How can we improve the public discourse


Pure basement

Prof. Dr. Reiner Keller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Augsburg. His main areas of work include sociological theory and social diagnosis, knowledge and cultural sociology, discourse theory and analysis (knowledge-sociological discourse analysis), sociology of social relations to nature (risk, technology, environment), qualitative social research and French sociology.

Willy Viehöver

Dr. Willy Viehöver is a research associate at the Chair of Sociology at the University of Augsburg.

Who are the protagonists of discursive conflicts? What terms do you use? Which value references do they create, which (legitimation) strategies do they use? Empirical discourse research does not ask about the given facts in bioethics, their feasibility or existence. The discourse analytical perspective is based on the question of which reality is constituted, configured and legitimized in which way in discursive conflicts.

Michel Foucault (center), founder of discourse analysis, with the French philosopher Raymond Aron (right) and the French biologist and biochemist Jacques Monod at the Collège de France, Paris, 1970. (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images / Jacques Violet)

Use of the term "discourse" in general

The term "discourse" has been used in mass media and public debates for some time. It is often used to designate positions, for example, of organizations on a specific topic and problem. With regard to value- and technology-related conflicts, the term stands for specific discussion events or network-based interactive platforms that aim at the participation of and, if possible, agreement between different interest groups, experts and citizens affected by an ethical question or scientific-technological decision. This happens in the sense of a 'round table' or at least the public visibility of divergent perspectives. The dialogical exchange of arguments and corresponding forms of participation are intended to increase the rationality, consensuality and acceptance of decisions.

To differentiate: discourse analysis (Foucault) vs. discourse ethics / theory (Habermas)

This usage leads back to the ethics of discourse that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas developed since the mid-1970s (cf. Gottschalk-Mazouz 2000). It is based on the language theory assumption that when people use language (speech acts), they must always implicitly assume the existence of exactly four specific validity claims, since otherwise an understanding is not possible: for example, the statement that a train leaves at 10.30 a.m. at the Berlin train station from the Validity claim the (factual) truth, the statement "You shall not kill" the presence of an acceptable social normwho have favourited the words "I love you" the Sincerity of the feelings expressed, and all together through the choice of words and grammar, too Demand for communicative comprehensibility. Following on from this, he proposed that specific (theoretical, practical, normative) discourses, i.e. concrete discussion procedures and processes, be set in motion and institutionalized for important social issues - for example with regard to the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering or stem cell research compliance with the validity claims should be guaranteed in a special way through moderation. Habermas was very well aware that everyday language use often deviates from these validity claims in strategic terms. He therefore speaks of the fact that they apply counterfactually, even if we, for example, deliberately lie to let someone miss the train or to deceive us about our real marriage intentions. In the Habermass style, "discourse" then became a main term for political conflict management, a synonym for mediation processes of all kinds (critical of this is Keller / Poferl 2000; Görsdorf 2012). This boom is also reflected in the political science discussion of the relationship between interest-based negotiations and argumentative unification processes in conflicts.

In everyday German language, the term discourse initially found its way primarily as a specifically practical philosophical concept. It's very different in French and English. In French, "discours" has always denoted a special form of speech, for example an address in honor of a birthday child, or the scholarly and scholarly treatise on a subject in which arguments are weighed back and forth in order to make conclusions plausible (such as the "discourse about the method "by René Descartes). It is always about "serious" speech acts in strongly regulated contexts. In English, on the other hand, "discourse" can simply mean speaking and talking in everyday life, including a conversation through to public debate ("public discourse") on a topic such as current migration policy (to single out any example).

Scientific engagement with discourses starts much earlier in these linguistic areas and is more oriented towards the everyday usage of the term: Discourses here become the subject of research, not the specific type or setting of an organized discussion process. The early pragmatic philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century already speaks of the "universe of discourse" in its work on communication theory and thus describes the symbolic worlds of meaning, language and thought universes created and shared by social groups - the connection of shared meanings. As early as the 1930s, there was talk of language specializations in the form of specific discourse universes such as poetry, mathematics or other areas of social activity. Linguistics has been studying discourses as linguistic units above the sentence level since the 1950s. Since the 1960s, the analysis of public discourse has become an important field in the sociological analysis of social problems. In France, the philosopher Michel Foucault, among others, took up the concept of discourse at the same time and formulated a comprehensive historical-empirical research program for the generation of scientific statements that are bundled in corresponding "discursive formations". This "archeology of knowledge" (Foucault 1981), under the concept of the "genealogy of power-knowledge regimes", is geared more towards mechanisms of the "scarcity of discourses" and discourses as uses in social problematization processes or conflicts (Foucault 1974 ; 1985).

In particular, Foucault's work and the analysis of public discourses from the US context have shaped the use of the term discourse today. Instead of discourse ethics in the sense of Habermas, this is about discourse analysis: discourses are not proposed as a tool for conflict management, but rather emergent in their socio-historical structure and dynamics (editor's note: unexpectedly new ones appear due to the interaction of several factors), also examines conflict-laden processes and forms of reality production. In it, social actors fight over what is "the case" in each case. Foucault (and similarly, albeit in a different sociological vocabulary and with a different focus, the American research on public discourses) wrote accordingly in the "Archeology of Knowledge" that it was about understanding discourses as practices that the objects of whom they act, produce in their execution.

An example: the analysis of the bioethics discourse

Bioethics discourses, for example, can be understood as the totality of all those discursive utterances that follow the rules of the arrangement of a (bio-) ethical discourse in their appearance - naturally bearing in mind the observation that there are a multitude of sub-discourses within the bioethics controversy that differ to a greater or lesser extent from one another and (can) be in competition and conflict relationships with one another. Investigating the structures, mechanisms and consequences of discursive practices and formations thus moves to the center of empirical discourse research: for example, analyzes of the protagonists of discursive conflicts, the terminology they use, value references and (legitimation) strategies, but also the omissions, the subject positions involved, (institutional) effects, practices and objects and the like.

For example, with regard to the premises and consequences of the ethicalization of (bio) technology, one could ask (Bogner 2013): Who appears as a speaker in discourses? Which resources are used? Which patterns of interpretation and justification are used? How is a corresponding scientific factual knowledge generated, legitimized and, if necessary, brought into position in relation to morality, religion or everyday theories? Who has the resources for knowledge production? How do the relationships between the very different components change over time? But also: Which actors are not involved, although their appearance is actually to be expected? What measures are taken in this regard (e.g. ethics committee, law, principles) and how are they implemented? Which ideas of (acting) subjects are generated or rejected and which demands are made on the respective subjects? What role do things of all kinds (such as laboratories, instruments, cells) play?

It is therefore not assumed that there are any given facts, be they techniques (e.g. cloning, human enhancement or pre-implantation diagnostics) or phenomena (e.g. clones, genetically engineered chimeras) whose (technical) feasibility or existence is subject to an ethical or moral assessment with regard to risks becomes. Rather, the discourse-analytical perspective is oriented towards the question of which reality is constituted, configured and legitimized in which way in discursive conflicts. Because actual discursive processes rarely or not at all follow the premises developed in discourse ethics and argumentation theory - why should they also if it is not about the power of the better argument but about the powerful enforcement of topic- or problem-specific interpretative sovereignty?

Who is concerned with the analysis of discourses?

In the meantime, a large number of different disciplines are concerned with discourses as research objects in the sense described (cf. also the references in Keller 2011 for the following). Linguistics has produced a highly differentiated field of linguistic approaches, ranging from the corpus-linguistically oriented question of the patterns of language change in extensive text corpora to the conversation-analytically oriented analyzes of the microstructural sequence of language sequences. Critical discourse analysis, or critical discourse analysis, also comes from linguistics, which criticizes the use of language and criticizes ideology, i.e. wants to raise awareness of racist language use or discovers specific economic and political interests behind general statements (for questions of bioethics e.g. Paul 1994). In the social sciences, on the one hand, there are analyzes of specific conversation processes, and on the other hand, historically and socio-spatial more or less extensive studies of discursive disputes about social (scientific, technical, religious, ethical) problems in and between very different media formats. The latter include, for example, in the political science context, the argumentative discourse analysis by Maarten Hajer or the hegemony-theoretical discourse analysis following Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Within the German-speaking social sciences, in recent years the Foucault-based discourse analysis as well as the sociological discourse analysis that follows the sociological traditions of the interpretative paradigm and the sociology of knowledge (Keller 2010) has been widely used. She examines the discursive construction of reality in the form of societal knowledge relationships and knowledge politics. The concept of knowledge relationships refers to the fact that the resources for recognizing and generating knowledge, evaluations and norms are distributed differently in society and promote specific reality arrangements while inhibiting others. "Knowledge politics" describes the strategies and tactics of social actors to stabilize or transform these knowledge relationships, which are always also evaluation, factual and action relationships.

The exploration of the discourses and the discourse of research

The most important challenges of current research include the systematic accumulation of research results and the investigation of the tangible, personal and practical infrastructures (dispositives) on which discourse productions and discursive world interventions are based. This also makes it clear that social science discourse research must certainly include the analysis of societal statements ('truth games', normative statements, justifications, etc.) among its core business. But it goes far beyond that in that it has to take into account the materiality of these processes, their prerequisites and consequences. The text-oriented investigation of the course of the discourse can therefore be profitably linked with discourse and dispositive ethnographies of concrete situations.

Discourse Analysis in Bioethics

In the following, the previous statements in the discourses on bioethical issues and with reference to some central points will be further illustrated. We understand bioethics following the introduction to the present dossier by Werner Moskopp (2009) as a "part of the philosophical theory of morality that deals with the value of life". Social debates and conflicts over questions of bioethics, however, also extend far beyond the boundaries of philosophy. They unfold along the most diverse, predominantly technology-induced occasions in such different fields of action as medical diagnostics, medical research and intervention, the various forms of genetic engineering, the debates about reconstructive and ability-enhancing interventions in human physicality, right up to our relationship with animals (im In addition, factual statements (e.g. on the risk or hazard potential of technologies) with moral assessments ("may, should we do or should we do this or that") are narrow and often indissoluble intertwined.

From some analytical-philosophical point of view, this may appear inadmissible, i.e. it may represent a deficiency (e.g. Waldschmidt / Klein / Körte 2009; Wehling / Viehöver / Koenen 2014). The term bioethics discourses can then be understood as a collective term for very different discourse processes that - be it in science, philosophy, religion, political public, law, economics or art - relate to value issues that arise on the occasion of human access to life ( e.g. Oehler / Gehring / Moosbrugger 2017).

Using the example of bioethics, the difference between a process-oriented discourse ethics following Habermas and a discourse analysis based on Foucault, based on the empirical investigation of discourses, can therefore be illustrated. For example, bioethical debates about the use of genetic engineering in the 1980s gave rise to trying out so-called participatory methods of technology assessment in recourse to discourse ethics (van den Daele et al. 1996). Since then, this orientation has been an integral part of politically initiated discourse processes, for example within the framework of the Enquete Commission on Genetic Engineering or the National Ethics Council: Arguments form the central communicative resource of the citizens, so-called "stakeholders" and experts who take part in the dialogically organized process. Such procedures not only want to sound out the normative and ethical limits in dealing with and appropriation of (living) nature and, if necessary, evaluate the relevant techniques with regard to their risks and moral implications. It is not uncommon for civil society actors to be involved (at an early stage) in the relevant research, development and decision-making processes. It has long been disputed whether such proceedings are actually talks with an open outcome or just a "democratized" form of obtaining acceptance (Gill 1991, Bogner 2013a). Regardless of this, they are in principle not free from structural asymmetries - i.e. not free from unequal distributions of authority or power - that result from the prevailing social knowledge relationships (Keller / Poferl 1997).

Questions relating to bioethical discourses based on Foucault's understanding of discourse can be divided into several focal points. Finally, we would like to highlight four starting points:

(1) Functions of bioethics: How, through which problematizations, with which effects and through whom do phenomena - in this case: life - become the subject of specifically ethical discourses. Because it is by no means self-evident that ethics should have a prominent place as a legitimate form of reflection on how society deals with life (Bogner 2013b).Geo-engineering, genetic engineering, stem cell and clone research, patenting of living beings ("Onkomaus"), brain research, nanotechnology and human enhancement, but also the discussions about xenotransplantation, abortion, euthanasia and brain death as well as human-animal relationships are just a few of the key words. which make it understandable that life on a global scale has become an object of human access in science, technology and economics. These processes can be discussed with regard to questions of feasibility, security and risk, economic profit expectations and market formation, or even with regard to questions of moral evaluation. The function of bioethics is assigned to act in a political and public advisory capacity and to provide decision-relevant orientations, questions and answers. In view of the diversity and plurality of bioethical reflections - e.g. in the form of utilitarian, consequentialist, deontological and feminist ethics - this can only succeed to a limited extent (e.g. Singer 1993; Schramme 2002; Schicktanz 2003; Dossier Bioethik 2013; Wehling 2013). In Germany, utilitarian and consequentialist positions traditionally have a more difficult position than in the Anglo-Saxon countries (Braun 2000). From a discourse-analytical point of view, it becomes clear that the power of definition of bioethics and their societal design and education claims themselves must be viewed as the result of a discursive, knowledge-political battle in which not only biotechnological disciplines / companies, ethicists, politicians and civil society actors, but also the Social sciences are involved (Paul 1994, Bogner 2013).

Discursive struggles for appropriate problem frames and interpretative sovereignty take place accordingly not only between different disciplines (life sciences, philosophy and sociology) and social fields of action (economy, medicine, research, religions, civil society, politics), but also within the ethics field itself between schools of moral theory. This happens both in special arenas and in the media-mediated public (cf., for example, the linguistic discourse analysis of the opposition of consequentialist and principle-oriented deontological positions in the German-speaking debate about embryonic stem cells at the turn of the millennium in Spiess 2011).

(2) Origin and dynamics of bioethically impregnated discourses: From a discourse theoretical point of view, it should also be noted that bioethical phenomena are not limited to the narrower field of social or individual counseling on moral issues. Dynamics of biopolitical border crossings (Wehling / Viehöver / Keller / Lau 2007) can be found in many social fields of action and provide anchor points for bioethical discursivations. The life sciences and the resulting biotechnologies have permanently changed the understanding of life - Rose (2007) speaks of its increasing "molecularization". Lösch (2001) emphasizes that life science and (human) genetic practices and techniques have led to a radical culturalization of the biological. At the same time, efforts are being made to naturalize biotechnological progress and its "biofacts" (Karafyllis 2013). The ethicalization of technology (Andreas Bogner) in general and of biotechnologies in particular began in the 1990s at a time when there were fundamental doubts in politics, science and society about the controllability of societal knowledge and technology production. Since then, with a view to new occasions and "key technologies" (red, white and green genetic engineering, nanoparticles, animal experiments, prenatal diagnostics, pre-implantation diagnostics, stem cell research, artificial insemination, 'egg freezing', 'gene scissors' ...), it has shown an increasingly high degree of differentiation on. At the same time, the plurality of positions has by no means decreased with the social institutionalization of ethics committees, commissions and councils. Bogner (2013a: 14) even speaks of the current ethic wars. The claim of bioethics to be able to offer models and concepts for a responsible and socially acceptable use of nature, technology and life has been called into question by the social and political sciences in particular (Luhmann 1990, Beck 2007: 73f.).

(3) The 'occidentality' of bioethics: From the perspective of globalization theory, bioethics can essentially be viewed as a product of Western cultures that goes hand in hand with the dominance of rationalistic and individualistic, if not necessarily secularized, positions. Some authors, for example, raise the charge that bioethics is itself an instrument for acquiring superior interpretive power through which a global moral economy is formed. As a result, specifically Western values ​​such as individual autonomy would be set hegemonic (e.g. with regard to biotechnological or pharmacological enhancement as a medium for increasing autonomy; see Salter / Salter 2007; Wehling 2008; Karafyllis 2013). Similarly, Bosk (2010) fears a hegemonicization of ethics as political technology in view of the global triumph of the ethics of principles by Beauchamp and Childress (1977). Discourse analytical research then also focuses on the structures, concepts and strategies of alternative bioethical interpretations (cf. the articles on "alternative" bioethical concepts in Judaism, Hinduism, Islam in the Bioethics 2013 dossier; Karafyllis 2013).

(4) Effects of 'bioethization': With a view to the socio-political design and control of technologies, a possible change in form and function of the bioethics discourse, its sponsors and procedures should be pointed out (Bogner 2013a: 16 and other articles in the volume). This poses the discourse-analytical question of the effects and bundles of measures that arise from discursive structuring and conflicts. In biotechnological conflicts, for example, a new demarcation between the negative moralization and the positive ethicization of value-related social conflicts is emerging (Bogner 2013b: 51-65). Accordingly, ethicalization takes place in the form of inter- and transdisciplinary deliberative discussions that assume pluralism of values ​​and, in contrast to earlier forms of deliberation, do not work towards a consensual result. Moralization, on the other hand, is seen as a discourse strategy that exacerbates conflict, because it emphasizes dissent on questions of value and thus hinders a reconciliation of interests (van den Daele 2009, 2013, Bogner 2013b). Ethised discourses are also differentiated from risk discourses, whereby risk discourses are based on the ideal of scientifically oriented truth-finding.

Ethized discourses, which assume (rational) dissent on questions of value as the normal case, ask whether practices, techniques and related actions could be considered morally legitimate (Bogner 2013b: 51ff .; Kastenhofer 2013). Other authors fundamentally question the claim of bioethics as a "sovereign body of reflection" (Bogner 2013: 20) and see it as an instrument of legitimation for biotechnological promises of salvation. Peter Wehling (2008, 2013), for example, uses the example of the Human Enhancement Debate to underline the loss of the referee role of ethics and argues that it has become a player in technology genesis and evaluation processes. In this sense, contrary to the expectations placed on them, bioethics proactively ensures a normative de-problematization of biotechnologies (see also Gehring 2015; Finkelde / Inthorn / Reder 2013). Dickel (2011) exemplifies that such problematizations take place in the context of "utopian grand narratives". The consequences of life science research and developments that are inscribed in human subjectivizations can also be understood as bioethically relevant effects (e.g. Lösch 2001, Rose 2007). For example, Zur Nieden (2014) uses the example of the geneticization of the breast cancer discourse to show that genetic tests and genetic information not only provide the individual with new ways of information about their own genetic dispositions or their offspring, but also new (self-) Responsibility claims in dealing with genetic risks are directed to the subjects. These range up to concrete lifestyle recommendations and calls for prophylactic surgical interventions. In this sense, she speaks of an individualized bioethics that could find its expression in the generalized duty of preventive health management.

We speak of discourses, discursive processes and conflicts insofar as they develop into over-situational structuring of disputes about the appropriate definition of situations and the right or wrong, morally acceptable or unacceptable assessment and processing of action problems. Which actors are involved in how, which dynamics, causes, resources, scope and consequences such discursive debates assume are the central research questions that have to be addressed to the specific discourse processes and occasions. Arguments play an important role here; Nevertheless, an understanding of discourse following Michel Foucault does not assume that discursive conflicts are resolved along the lines of 'better arguments', even if scientific-philosophical rational and truth-oriented forms of justification play an important role. But beyond that, very different components are at work in them, including affective, strategic-tactical and rhetorical-persuasive elements. Hence it appears as a question of power / knowledge relations which direction and vanishing points such conflicts take.


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