Lecturer Sorcha Brophy: Finding the Ethics Within Public Policy

Sorcha Brophy, the newest addition to the Public Policy Studies program, brings a new perspective to the University. Unlike other instructors in the program, most of her prior experience is sociology-related, with a focus on organizations and ethics.

Brophy received her Ph.D. from Yale, where she studied primarily the sociology of culture, medicine, and religion. It was when writing her dissertation, and even more-so during her post-doc at the University of Pittsburgh, that Brophy realized she was often writing about policy. Though her dissertation was centered on medical sociology, she came at it with a policy lens. Currently, Brophy is working on a book proposal that extends this topic, focusing on the politics that emerge when organizations try to implement policies related to ethics.

“It seemed like a good fit,” Brophy said about the job opportunity.

Though only in her first year, Brophy has ventured into many new areas, each of which she is excited about. In her first quarter here, Brophy taught the popular class Policy Implementation and a section of the BA Seminar for seniors. Winter quarter, she taught The Politics of Health Care and Policy Implementation.  Brophy has found that her interests in ethics often fits with students’ own interests, leading to an engaged classroom, which she loves.

Her students feel the same way. Second-year Kelsey Berryman finds that Brophy, “effectively engages with the class and finds ways to relate to us and makes her lectures and discussions reflect our interests and beliefs rather than just her own. This leads to a much more debate-fueled and energetic class.”

Brophy is also interested in medical ethics because of the contrast with religious communities. Medical ethics is codified, but this is not always the case within a religious community, as there is no formalized sense of professional ethics. Brophy points out that there is a strong sense that one must have clear rules about how we interact with people in churches. Stemming from this, she is “interested in thinking about ethics in a formalized professional sense.”

“I don’t really buy into ethics as a comprehensive system people actually use,” Brophy said. “I think ethics provides a language for people to justify their actions, and it’s a useful tool in organizational settings. But I don’t believe it’s as systematic as people who are often doing ethics think it is.”

This upcoming summer, Brophy will get to delve even further into ethics within a formalized, professional sense—in this case, the profession of policing.  She will teach, alongside senior lecturer Chad Broughton, a new course titled Police and Citizen.

“[Police and Citizen] will be a nexus for me to explore some of the topic areas I’m interested in and my own interest in ethics while putting a policy lens on it,” Brophy said.

Brophy will also get the chance to expand on the topics she explores in her Policy Implementation course. Each quarter, Brophy spends two weeks on different areas of interest—from health care to policing—and she often finds that students are especially engaged when discussing policing. For this reason, she invites guest speakers.

Brophy enjoys seeing her students actively participate with the speakers, from doctors to police officers, about the topics they feel strongly, often race, class, and gender.

“I love the fact that the speakers are impressed with my students and that the students engage with the guests,” Brophy said.

When speakers come to the class, Brophy lets her students have free rein, finding it the most effective way to show that there are multiple factors in play that shape policy.  She wants her students to see how complex these issues are.

“We often times oversimplify these problems, and if we’re really going to be engaged as policy setters and reformers we have to be really cognizant of the huge on-the-ground challenges that people implementing policy face on a day-to-day basis,” Brophy said.

She also points out that the news does not always discuss the choices that police have to make. For this reason, she tries to have a police officer come to class once a quarter. During this visit, the police officer discusses a controversial police shooting with the students, walking them through the decisions made. Each time, the police officer notices details the students do not.

“The speaker that we had was great,” Berryman said. “He provided a great perspective on policing and law enforcement.”

While not teaching, Brophy looks forward to students coming to her office hours. She enjoys discussing assignments, and she especially loves it when students come to flesh out a conversation from class.

Whether in office hours or in class, Brophy wants her students to leave her class knowing one thing—societal issues are more complicated than they appear, and all kinds of unanticipated obstacles stand in the way of implementing an idea. Studying the issues and looking at policy in an in-depth manner, however, can help create the kind of society we want.