Bioethics Blogs

Ethics (etc) in a box: How a disinfectant spray became my friend and ally by Courtney Addison


The box is white, and adorned with a rectangular red button about half the size of my palm. White is clean, sterile, new. Red is alarm, is stop, is imperative. But the box sits, quite innocuously, to the side of the door. It is easily passed by, and indeed I do just that. I am chastised. 

It is my first day of fieldwork in a London hospital, and I am following Joan into the wards for the first time. I fail to notice her stamp her palm against the red button before swinging the ward door open. A couple of steps in she stops, and I almost run into her back. “Just clean your hands before you come in,” she says. I look around, see the box, push the button, awkwardly, twice, to get enough spray onto my hands, and smear them together. The disinfectant is thin and disappears so quickly that I wonder if it does anything at all. The next time I am better prepared. I watch how Joan pushes the button without changing pace, and rubs her palms together swiftly while leaning into the swing-door with one shoulder. I push the button once, firmly, slowing only a little. I soon have this down to an art. I push the button without looking at it, without losing my stride, and feel a little rush.

I had begun my fieldwork with the expectation that the ‘participant’ in participant observation was not much of an option for me: I study gene therapy and there is little that I can contribute without physically endangering anyone.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.