care (CEC).
See a list of publications at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Guus_Timmerman (clickable link at the bottom of the article)