Etikk i praksis. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics (2023), 17(1), 29-44

Early View publication date: 12 December 2022

Socratic dialogue on responsible innovation – a methodological experiment in empirical ethics

Bjørn K. Myskjaª & Alexander Myklebust

a NTNU: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies,

NTNU: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Department of Geography,

This article presents an experiment in using Socratic dialogue as a methodological approach to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in an interdisciplinary life sciences research project. The approach seeks to avoid imposing a set of predetermined substantive norms by engaging the researchers in knowledge-seeking group discussions. We adapted Svend Brinkmann’s method of epistemic interviewing, in order to facilitate reflection on normative issues concerning responsibility in research and innovation in two research group sessions. Two elements characterize this approach, relating it to empirical ethics methodologies: (1) the aim is not to map and analyse opinions, but to develop knowledge based on the dialogue; and (2) the facilitators of the discussion are also active participants in the dialogue rather than mere “spectators”. Through a description of the approach and discussion of some key challenges, we show the method’s potential as a supplement to the catalogue of RRI approaches and argue that it serves a dual purpose of contributing to knowledge production and reflexivity.


Keywords: Epistemic interviewing, bioethics, responsibility, reflexivity




Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), understood as “an approach that anticipates and assesses potential implications and societal expectations with regard to research and innovation, with the aim to foster the design of inclusive and sustainable research and innovation” (Horizon 2020 Undated), has been a central element in recent European research policy. RRI usually includes a wide range of actors in the whole research and innovation trajectory to ensure that the research process and outcome is in line with societal “values, needs and expectations” (Horizon 2020 Undated). In order to achieve this, research should happen in close dialogue with relevant stakeholders, political authorities as well as the general public. Researchers should integrate such dialogue on values and expectations in their own research, recognizing RRI as a “techno-moral regime” (Felt 2017: 66) that is “open-ended and process-oriented” (Felt 2017: 66) institutional work at the intersection of science and society.


RRI focuses on public values and goals, rather than on values and goals internal to research groups or the wider research community. Taking responsibility implies deciding on how to implement these goals and values in the research trajectory. This places new demands on researchers. How do they respond to the inclusion of the “extended peer community” (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993) typical of science in the post-normal age? How do they respond to the “practical, societal and policy-related concerns” (Gibbons and others 1994: 33) embedded in the quality control in “Mode 2 science”? How do they engage in the reflexive work identified by Felt (2017: 59) as descriptive of one narrative of contemporary research? Given that the aim is active anticipation of possible research trajectories and future societal and environmental implications, it is essential to take the reflexive activity of the research group seriously.


In this article we describe a methodology developed for conducting interviews as one approach to enhance reflexivity regarding the values and aims of a research project within bioeconomy. We utilized Svend Brinkmann’s method of  epistemic interviewing through Socratic dialogue (Brinkmann 2007), in order to facilitate reflection on normative issues concerning responsibility in research and innovation. There are two important elements to note in this approach: (1) the aim is to seek knowledge, not to map and analyse opinions; and (2) the facilitators of the discussion are also participants in the dialogue rather than mere  “spectators” (Skjervheim 1996). This approach should be understood as a philosophical inquiry that engages non-philosophers. In this respect, the justification for the Socratic dialogue approach is to increase the context-sensitivity of the philosophical study, as is the stated aim of a leading approach to empirical ethics (Musschenga 2005). Thus, we approached the task of facilitating the RRI-sessions from a philosophical starting point, by engaging knowledgeable actors and stakeholders in a discussion of key concepts within their own areas of competence. In so doing, we aimed to better understand the meaning and significance of key concepts of the research project within the current European socio-technical landscape.


Introducing the Socratic dialogue as an alternative to other methods does not imply a claim that social science-based approaches to RRI are restricted to mapping and analysing researchers’ opinions, with the facilitators merely observing discussions without participating themselves. A wide range of methodological approaches exist for engaging researchers in reflecting on issues concerning the societal and environmental relevance of their research, and including self-reflection on the role of the facilitator. Our contribution here is primarily in the framing of the method as an empirical ethics approach, that is, as a particular philosophical engagement with what is usually regarded as empirical methodology aiming at knowledge while furthering reflexivity.


This article presents the methodological approach we applied at two dialogue sessions within a transdisciplinary research project in the field of bioeconomy. The project was granted funding by the Research Council of Norway (RCN), based on a call that required industry collaboration and an RRI-component. In the following, we will describe how we employed the method of epistemic interviewing as a tool for collective normative reflection on the topics of innovation and researchers’ responsibilities and discuss some key challenges facing this approach. Our main claim is that the approach can facilitate reflexivity that produces valuable insights about responsibility in research and innovation.


The main outcomes of the experiment were twofold and relate to the Socratic methodology being an antagonistic, or “unfriendly”, way of operationalizing reflexivity. First, the methodology was helpful in balancing the power relation between the interviewer and the interviewees. This is because all of the interviewees continually have the opportunity to challenge the interviewer and their assumptions. However, the methodology was not able to fully ameliorate power discrepancies within the group itself, as less experienced or lower ranking members of the group might not feel confident to speak out against views expressed by their superiors.


Second, the methodology fostered exploratory dialogues within the group, in which differing perspectives and viewpoints were played out against each other in real-time. On a number of occasions, this led individuals and the group as a whole to adapt and change their views. The fact that this happened in a collective discussion indicates that the Socratic methodology has promising potential to engage researchers in collective processes of societal and ethical reflections in which they can hold each other accountable. Therefore, the contribution of the Socratic methodology to RRI and empirical ethics is a way to truly make reflexivity a public matter (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten 2013: 1571), in that views are presented and discussed with the “public” of the group present and engaged.


Hence, our methodology can be classified as a dialogical process approach to empirical ethics,

[…] based around the formation of a dialogue between stakeholders and the attempt to reach a shared understanding, in which the analysis, and reaching of a conclusion, is undertaken by the researcher and participants together. (Davies, Ives and Dunn 2015: 4) 

We argue that this approach, when oriented towards knowledge of the subject matter, is suited for RRI as understood according to an integration paradigm. Collaboration between science and society is viewed as necessary, and a workable process of collaboration is essential for a robust research result (Glerup and Horst 2014).


We will first discuss the theoretical basis for the Socratic approach to RRI and epistemic interviewing as a form of empirical ethics (1), with a subsequent presentation of the methodological considerations (2). This is followed by a description of the dialogue sessions (3) with an analysis of how the Socratic approach can contribute to normative conclusions while enhancing reflexivity among the researchers (4) .

Theoretical framework

Responsible Research and Innovation

According to Bensaude-Vincent (2014), RRI belongs to a group of buzzwords shaping the techno-scientific arena, characterized by being context-dependent, value-laden carriers of soft power. However, taking into account that the role of RRI is less prominent in the new EU framework programme for research and innovation, Horizon Europe, compared to Horizon 2020, one may suspect that it has already done its job, being integrated into innovation and policy framework concepts such as “Missions”, “Open Science” and “Partnership”. On the other hand, RRI appears as a concept still under development, and central proponents argue that it has a role to play as a site for debate, praxis and politics (Owen, von Schomberg and Macnaghten 2021).


At least four definitions are currently in use (Schuijff and Dijkstra 2020), and one of these has guided the RRI activities that form the basis for this article: “Responsible innovation means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present” (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten 2013: 1570). This approach is connected to a framework consisting of four “dimensions” of RRI: reflexivity, anticipation, inclusion and responsiveness. The dimension of reflexivity is the key to our discussion as a collective reflection upon commitments and assumptions that are of relevance for a particular research project:

Reflexivity, at the level of institutional practice, means holding a mirror up to one’s own activities, commitments and assumptions, being aware of the limits of knowledge and being mindful that a particular framing of an issue may not be universally held. (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten 2013: 1570)

In this project, we have utilized a product-oriented approach, where “the direction of research is determined on social grounds such as practical urgency or societal desirability” (Carrier and Gartzlaff 2020: 150). The research, which will be described in more detail below, is conducted within a field that has wide political and public support, namely a turn from applying renewable resources in energy-production and industry to utilizing waste materials from forestry. As this goal is not publicly contested, the essential RRI question is how to realize the goal in the research process through reflexivity and responsiveness. It is important in this context that the researchers considered the “innovation system” and the research policy field as their main societal field of collaboration, since the overarching goal of their research field had general public support. This fits well with the science-for-society approach.


Stilgoe and colleagues agree with Brian Wynne that “institutional reflexivity” is needed (Wynne 1993; Stilgoe Owen and Macnaghten 2013: 1571). They describe reflexivity as what Schuurbiers (2011) has named “second-order reflective learning”, meaning that “the value systems and theories that shape science, innovation and their governance are themselves scrutinised” (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten 2013; 1571; see also Wynne 1993: 324). The notions of reflexivity presented by Wynne and Stilgoe and colleagues generally assume scientists and the public to be the relevant actors, emphasizing the need for enhanced reflexivity among researchers. This can be taken as an implicit message of deficient self-reflexivity in the scientific research community, a common diagnosis in the fields of science and technology studies and RRI research (Wynne 1995: 385-387; Glerup and Horst 2014: 38). Recent research is nuanced in this matter, however, often presenting scientists as respecting the limits of their knowledge and the need for societal dialogue in order to achieve knowledge of value to society and in itself, and hence, a willingness to integrate RRI in their research (Davies and Horst 2015; Schikowitz 2020; Carrier and Gartzlaff 2010). It is perhaps reasonable for researchers and others to understand the demand for RRI and the interventions of facilitators as carrying an implicit message of deficiency, expressed in a need “to stimulate researchers’ capacity to reflect on the social and ethical aspects of their work” (Felt, Fochler and Sigl 2018: 205). This may be fair enough, if there is an accompanying recognition of the need for reflexivity among those who do research on RRI.


A literature review has identified three types of RRI practices geared towards stimulating reflection: “practices that took place before the research process began, and practices which stimulated reflection during ongoing research processes. A specific form of the latter are reflection resources that can guide researchers in their reflection” (Schuijff & Dijkstra 2020: 563–564). One important approach to stimulating reflection during ongoing research has been that of midstream modulation with an embedded humanist (Schuijff & Dijkstra 2020: 564).  Midstream modulation has been based on formally semi-structured interviews with the use of a decision protocol which makes it possible to track changes in reflexive awareness over time (Fisher & Mahajan 2006; Schuurbiers 2011; Flipse, van der Sanden and Osseweijer 2013). The Socratic methodology is related to the midstream modulation approach, taking as its starting point the participation of embedded humanists/social scientists with the aim of increasing researchers’ awareness of their modulators and decisions (Fisher & Mahajan 2006), and helps them consider “the social sides of their work” (Flipse, van der Sanden and Osseweijer 2013: 1144).


The Socratic methodology differs from traditional midstream modulation in three ways. The first difference concerns time. The Socratic methodology starts from unstructured group interviews, in which the topics discussed should ideally be determined by the discussion itself, and not by a preconceived protocol. This means that the Socratic methodology eschews the registering of views in favour of a commitment to allow the group to partake in a public, and often disorderly, process of reflexivity in real time.


The second difference is related to the first and concerns the Socratic methodology’s reliance on a certain degree of antagonism. By largely eschewing the formality of the structured or semi-structured interview, group discussions should ideally proceed by participants challenging each other’s views, assumptions and arguments, even those of the facilitators or interviewers.


The third difference is that in the Socratic dialogue, the aim of the RRI exercise is not reflexivity as such, but reflexivity as an integrated part of knowledge production. There will always be a genuinely interesting answer to a substantial question in this epistemic interview approach, which may make a difference for the reflexivity process.


In the present project we have sought to avoid imposing a set of predetermined substantive norms (Schuurbiers 2011). Researchers as well as other stakeholders often have preconceived ideas concerning the central notions of RRI, research policy and the good of society. The aim of our methodological experiment has been to find a way to bring these out in a dialogue that contributes to refining and adjusting these notions. To avoid one-sidedness, we employed an approach that also brings the facilitators’ preconceived notions into play. The choice of this approach was based on a recognition that if there were shortcomings in reflexivity, they might just as likely be located in the RRI facilitators as in the core group of researchers.