Potato Ethics: What Rural Communities Can Teach Us about Healthcare

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Fors, M. Potato Ethics: What Rural Communities Can Teach Us about Healthcare. Bioethical Inquiry 20, 265–277 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-023-10242-x


This is part 1 of ethics based posts today. Dr. Helen Clayson kindly supplied commentary:

This engaging and well-written paper by a rural Swedish psychologist explores the disconnect between the dominant urban-centric model of healthcare ethics and the realities of practice in rural communities. The author proposes a new perspective that she names ‘potato ethics’: the term relates to the attributes of this humble vegetable as ‘plain, useful and versatile’. The concept of ‘potato ethics’ is grounded in the lived experience of rural practitioners and is a type of care ethic that is contextual, relational, pragmatic and incorporates social justice. Rural practitioners will easily relate to the examples of rural challenges that are described and to the sense of a ‘moral imperative to make oneself useful’ that often involves going beyond the strict boundaries of professional scope and specific training in the absence of other staff and facilities. The paper examines traditional healthcare ethics approaches and illustrates their limitations in the rural context. The author is well-placed to address this topic: although a former urbanite, she now lives and works in a remote Norwegian community in the Arctic Circle and recognises the adjustments she has made to move away from ‘urban narcissism’. This paper is a useful addition to rural healthcare literature and I suspect it will lead to the socialisation of some new terms in rural health discourse. ‘Honour the potato’ indeed!

Helen Clayson

link to open access: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11673-023-10242-x


In this paper I offer the term “potato ethics” to describe a particular professional rural health sensibility. I contrast this attitude with the sensibility behind urban professional ethics, which often focus on the narrow doctor–patient treatment relationship. The phrase appropriates a Swedish metaphor, the image of the potato as a humble side dish: plain, useful, versatile, and compatible with any main course. Potato ethics involves making oneself useful, being pragmatic, choosing to be like an invisible elf who prevents discontinuity rather than a more visible observer of formal rules and assigned tasks. It also includes actively taking part in everyday disaster-prevention and fully recognizing the rural context as a vulnerable space. This intersectional argument, which emphasizes the ongoing, holistic responsibility of those involved in rural communities, draws on work from the domains of care ethics, relational ethics, pragmatic psychology, feminist ethics of embodiment, social location theory, and reflections on geographical narcissism.

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