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What Is Ethnography? | Definition, Guide & Examples

Published on March 13, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word “ethnography” also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

Ethnography is a flexible research method that allows you to gain a deep understanding of a group’s shared culture, conventions, and social dynamics. However, it also involves some practical and ethical challenges.

Table of contents

What is ethnography used for, different approaches to ethnographic research, gaining access to a community, working with informants, observing the group and taking field notes, writing up an ethnography, other interesting articles.

Ethnographic research originated in the field of anthropology, and it often involved an anthropologist living with an isolated tribal community for an extended period of time in order to understand their culture.

This type of research could sometimes last for years. For example, Colin M. Turnbull lived with the Mbuti people for three years in order to write the classic ethnography The Forest People .

Today, ethnography is a common approach in various social science fields, not just anthropology. It is used not only to study distant or unfamiliar cultures, but also to study specific communities within the researcher’s own society.

For example, ethnographic research (sometimes called participant observation ) has been used to investigate  football fans , call center workers , and police officers .

Advantages of ethnography

The main advantage of ethnography is that it gives the researcher direct access to the culture and practices of a group. It is a useful approach for learning first-hand about the behavior and interactions of people within a particular context.

By becoming immersed in a social environment, you may have access to more authentic information and spontaneously observe dynamics that you could not have found out about simply by asking.

Ethnography is also an open and flexible method. Rather than aiming to verify a general theory or test a hypothesis , it aims to offer a rich narrative account of a specific culture, allowing you to explore many different aspects of the group and setting.

Disadvantages of ethnography

Ethnography is a time-consuming method. In order to embed yourself in the setting and gather enough observations to build up a representative picture, you can expect to spend at least a few weeks, but more likely several months. This long-term immersion can be challenging, and requires careful planning.

Ethnographic research can run the risk of observer bias . Writing an ethnography involves subjective interpretation, and it can be difficult to maintain the necessary distance to analyze a group that you are embedded in.

There are often also ethical considerations to take into account: for example, about how your role is disclosed to members of the group, or about observing and reporting sensitive information.

Should you use ethnography in your research?

If you’re a student who wants to use ethnographic research in your thesis or dissertation , it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s the right approach:

  • Could the information you need be collected in another way (e.g. a survey , interviews)?
  • How difficult will it be to gain access to the community you want to study?
  • How exactly will you conduct your research, and over what timespan?
  • What ethical issues might arise?

If you do decide to do ethnography, it’s generally best to choose a relatively small and easily accessible group, to ensure that the research is feasible within a limited timeframe.

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There are a few key distinctions in ethnography which help to inform the researcher’s approach: open vs. closed settings, overt vs. covert ethnography, and active vs. passive observation. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Open vs. closed settings

The setting of your ethnography—the environment in which you will observe your chosen community in action—may be open or closed.

An open or public setting is one with no formal barriers to entry. For example, you might consider a community of people living in a certain neighborhood, or the fans of a particular baseball team.

  • Gaining initial access to open groups is not too difficult…
  • …but it may be harder to become immersed in a less clearly defined group.

A closed or private setting is harder to access. This may be for example a business, a school, or a cult.

  • A closed group’s boundaries are clearly defined and the ethnographer can become fully immersed in the setting…
  • …but gaining access is tougher; the ethnographer may have to negotiate their way in or acquire some role in the organization.

Overt vs. covert ethnography

Most ethnography is overt . In an overt approach, the ethnographer openly states their intentions and acknowledges their role as a researcher to the members of the group being studied.

  • Overt ethnography is typically preferred for ethical reasons, as participants can provide informed consent…
  • …but people may behave differently with the awareness that they are being studied.

Sometimes ethnography can be covert . This means that the researcher does not tell participants about their research, and comes up with some other pretense for being there.

  • Covert ethnography allows access to environments where the group would not welcome a researcher…
  • …but hiding the researcher’s role can be considered deceptive and thus unethical.

Active vs. passive observation

Different levels of immersion in the community may be appropriate in different contexts. The ethnographer may be a more active or passive participant depending on the demands of their research and the nature of the setting.

An active role involves trying to fully integrate, carrying out tasks and participating in activities like any other member of the community.

  • Active participation may encourage the group to feel more comfortable with the ethnographer’s presence…
  • …but runs the risk of disrupting the regular functioning of the community.

A passive role is one in which the ethnographer stands back from the activities of others, behaving as a more distant observer and not involving themselves in the community’s activities.

  • Passive observation allows more space for careful observation and note-taking…
  • …but group members may behave unnaturally due to feeling they are being observed by an outsider.

While ethnographers usually have a preference, they also have to be flexible about their level of participation. For example, access to the community might depend upon engaging in certain activities, or there might be certain practices in which outsiders cannot participate.

An important consideration for ethnographers is the question of access. The difficulty of gaining access to the setting of a particular ethnography varies greatly:

  • To gain access to the fans of a particular sports team, you might start by simply attending the team’s games and speaking with the fans.
  • To access the employees of a particular business, you might contact the management and ask for permission to perform a study there.
  • Alternatively, you might perform a covert ethnography of a community or organization you are already personally involved in or employed by.

Flexibility is important here too: where it’s impossible to access the desired setting, the ethnographer must consider alternatives that could provide comparable information.

For example, if you had the idea of observing the staff within a particular finance company but could not get permission, you might look into other companies of the same kind as alternatives. Ethnography is a sensitive research method, and it may take multiple attempts to find a feasible approach.

All ethnographies involve the use of informants . These are people involved in the group in question who function as the researcher’s primary points of contact, facilitating access and assisting their understanding of the group.

This might be someone in a high position at an organization allowing you access to their employees, or a member of a community sponsoring your entry into that community and giving advice on how to fit in.

However,  i f you come to rely too much on a single informant, you may be influenced by their perspective on the community, which might be unrepresentative of the group as a whole.

In addition, an informant may not provide the kind of spontaneous information which is most useful to ethnographers, instead trying to show what they believe you want to see. For this reason, it’s good to have a variety of contacts within the group.

The core of ethnography is observation of the group from the inside. Field notes are taken to record these observations while immersed in the setting; they form the basis of the final written ethnography. They are usually written by hand, but other solutions such as voice recordings can be useful alternatives.

Field notes record any and all important data: phenomena observed, conversations had, preliminary analysis. For example, if you’re researching how service staff interact with customers, you should write down anything you notice about these interactions—body language, phrases used repeatedly, differences and similarities between staff, customer reactions.

Don’t be afraid to also note down things you notice that fall outside the pre-formulated scope of your research; anything may prove relevant, and it’s better to have extra notes you might discard later than to end up with missing data.

Field notes should be as detailed and clear as possible. It’s important to take time to go over your notes, expand on them with further detail, and keep them organized (including information such as dates and locations).

After observations are concluded, there’s still the task of writing them up into an ethnography. This entails going through the field notes and formulating a convincing account of the behaviors and dynamics observed.

The structure of an ethnography

An ethnography can take many different forms: It may be an article, a thesis, or an entire book, for example.

Ethnographies often do not follow the standard structure of a scientific paper, though like most academic texts, they should have an introduction and conclusion. For example, this paper begins by describing the historical background of the research, then focuses on various themes in turn before concluding.

An ethnography may still use a more traditional structure, however, especially when used in combination with other research methods. For example, this paper follows the standard structure for empirical research: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

The content of an ethnography

The goal of a written ethnography is to provide a rich, authoritative account of the social setting in which you were embedded—to convince the reader that your observations and interpretations are representative of reality.

Ethnography tends to take a less impersonal approach than other research methods. Due to the embedded nature of the work, an ethnography often necessarily involves discussion of your personal experiences and feelings during the research.

Ethnography is not limited to making observations; it also attempts to explain the phenomena observed in a structured, narrative way. For this, you may draw on theory, but also on your direct experience and intuitions, which may well contradict the assumptions that you brought into the research.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Ecological validity

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

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Chapter 9: Ethnography

Darshini Ayton

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the key terms and concepts used in ethnography.
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of ethnography.

What is ethnography?

The key concept in ethnography is culture .

Ethnography studies emerged from the discipline of anthropology. They aim to understand the meanings and behaviours associated with the membership of groups, teams, organisations and communities. 1 The focus of ethnographic research is on the lived culture of groups of people; ethnographers have studied systems of belief, religious frameworks, worldviews and structures that form the social world. There are many definitions of culture. In ethnography, culture is defined as the group norms and expectations that allow members of the group to communicate and work together. This includes attributes, beliefs, customs, behaviours, knowledge, capabilities and habits. Examples of cultural groups include people from a particular region or race, religious groups, organisational groups, workplaces and social groups (for example, friendship groups, and mothers groups). Note that culture is dynamic and socially constructed and it is normal for there to be sub-cultures within cultural groups. 2

Multiple methods can be used in ethnographic research, but participant observation is a hallmark method. 1,3 To explore culture requires a ‘triangulation’; that is,  the use of multiple methods, such as observations and interviews, to develop a comprehensive understanding of culture through observing people and listening to what they have to say about (or within) the culture.

Several approaches to data analysis lend themselves to ethnography, including the identification, study and analysis of patterns. The process of analysis follows a typically unstructured and iterative path consisting of description (describing data), analysis (examining relationships and linkages) and interpretation (explanations beyond analysis). 4

There are other key concepts in ethnographic research, which are outlined below.

Additional key concepts in ethnographic research

  • Fieldwork and field notes – the time spent engaging in primary data collection, which is predominantly participant observation, and the mode of data collection. Fieldwork is the time spent immersed in the culture under study, while field notes are the written reflections, observations and ideas documented during or soon after fieldwork. 5
  • Participant observation – the main method of data collection in ethnography involves the researcher participating as a member of the community or culture, to gain first-hand experience of daily life in the research setting. 5
  • An emic perspective – ethnography seeks to understand the worldview of the participant; it thus follows that the researcher can have an emic perspective (insider) or an etic perspective (outsider). This is not a binary category. Rather, researchers might be considered on a continuum, from emic to etic 6 (see Chapter 28 for an overview of insider and outsider research), and therefore reflexivity (Chapter 30) and researcher positionality (Chapter 28) are important elements of the research process . Implementing ‘insider’ ethnography: lessons from the Public Conversations about HIV/AIDS  project in rural South Africa describes an ethnography project involving insider community members and outsider investigators reflecting on the advantages and challenges of this approach. 7
  • Thick description – the researcher creates detailed observational field notes with references to the social actions and behaviours of participants. The field notes include anecdotes, observations about the language used and quotes to illustrate the activities of the cultural group being observed. The researcher then integrates theoretical frameworks to help create meaning for the observations. 8
  • Holism – ethnography focuses on studying all aspects of a culture, including religious practices, politics, institutions, family structures and cultural traditions. Using the analogy of the structure of the human body, Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of the functionalist school of anthropology, described survey research as the skeleton and ethnography as the flesh and blood. 4

How long researchers spend conducting observations in the field depends on the research question and context. For example, in research to observe and characterise the behaviours and processes of antimicrobial decision-making in two surgical units of an acute hospital setting, researchers spent 58 hours in participant observation at three points of care: pre-admission clinic, surgery and on the ward following surgery. These three points of care were chosen as key moments in the patient’s experience of surgery. The observations were conducted in an acute hospital where medical practice is process-driven and protocol-driven. Hence, it did not take extensive time to observe the typical process and protocol in this setting. Researchers used an observation audit sheet (see Chapter 15) and informed participants that the study was focused on clinical decision-making, rather than specifically antimicrobial prescribing. This was done to minimise the ‘Hawthorne effect’, whereby people are said to change their behaviour because they know they are being observed. Following participant observations, six semi-structured interviews were conducted with two surgeons and four anaesthetists to clarify and discuss the findings of the observations. Interview data were analysed thematically, using inductive and deductive coding. 9

In contrast, an ethnographic study of homecare workers supporting people living with dementia involved 100 hours of participant observations of 16 homecare workers who were supporting 17 people living with dementia. Interviews were conducted with 82 people, including people living with dementia, family carers, homecare managers and support staff, homecare workers, and health and social care professionals. 10

Advantages and challenges of ethnography

The immersive approach to ethnography enables a nuanced understanding of the cultural group under study. Unlike other research designs, the prolonged engagement with the research setting provides an opportunity to refine and iterate research questions leading to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Participant observation provides a first hand of the behaviours and interactions of people within a cultural group which can be triangulated with interviews and documents to increase the rigour of the research. 9

There are many challenges in conducting ethnographic research. The time required to undertake ethnographic fieldwork can range from short sessions of observations over months or years, to the researcher living in the community for a period of time. The resources and time required may be substantial. When a researcher is embedded within a community, their departure can cause anxiety and distress for both the researcher and the community members. This experience was described by Paolo Franco, who spent 18 months conducting fieldwork in a retirement village, as a volunteer technology supporter for the residents. Franco described how the participants became dependent on his technology service as well as socially and emotionally connected to him as the researcher. To mitigate problems occurring with a researcher withdraws from a research setting, the researcher should let participants know as early as possible about their estimated time in the community, and should have a plan for their exit. 11

Another key challenge in ethnography is gaining access to ‘the field’ and enlisting the support of gatekeepers. Careful planning and engagement are required to ensure communication channels are open and positive relationships are established. Managing ethical conduct is another important consideration in ethnography. Researchers need to consider how much they will disclose to participants about the purpose of the research, and whether they will be covert (undercover) or overt (open and transparent) in their approach to fieldwork. For the most part, researchers are overt about their research, hoping that participants will ‘forget’ that they are being studied and will revert to natural behaviours. 5

Table 9.1 provides two examples of ethnography from health and social care.

Table 9.1. Ethnographic examples

Ethnography focuses on understanding culture and the behaviours, experiences and meanings at the group level. The main method of data collection is participant observation, which can be combined with interviews, focus groups and field notes to inform interpretations of the research topic.

  • Reeves S, Kuper A, Hodges BD. Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography. BMJ . 2008;337:a1020. doi:10.1136/bmj.a1020
  • Hudelson PM. Culture and quality: an anthropological perspective. Int J Qual Health Care . 2004;16(5):345-346. doi:10.1093/intqhc/mzh076
  • Strudwick RM. Ethnographic research in healthcare – patients and service users as participants. Disabil Rehabil . 2020;43(22): 3271-327. doi:10.1080/09638288.2020.1741695
  • Reeves S, Peller J, Goldman J, Kitto S. Ethnography in qualitative educational research: AMEE Guide No. 80. Med Teach . 2013;35(8):e1365-e1379. doi:10.3109/0142159X.2013.804977
  • O’Reilly K, Bone JH. Key Concepts in Ethnography . The SAGE Key Concepts Series. SAGE; 2009.
  • Eriksson P, Kovalainen A. Qualitative Methods in Business Research . SAGE; 2008.
  • Angotti N, Sennott C. Implementing ‘insider’ ethnography: lessons from the Public Conversations about HIV/AIDS project in rural South Africa. Qual Res . 2015;15(4):437-453. doi:10.1177/1468794114543402
  • Clark L, Chevrette R. Thick Description. In: Matthes J, Davis CS, Potter RE, eds. The International Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods : John Wiley & Sons; 2017.
  • Jackson J. Ethnography. In: Hua Z, ed. Research Methods in Intercultural Communication . John Wiley & Sons;  2015.
  • Leverton M, Burton A, Beresford-Dent J, et al. Supporting independence at home for people living with dementia: a qualitative ethnographic study of homecare. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol . 2021;56(12):2323-2336. doi:10.1007/s00127-021-02084-y
  • Franco P, Yang YN. Existing fieldwork ‘with grace’: reflections on the unintended consequences of participant observation and researcher-participant relationships. Qualitative Market Research . 2021;24(3):358-374. doi:10.1108/QMR-07-2020-0094
  • Johnson EK. The costs of care: an ethnography of care work in residential homes for older people. Sociol Health Illn . 2023;45(1):54-69. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.13546
  • Kitson C, Haines M, O’Byrne P. Understanding the perspectives of women who use intravenous drugs and are experiencing homelessness in an urban centre in Canada: an analysis of ethnographic data. Glob Qual Nurs Res . Published online March 20, 2022. doi:10.1177/23333936221080935

Qualitative Research – a practical guide for health and social care researchers and practitioners Copyright © 2023 by Darshini Ayton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography

  • Related content
  • Peer review
  • Scott Reeves , associate professor 1 ,
  • Ayelet Kuper , assistant professor 2 ,
  • Brian David Hodges , associate professor and vice chair (education) 3
  • 1 Department of Psychiatry, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, Centre for Faculty Development, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, 200 Elizabeth Street, Eaton South 1-565, Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2C4
  • 2 Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M4N 3M5
  • 3 Department of Psychiatry, Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2C4
  • Correspondence to: S Reeves scott.reeves{at}utoronto.ca

The previous articles (there were 2 before this 1) in this series discussed several methodological approaches commonly used by qualitative researchers in the health professions. This article focuses on another important qualitative methodology: ethnography. It provides background for those who will encounter this methodology in their reading rather than instructions for carrying out such research.

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities. Its roots can be traced back to anthropological studies of small, rural (and often remote) societies that were undertaken in the early 1900s, when researchers such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown participated in these societies over long periods and documented their social arrangements and belief systems. This approach was later adopted by members of the Chicago School of Sociology (for example, Everett Hughes, Robert Park, Louis Wirth) and applied to a variety of urban settings in their studies of social life.

The central aim of ethnography is to provide rich, holistic insights into people’s views and actions, as well as the nature (that is, sights, sounds) of the location they inhabit, through the collection of detailed observations and interviews. As Hammersley states, “The task [of ethnographers] is to document the culture, the perspectives and practices, of the people in these settings. The aim is to ‘get inside’ the way each group of people sees the world.” 1 Box 1 outlines the key features of ethnographic research.

Box 1 Key features of ethnographic research 2

A strong emphasis on exploring the nature of a particular social phenomenon, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about it

A tendency to work primarily with “unstructured data” —that is, data that have not been coded at the point of data collection as a closed set of analytical categories

Investigation of a small number of cases (perhaps even just one case) in detail

Analysis of data that involves explicit interpretation of the meanings and functions of human actions; the product of this analysis primarily takes the form of verbal descriptions and explanations

Examples of ethnographic research within the health services literature include Strauss’s study of achieving and maintaining order between managers, clinicians, and patients within psychiatric hospital settings; Taxis and Barber’s exploration of intravenous medication errors in acute care hospitals; Costello’s examination of death and dying in elderly care wards; and Østerlund’s work on doctors’ and nurses’ use of traditional and digital information systems in their clinical communications. 3 4 5 6 Becker and colleagues’ Boys in White , an ethnographic study of medical education in the late 1950s, remains a classic in this field. 7

Newer developments in ethnographic inquiry include auto-ethnography, in which researchers’ own thoughts and perspectives from their social interactions form the central element of a study 8 ; meta-ethnography, in which qualitative research texts are analysed and synthesised to empirically create new insights and knowledge 9 ; and online (or virtual) ethnography, which extends traditional notions of ethnographic study from situated observation and face to face researcher-participant interaction to technologically mediated interactions in online networks and communities. 10

What should I be looking for in an ethnographic study?

Ethnographers typically gather participant observations, necessitating direct engagement and involvement with the world they are studying. Owing to the complex nature of social life, ethnographers need to record a variety of elements in their field notes (box 2).

Box 2 Nine observational dimensions and their descriptions 11

Space—Physical layout of the place(s)

Actor—Range of people involved

Activity—A set of related activities that occur

Object—The physical things that are present

Act—Single actions people undertake

Event—Activities that people carry out

Time—The sequencing of events that occur

Goal—Things that people are trying to accomplish

Feeling—Emotions felt and expressed

During their observations, ethnographers routinely use informal or conversational interviews, which allow them to discuss, probe emerging issues, or ask questions about unusual events in a naturalistic manner. Because of the “casual” nature of this type of interview technique it can be useful in eliciting highly candid accounts from individuals. Ethnographers also gather formal in-depth interviews and documentary data such as minutes of meetings, diaries, and photographs.

Participants or situations are sampled on an opportunistic or purposive basis. It is also usual for ethnographers to focus upon specific features (for example, medical ward rounds) that occur within a research setting.

Analysis of ethnographic data tends to be undertaken in an inductive thematic manner: data are examined to identify and to categorise themes and key issues that “emerge” from the data. Through a careful analysis of their data, using this inductive process, ethnographers generate tentative theoretical explanations from their empirical work.

Reflexivity (that is, the relationship a researcher shares with the world he or she is investigating) is a central element of ethnographic work, owing to the relationship the ethnographer shares with participants and the ethical issues that flow from this close relationship. Within research reports, reflexivity is presented in the form of a description of the ethnographer’s ideas and experiences, which can be used by readers to judge the possible impact of these influences on a study.

To enhance the quality of their work, ethnographers will often provide a detailed or “thick description” of the research setting and its participants, which will typically be based on many hours of direct observation and interviews with several key informants. 12

In addition, ethnographic work commonly uses methodological triangulation—a technique designed to compare and contrast different types of methods to help provide more comprehensive insights into the phenomenon under study. This type of triangulation can be very useful, as sometimes what people say about their actions can contrast with their actual behaviour. 13 Box 3 provides further information about triangulation and the different types that can be employed within ethnographic research.

Box 3 Triangulation in ethnography

Triangulation is a term linked to navigation or surveying: people discover their position on a map by taking bearings on landmarks, and where the lines intersect is where they are positioned. As well as methodological triangulation, Denzin 14 outlines three other types:

Data triangulation, which uses different sources of data to examine a phenomenon in several different settings and different points in time or space

Investigator triangulation, which uses multiple researchers to generate a complex range of perspectives on the data

Theory triangulation, in which researchers approach data with different concepts and theories to see how each helps to understand the data

Ethnographers often draw upon social sciences theory (for example, interactionism, feminism, and postmodernism) to strengthen their research focus and analyses. (The use of theory within qualitative research is examined in more depth in another paper in this series). See box 3 for an example of an ethnographic study.

Box 4 An ethnographic study of professional relationships

This ethnographic study took place in a large general hospital in the United Kingdom. 15 It aimed to understand, in depth, the nature of hospital based nurse-doctor relationships in the wake of changes to health policy and to the delivery of professional education.

The author, a nurse, undertook participant observations for 10 months, during which she worked as a nurse (on an unpaid basis) with doctors, nurses, managers, and auxiliary staff on both a surgical and a medical ward. To gain a candid insight into these professionals’ views, she undertook informal interviews with staff while they worked together. She also collected 57 tape recorded interviews, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes, with nurses, doctors, auxiliaries, and managers. These explored in more depth participants’ views of their interprofessional relationships. Documentary data were also generated through analysis of organisational documents and through attendance at professional and managerial meetings.

The author undertook an inductive approach to data analysis, in which meanings emerged from the data through exploration of all data sets. In addition, she used data from different sources (observations, interviews, documentary data) to generate a more comprehensive understanding in the emerging analysis. The author drew upon negotiated order perspective—a sociological theory developed by Strauss to frame and illuminate the findings from her analysis. She also discussed her reflexive role in the study, and as a nurse, how that helped her secure access into this clinical setting, and how it helped her attain richer insights into the nature of nurse-doctor relationships in relation to how they negotiate professional boundaries in their clinical work.

Why choose ethnography?

Ethnographic research offers several advantages. For example, the use of participant observation enables ethnographers to “immerse” themselves in a setting, thereby generating a rich understanding of social action and its subtleties in different contexts.

Participant observation also gives ethnographers opportunities to gather empirical insights into social practices that are normally “hidden” from the public gaze. Additionally, since it aims to generate holistic social accounts, ethnographic research can identify, explore, and link social phenomena which, on the surface, have little connection with each other.

Ethnographic research can be problematic. Owing to the relatively long periods of time ethnographers spend talking to participants and observing actions, it can be difficult to secure repeated access, especially if institutional gatekeepers are concerned that the research may cast their organisation in a poor light. Obtaining formal approval from research ethics committees can be complicated. The direct interaction that occurs between ethnographers and patients or clinicians during fieldwork can be regarded with suspicion, as traditional notions of health services research rest on researchers’ detachment rather than involvement. Comprehensively recording the multifaceted nature of social action that occurs within a clinic or ward is a difficult task, as a range of temporal, spatial, and behavioural elements need to be documented (see box 1). In addition, the unpredictability of social (and clinical) life often means that ethnographers have to be flexible, patient, and persistent in their work, as data collection activities can be disrupted or access withdrawn as local circumstances and politics change.

Ethnography is a highly useful methodology for addressing a range of research questions within the health professions. In particular, it can generate rich and detailed accounts of clinicians’ professional and interprofessional relationships, their interactions with patients, and their approaches to delivering care, as well as in-depth accounts of patients’ care experiences. Understanding the foundations of ethnography and its key elements will help readers when they come across reports that use this methodology. A later article in this series will provide readers with a more formal framework to use when critically appraising qualitative research papers, including ethnographies. Readers interested in undertaking such research should refer to the works listed in box 4.

Box 4 Further reading

Atkinson P, Coffey A, Delamont S, Lofland J, Lofland L, eds. Handbook of ethnography . London: Sage, 2001.

Fetterman D. Ethnography: step by step . 2nd ed. London: Sage, 1988.

Fielding N. Ethnography. In: Researching social life . London: Sage, 1993:155-71.

Hammersley M, Atkinson P. Ethnography: principles in practice . 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.

Spradley J. The ethnographic interview . New York: Holt, 1979.

Journal articles

Atkinson P, Pugsley L. Making sense of ethnographic research in medical education. Med Educ 2005;39:228-34.

Charmaz K, Oleson V. Ethnographic research in medical sociology: its foci and distinctive contributions. Sociol Methods Res 1997;25:452-94.

Fine G. Ten lies of ethnography. J Contemp Ethnogr 1993;22:267-94.

Jeffrey B, Troman G. Time for ethnography. Br Educ Res J 30:535-48

Savage J. Ethnography and health care. BMJ 2000;321:1400-2.

Summary points

Ethnography is the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within teams, organisations, and communities.

Ethnographic studies typically gather participant observations and interviews; through using these methods ethnographers can immerse themselves in settings and can generate rich understanding of the social action that occurs

Owing to the relationship the ethnographer shares with research participants, reflexivity (whereby ethnographers describe the relationship they shares with the people and world they are studying) occupies a central element of this type of research

Ethnographers commonly triangulate (that is, compare and contrast) interview and observation methods to enhance the quality of their work; this technique is important as what people say about their behaviour can contrast with their actual actions

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1020

  • Related to doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a288
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.39602.690162.47
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a879
  • doi: , 10.1136/bmj.a949
  • doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1035

This is the third in a series of six articles that aim to help readers to critically appraise the increasing number of qualitative research articles in clinical journals. The series editors are Ayelet Kuper and Scott Reeves.

For a definition of general terms relating to qualitative research, see the first article in this series

Funding: None.

Competing interests: None declared.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • ↵ Hammersley M. What’s wrong with ethnography? Methodological explorations. London: Routledge, 1992 .
  • ↵ Hammersley M, Atkinson P. Ethnography: principles in practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995
  • ↵ Strauss A, Schatzman D, Ehrlich R, Bucher M, Sabshin C. The hospital and its negotiated order. In: Freidson E, ed. The hospital in modern society . New York: Free Press, 1963 :147-69.
  • ↵ Taxis K, Barber N. Causes of intravenous medication errors: an ethnographic study. Qual Saf Health Care 2003 ; 12 : 343 -7. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Costello J. Nursing older dying patients: findings from an ethnographic study of death and dying in elderly care wards. J Adv Nurs 2001 ; 35 : 59 -68. OpenUrl CrossRef PubMed Web of Science
  • ↵ Østerlund C. Genre combinations: a window into dynamic communication practices. J Manage Inf Syst 2007 ; 23 : 81 -108. OpenUrl
  • ↵ Becker H, Geer B, Hughes E, Strauss A. Boys in white: student culture in medical school . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 .
  • ↵ Reed-Danahay D. Auto-ethnography: rewriting the self and the social . London: Berg, 1997 .
  • ↵ Britten N, Campbell R, Pope C, Donovan J, Morgan M, Pill R. Using meta-ethnography to synthesise qualitative research: a worked example. J Health Serv Res Policy 2002 ; 7 : 209 -15. OpenUrl Abstract / FREE Full Text
  • ↵ Hine C. Virtual ethnography . London: Sage, 2000 .
  • ↵ Spradley J. Participant observation. New York: Holt, 1980
  • ↵ Geertz C. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays . New York: Basic Books, 1973 .
  • ↵ Strong P. The ceremonial order of the clinic . London: Routledge, 1977 .
  • ↵ Denzin N. The research act in sociology . London:Butterworth, 1970 .
  • ↵ Allen D. The nursing-medical boundary: a negotiated order? Sociol Health Illn 1997 ; 19 : 498 -520. OpenUrl CrossRef Web of Science

ethnography qualitative research sample

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Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences.  Data are collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function. Ethnographers observe life as it happens instead of trying to manipulate it in a lab.  Because of the unpredictability of life, ethnographers often find is challenging to nail down their projects in a protocol for the Board to review.  Nevertheless, the Board needs a good explanation of a study in order to approve it.  Helping the Board to understand the parameters of the study, the situations in which the participants will be contacted and will participate, and the risks involved will allow them to approve studies where some flexibility is needed. 

The following sections generalize typical situations in an ethnographic study. However, your study may not fit these models exactly, so please  contact  our staff if you have questions about what is appropriate, etc. The Board expects you to interact with your participants in a way that is natural, polite, and culturally appropriate. D iscuss the cultural context and how that shapes your methodology, demonstrating that you are aware of your participants' particular needs and sensitive to the way that they navigate their world.  

Interviews and observations are common methods for data collection in an ethnographic study; please see Interviews and Observations for more information. 

As an ethnographer becomes integrated in a community, he or she will talk to many people in order to become familiar with their way of life and to refine the research ideas. Not everyone that an ethnographer interacts with is necessarily a  participant in the research study . Participation depends on the type of information that is collected and how the data are recorded. If you are recording information that is  specific to a person  and about that  person’s experiences and opinions , and if that information can be  identified with a specific person (whether anonymous or not), that person becomes a participant in the study. For example, talking to an individual on the bus about general bus policies and atmosphere would not qualify the conversation as part of the human subjects aspect of your research.  Talking to that same individual about their specific experiences as a passenger on the bus and recording that information in your notes qualifies that individual as a participant in the study. Depending on whether you gather identifying information about the person and the potential to harm the person will determine what level of consent information you should provide and how it should be documented. Understanding when a person becomes a participant will help you to understand when you should obtain consent from that person or when an interaction can be defined as just a casual conversation.  For specific examples of when a casual conversation becomes an interview, please see  Interviews  for more information.     

Ethnographers are often involved with their participants on a very intimate level and can collect sensitive data about them, thus it is important to recognize areas and situations that may be risky for participants and develop procedures for reducing  risk . Participants in ethnographic studies may be at risk for legal, social, economic, psychological, and physical harms. A well-designed  consent process  can be an easy way to reduce risk in a study. For participants where consent has limitations (i.e.  children ,  prisoners , other  vulnerable participants ), additional requirements may be made in order to facilitate the consent process, such as providing a minor with an assent form and obtaining parental consent (though it may be necessary to modify this process so that it is culturally appropriate). Some participants may be  highly sensitive to risk  because of who they are and the situation in which they live and you may need to make additional accommodations for participants where the potential for harm is high. Often a participant’s potential for harm doesn’t end when your interaction is over; protecting the materials you collect will continue to protect your participants from harm.  Loss of confidentiality  is a risk that participants may face when participating in an ethnographic study; in some cases, participants may not be interested in keeping their information confidential but it is important to maintain a clear dialog with participants so that they understand the implications of sharing their data with you. Identifying the needs of your participants and modifying your approach in order to accommodate those needs will help to protect participants from incurring harm as a result of participating in your study.

Before you include participants in your study, you will need to identify who is eligible to participate. Often in ethnographic studies it is important to integrate into the community and tap into the community’s network in order to identify potential participants. You may use word-of-mouth methods to reach your participants or more formal methods such as advertisements, flyers, emails, phone calls, etc (please include samples of your recruitment materials with your study). When you describe your procedures in your protocol, it is important to include information about how you will navigate the community you will study and access eligible participants.

The consent process begins as soon as you share information about the study, so it is important that when you contact participants, you are providing them with accurate information about participating in the study. Participants should know early on in the process that you are researcher and you are asking them to participate in a study, and you shouldn’t provide information that is misleading or inappropriately enticing. For further guidance on recruiting participants, see  Participant Recruitment .

The consent process outlined in the  Basic Consent  section describes the baseline expectation for obtaining consent from participants, as described in the  federal regulations . However, this scenario does not always fit every research study nor is it adequate for providing informed consent to all participants, and there is some flexibility in modifying the informed consent process. The Oral Consent section describes how to conduct an oral consent procedure, which modifies the consent procedure to accommodate participants where presenting a written consent form would be inappropriate. If you feel that it is necessary to provide your participants with a modified informed consent process, it is important that you provide a complete and accurate description of the process, and provide justification as to why the process is necessary and will provide the best informed consent opportunity for your participants. Including information about cultural norms, language issues, and other important factors will help the Board to understand your population and why it is necessary to approach the population in the manner in which you recommend. As you develop your procedure, it is important that you consider not only the informed consent meeting, but also the recruitment process and how you will document consent. 

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ethnography qualitative research sample

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Ethnographic study: qualitative studies

How to use an ethnographic study to evaluate your digital health product.

This page is part of a collection of guidance on evaluating digital health products.

Ethnography involves observing people in their own environment to understand their experiences, perspectives and everyday practices. This can give in-depth insight into a particular context, group or culture.

Ethnography uses different research techniques, which may include observations, taking field notes, informal conversations, interviews, document analysis, surveys, filming and photography. More rapid approaches have been developed in recent years, some of which include digital methods.

What to use it for

Use ethnography to describe how a particular group or community works. For example, you could focus on the experiences of:

  • professionals delivering a digital health service
  • changes in routine practices in health services because of digital tools
  • patients living with a health condition and using digital tools

Ethnography investigates the whole setting rather than a digital product in isolation. It focuses on exploring experiences (how someone might use the product in practice), not testing hypotheses. It is usually informed by specific research questions and theory. It can involve detailed examination of one or a few cases – these might be people or places.

You can use an ethnography to:

  • inform service development (formative or iterative evaluation), by assessing needs or understanding how current systems work
  • describe how your service works (summative evaluation)

Benefits include:

  • it can offer a deeper understanding of experiences and local practices than quantitative studies or qualitative studies that only rely on interviewing (what people do versus what they say)
  • it can uncover experiences, knowledge and perspectives that other methods miss out because of its real world focus and flexible approach
  • it can give a voice to seldom-heard groups and perspectives that have been marginalised or overlooked
  • it can uncover unintended consequences of changes made

Drawbacks include:

  • it usually involves extensive field work – this is time-consuming and needs experience, although rapid ethnographic approaches are increasingly being used
  • it can be subjective because it’s very dependent on the evaluator’s interpretation and skills
  • negotiating permissions and access to carry out observational work can be difficult

How to carry out an ethnography

Ethnography includes a range of specific techniques. You will need to decide which methods to use. This will depend on:

  • the evaluation question
  • the setting being studied
  • the availability of participants and materials

Research may include document analysis – for example, reading all documents from board meetings of a health service, or starting with an organisational chart.

The researcher will place themself in the setting being studied. It’s important that they establish good relations with the group or community and build trust. The researcher may identify knowledgeable informants who can act as a way in to understanding and interacting with the community.

You might select participants to cover the range of different experiences. In ethnography, the researcher can evolve their approach to data collection as the study goes on or collect data opportunistically. The researcher analyses the emerging data flexibly, identifying themes and any gaps or questions that require further study. Often, the researcher will sit in a clinic, spend time in organisations or visit patient’s homes. Digital ethnography can involve interacting with participants in a virtual space. The researcher observes events and talks to participants, either in a more formal way like a scheduled interview, or more informally during observations.

Field notes are usually made by the researcher. These are qualitative notes recorded during or soon after observations. They include both factual information (times, dates, behaviour observed, comments by participant) and reflections and interpretations by the researcher.

Ethnographic research is interpretive, so it can be subjective. To counter this, researchers often try to examine their own reasoning and involvement, recording it and working through any assumptions or difficulties that come up (this is called critical reflexivity). They often involve others in the evaluation team to sense-check their findings. They may validate findings by sharing their interpretations with participants, opening them up for discussion.

Data analysis tends to involve reading and re-reading the research materials using a constant comparison approach, where each finding is compared with existing findings. This is a sense-making process, drawing on the different types of evidence collected. It will often be a form of thematic analysis . Your analysis might draw on existing theory or you may develop a new theory that lets you be more responsive to the data.

Example: a rapid ethnography of patient portal use

Ackerman and others (2017), Meaningful use in the safety net: a rapid ethnography of patient portal implementation at five community health centers in California

The team wanted to examine the implementation of patient portals (also known as Personal Health Records) in US healthcare services for low-income populations. They used what they described as a rapid ethnography. They carried out 4 site visits, each lasting one to one-and-a-half days. They used methods including:

  • detailed field notes
  • 12 interviews with clinicians and management
  • 35 informal focus groups with clinical and IT staff
  • observations of sign-up procedures and clinic work
  • a brief survey with 45 responses
  • a document review of marketing materials for the portal
  • quantitative data on portal use

The team also carried out a telephone interview with a programme coordinator at a fifth site.

Observing clinic work involved sometimes observing patients. Patients who were present gave informed consent. A university ethics committee decided that the study didn’t require ethics approval .

The health systems were putting in considerable effort to implement the portals, encouraging staff support and changing work patterns to accommodate portal-related work. They achieved or were close to achieving targets that released central funding, which were focused on registrations.

However, staff were not sure how to achieve real impact in their patients’ lives with a portal that was not necessarily relevant to patients. Patients rarely used the portal and faced many barriers to doing so. For example:

  • no internet access at home
  • lack of digital and linguistic literacy
  • language barriers
  • family members or caregivers not able to act on behalf of patients because of privacy restrictions
  • purpose of the portal not clear to patients
  • not clear how the portal worked, for example, who would see messages sent through the portal
  • patients worried that using the portal would lead to government surveillance
  • patients preferred face-to-face contact to digital interactions

The authors noted:

  • that they could only gain limited insight into patients’ experience with their methods
  • a potential form of sampling bias: health centres who took part were probably more advanced in their use of the technology than average

More information and resources

Greenhalgh and Swinglehurst (2011), Studying technology use as social practice: the untapped potential of ethnography . This discusses the value of ethnographic studies for studying health technology.

Policy Lab blog (2020), Lab Long Read: Human-centred policy? Blending ‘big data’ and ‘thick data’ in national policy . A practical example of how ethnography can be used in policy-making.

Pink and Morgan (2013), Short-term ethnography: intense routes to knowing . This article discusses the use of short-term (also called rapid) ethnographic studies.

Vindrola-Padros & Vindrola-Padros (2018), Quick and dirty? A systematic review of the use of rapid ethnographies in healthcare organisation and delivery . This article reviews the use of rapid ethnographies in health care.

Examples of ethnographic studies in digital health

Ventres and others (2006), Physicians, Patients, and the Electronic Health Record: An Ethnographic Analysis . An example of an ethnographic study of how electronic health records change the interaction between patients and physicians.

Sturesson and others (2018), Clinicians’ Selection Criteria for Video Visits in Outpatient Care: Qualitative Study . Following the introduction of video visits with patients in outpatient care in Sweden, researchers conducted an ethnographic study to investigate how clinicians used this new healthcare delivery.

Solvoll and others (2013), Physicians Interrupted by Mobile Devices in Hospitals: Understanding the Interaction Between Devices, Roles, and Duties . This study investigated the impact of interruptions caused by mobile phones to the working practices of physicians in Norway.

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What is Ethnography and When to Use It?

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(2018). What is ethnography and when to use it? [Video]. Sage Research Methods. https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781529625349

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Several examples of ethnography illustrating when it is best used in qualitative research.

Chapter 1: Ethnography in Qualitative Research

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  • Title: What is Ethnography and When to Use It?
  • Publisher: Scholarsight Technologies Private Limited
  • Series: Which Qualitative Method Should I Use and When?
  • Publication year: 2018
  • Online pub date: March 14, 2023
  • Discipline: Sociology , History , Education , Criminology and Criminal Justice , Public Health , Psychology , Health , Anthropology , Counseling and Psychotherapy , Social Policy and Public Policy , Political Science and International Relations , Business and Management , Social Work , Geography , Communication and Media Studies , Nursing
  • Methods: Qualitative measures , Ethnography
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Qualitative Research: Ethnography

  • Data Analysis
  • Ethnography
  • Interviewing & Focus Groups
  • Narrative Inquiry
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Journals on Ethnography

  • Common Ground: Archeology and Ethnography in the Public Interest
  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Ethnography and Education
  • The Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography
  • Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
  • Journal of Museum Ethnography
  • Journal of Organizational Ethnography

Ethnography Methodology

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Qualitative study design: Ethnography

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To describe the characteristics of a particular culture/ethnographic group. 

Ethnography is the study of culture (Taylor & Francis, 2013) it is in many ways similar to anthropology; this being the study of human societies and cultures. 

Exploration and data collection can occur in either an emic or etic approach. Emic meaning that the observation happens from within the culture. Etic meaning the observation is external looking in (Taylor et al., 2006) 

Used to explore questions relating to the understanding of a certain group's beliefs, values, practices and how they adapt to change. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Ethnographic studies can be about identifying inequalities. For example exploring racial and cultural aspects of how a cultural group functions and the rules that guide behaviours. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

One form of ethnography is an auto-ethnography which involves exploration of the self as the topic being explored. 

The researcher places themselves as a ‘participant observer’ amidst the culture. 

The setting is a very important consideration within ethnographic studies as the exploration of the people and their behaviours must be within the context of that cultural situation. 

Methods used include, but are not limited to: observation, interviews, focus groups, review of documentary evidence and keeping field notes. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Steps involved include:  

Identify the culture to be studied  

Identify the significant variables within the culture 

Review existing literature 

Gain entrance 

Immerse within the culture or observe the culture 

Acquire the informants 

Gather data 

Describe the culture 

Develop theories. 

(Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

Direct insight into the lives and experiences of the people and the group of interest. 

Allows for rich detailed data to be collected (Howitt, 2019). 

Provides an opportunity for researchers to uncover new unknown ways of thinking. Researchers may become aware of behaviors, trends and beliefs that are present within one culture although these may be previously unknown to other cultures. This enables new opportunities for improved ways of viewing and solving issues within other cultures.   


Biases can be apparent because a researcher will always bring with them their own culture and own perspective which may impact their interpretations of the experiences they observe within this different culture. 

Genuine co-operation and engagement from the people of interest may not always be forthcoming and rapport might be difficult to establish. 

There can be a greater cost involved for this study type than others. Due to the need for transport, accommodation and researcher time that is spent in the field among the participants. This can be greater than what would be spent in a different research methodology where the engagement may be limited to a laboratory or shorter duration. 

Certain logistics can pose challenges for this type of research approach, such as travelling and gaining access to communities depending on their unique cultural values, for example there are many indigenous societies that only permit people of certain genders to have access. 

As the setting may be very specific to a particular group or community of people it may not be possible to generalise and apply the findings very broadly. 

Researchers need to be aware of the impact that their presence can have on the behaviours of the population they are investigating. 

The “Hawthorne effect” can be a limitation to observing genuine behaviours within a group. This is a situation founded by Dickson and Roethlisberger in 1966 when they reviewed previous experiments conducted at the Hawthorne factory. These experiments observed the ways that different influences, such as the level of lighting, impacted on the efficiency of factory workers. Their re-examination demonstrated that participants can behave differently to what they usually would when they are aware that they are being studied or recorded. As such, the methods selected need to counteract this effect for all study types, but for ethnographic studies especially, as authenticity of the cultural experience is quite important to ethnographic methodology. 

Example questions

What expectations and beliefs do people within specific communities hold about their healthcare options? 

What practices are being undertaken by healthcare professionals in specific settings and are these consistent with best practice? 

What barriers are certain communities experiencing in relation to different healthcare access? 

Are people within a specific community receiving the appropriate information and communication about aspects of their health for them to then make informed educated decisions? 

Example studies

Coughlin, C. (n.d.). An ethnographic study of main events during hospitalisation: perceptions of nurses and patients . Journal of Clinical Nursing, 22(15–16), 2327–2337.  

Molloy, L., Walker, K., Lakeman, R., & Lees, D. (2019). Mental Health Nursing Practice and Indigenous Australians: A Multi-Sited Ethnography. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(1), 21–27. 

Rainsford, S., Phillips, C. B., Glasgow, N. J., MacLeod, R. D., & Wiles, R. B. (2018). The ‘safe death’: An ethnographic study exploring the perspectives of rural palliative care patients and family caregivers. Palliative Medicine, 32(10), 1575–1583. 

Newnham, E., McKellar, L., & Pincombe, J. (2017). ‘It’s your body, but…’ Mixed messages in childbirth education: Findings from a hospital ethnography. Midwifery, 55, 53–59 

King, P. (2019). The woven self: An auto-ethnography of cultural disruption and connectedness . International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation, 8(3), 107–123.  

Howitt, D. (2019). Introduction to qualitative research methods in psychology: putting theory into practice. Pearson Education.

Taylor, B. J., & Francis, K. (2013). Qualitative research in the health sciences: methodologies, methods and processes: Routledge.

Taylor, B. J., Kermode, S., & Roberts, K. L. (2006). Research in nursing and health care: creating evidence for practice (Third edition. ed.): Thomson. 

O’Connor, S. J. (2011). Context is everything: The role of auto‐ethnography, reflexivity and self‐critique in establishing the credibility of qualitative research findings. European Journal of Cancer Care, 20(4), 421–423. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2354.2011.01261.x 

Dickson, W. J & Roethlisberger, F. J., (1966) Counseling in an organization: a sequel to the Hawthorne researches. 1898-1974 & Western Electric Company (U.S.) Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, Boston 

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Ethnography: traditional and criticalist conceptions of a qualitative research method

Teaching family medicine residents how to conduct research is increasingly being seen as a crucial component of their training, in part as a means of strengthening the discipline and in part to improve their practices. Whereas quantitative methods once dominated approaches to medical research, the application of qualitative methods is seen as an effective way to study issues in primary care. 1 – 3 Ethnography is one such qualitative approach that offers residents a useful tool for conducting research. This article presents an overview of ethnography as a research method that is used to gain a deeper understanding of human behaviour, motivation, and social interaction within specific and complex cultural contexts.

Ethnographic research has long played an important role in medicine. 4 – 6 Becker and colleagues’ landmark ethnographic study, Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School, 7 used qualitative interviews and participant observation to learn how medical students are acculturated into the medical profession; how they learn to negotiate the social complexities within the hospital; and their anxieties, doubts, and idealism as they go through medical training. The study also provides useful insight into students’ evolving and shifting conceptions of the medical profession. Ethnographies such as this one provide an in-depth perspective on a range of health-related issues, such as the professional 8 and corporate culture, 9 social determinants, 10 the illness experiences of patients, 11 moral problems in health care, 12 the family’s role in patient care, 13 patient attitudes toward delivery of care, 14 and other factors that influence health care and health outcomes. 15 – 17 In essence, ethnographies provide a deeper insight into a culture. In this sense culture is defined as the collective assumptions and beliefs that influence the practices of a particular group of people who share a social space.

The term ethnography is thought to have first been introduced in 1922 by Bronsilaw Malinowski (1884–1942). 18 It has its roots in the descriptive science 19 of social anthropology, central to which is the study of culture and cultural behaviour. 20 Ethnographies, however, are not limited to studies of ethnic rituals and practices. They include studies that describe and explain a range of social phenomena within various culture-sharing groups. These ethnographies provide an in-depth description and analysis, and paint a portrait of the ways in which culture-sharing groups interpret their experiences and create meaning from their interactions. Surgeons, for example, have a particular professional culture influenced by attitudes and behaviour that are characteristic of that group and transmitted across generations through learning. 21

Divergent approaches

Traditional approaches to ethnographic research endeavoured to collect facts and evidence through detached observations about the culture being studied, with the researcher attempting to operate in the background as an objective bystander in order to develop an impartial understanding of observable phenomena. This positivist * aim of impartiality, criticalists † will argue, is not tenable, as it depends upon the unlikely ability of the researcher to be once-removed from the culture under observation. 22 Criticalists maintain that researchers are mistaken if they believe they are able to provide a neutral account of others’ experiences. Unlike Malinowski, the next generation of researchers finds that ethnographers are influenced by a “culturally mediated world, caught up in ‘webs of significance’ they themselves have spun [where] there is no privileged position, no absolute perspective, and no valid way to eliminate consciousness from our activities or those of others.” 23

Positivists defer to the transcribed interview over the lived experience of a face-to-face conversation. As a result, knowledge becomes a derivative of the captured, transcribed voice; the known, originally of flesh and blood, is transformed into an amorphous entity, only to be reincarnated and solidified in text. Both the captured voice and the fixed subject can now be manipulated without fear of losing data to the continuity of life and time. A transcribed text can be seen as containing a set of meanings that remain frozen for all time, and is thus more reliable. Yet criticalists would argue that such texts are read and reread, interpreted and reinterpreted with every new reading, through which the reader as researcher creates newer meanings and reifications. What goes unrealized is that each encounter with the text is a new experience. To believe that each reading is still an encounter with the original experience ignores the contextual, historical moments that produced it. 24 The text is given a life of its own with a corresponding belief that it presents the “truth” about the situation being studied.

Criticalists believe, therefore, that the new ethnographer must be careful not to be entrapped by a particular form and version of truth. The social world is governed by multiple truths, which are contextually situated. 25 The researcher’s credibility and legitimacy are gained by acknowledging the representation of multiple versions of truth, showing how each version can impinge on and shape the phenomenon being studied. No single version is given authoritative privilege, for each has its own strengths and limitations—for example, at the scene of an accident, a range of perspectives is obtained to help illuminate the situation in order to arrive at the best possible explanation of what happened. Meanings are not inherent in observation alone, but rather must be elucidated through the interpretation of the range of perspectives offered to illuminate the phenomenon under study.

Constructing realism

Although it might seem as if this movement toward “multiple truths” means that it is impossible to ever know anything, the opposite might in fact be the case. Instead of looking for a single truth when using an ethnographic approach, researchers are encouraged to try to understand the cultural environment from multiple points of view. Hence, in qualitative research, the term experience is more commonly used than truth. Researchers will need to broaden their perspectives while taking into account diverse perceptions of what is occurring in the social environment. Rather than developing single-person interpretations and generalizations, the aim is to collect thick, extensive, and detailed descriptions and interpretations of the area being studied. 26 We can speculate that if a study like Boys in White, 7 for example, were being conducted today it would be a much richer work, as it would not only be looking at the socialization of medical students from the “detached” perspective of the researchers but also examining in more detail the views of patients and other professionals, as well as the diversity within the student group. The experiences embedded in each of these perspectives would help us develop a much richer understanding of medical students within their social context.

Qualitative research is not a monolithic concept like statistics. It draws upon a rich variety of strategies and theoretical frameworks from different disciplines and traditions. Ethnography is but one qualitative research method for studying social phenomena.

Hypothesis is a quarterly series in Canadian Family Physician, coordinated by the Section of Researchers of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. The goal is to explore clinically relevant research concepts for all CFP readers. Submissions are invited from researchers and nonresearchers. Ideas or submissions can be submitted online at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/cfp or through the CFP website www.cfp.ca under “Authors.”

Competing interests

None declared

* Positivists subscribe to the theory that empirical experience is the most legitimate source of knowledge, and that knowledge begins and ends with a sensory experience free of subjective interpretation. 19

† Criticalism presupposes that knowledge is conjectural, socially constructed, and ephemeral—always open to critical analysis and re-analysis. 19

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Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) provides a comprehensive guide to understanding, conceptualizing, and critically assessing ethnographic research and its resultant texts. Through a series of discussions and illustrations, utilizing both classic and contemporary examples, the book highlights distinct features of ethnography as both a research methodology and a writing tradition. It emphasizes the importance of training—including familiarity with culture as an anthropologically derived concept and critical awareness of the history of ethnography. To this end, it introduces the notion of ethnographic comportment , which serves as a standard for engaging and gauging ethnography. Indeed, ethnographic comportment issues from a familiarity with ethnography’s problematic past and inspires a disposition of accountability for one’s role in advancing ethnographic practices. Following an introductory chapter outlining the emergence and character of ethnography as a professionalized field, subsequent chapters conceptualize ethnographic research design, consider the practices of representing research methodologies, discuss the crafting of accurate and evocative ethnographic texts, and explain the different ways in which research and writing gets evaluated. While foregrounding interpretive and literary qualities that have gained prominence since the late twentieth century, the book properly situates ethnography at the nexus of the social sciences and the humanities. Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) presents novice ethnographers with clear examples and illustrations of how to go about conducting, analyzing, and representing their research; its primary purpose, however, is to introduce readers to effective practices for understanding and evaluating the quality of ethnography.

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  1. Pin on Sociology

    ethnography qualitative research sample

  2. ethnography-infographic

    ethnography qualitative research sample

  3. PPT

    ethnography qualitative research sample

  4. Difference Between Ethnography and Phenomenology

    ethnography qualitative research sample

  5. Example Of Ethnography Qualitative Research Title / Types Of Ethnographic Research

    ethnography qualitative research sample

  6. Example Of Ethnography Qualitative Research Title

    ethnography qualitative research sample


  1. Intro to Linguistic Ethnography!


  3. Ksl Ethnography research Team Hiking @pilot baba

  4. POLS 299 Podcast 14 3 1 Ethnography and Participant Observation

  5. ##Types of Qualitative Research Ethnography Malayalam

  6. Research Design ( Ethnography)


  1. 6 Examples of Ethnographic Research

    Ethnography is qualitative, meaning that it focuses on obtaining firsthand and high-quality data directly from the source. In this way, the information is more legitimate and realistic.

  2. What Is Ethnography?

    Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close. The word "ethnography" also refers to the written report of the research that the ethnographer produces afterwards.

  3. PDF The Everyday Lives of Men: An Ethnographic Investigation of Young Adult

    community in Australia. An ethnographic approach and a non-clinical and non-deviant sample were used to build in-depth knowledge from a neutral lens that did not assume an existing male deficit or crisis. The major findings revolved around the complexity of the male social networks, including the men's need for belonging and in particular ...

  4. An Example of Ethnographic Research Methodology in Qualitative Data

    An Example of Ethnographic Research Methodology in Qualitative Data Analysis Authors: Pamelia Khaled University of Toronto Preprints and early-stage research may not have been peer reviewed...

  5. Chapter 9: Ethnography

    What is ethnography? The key concept in ethnography is culture.. Ethnography studies emerged from the discipline of anthropology. They aim to understand the meanings and behaviours associated with the membership of groups, teams, organisations and communities. 1 The focus of ethnographic research is on the lived culture of groups of people; ethnographers have studied systems of belief ...

  6. Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography

    The previous articles (there were 2 before this 1) in this series discussed several methodological approaches commonly used by qualitative researchers in the health professions. This article focuses on another important qualitative methodology: ethnography. It provides background for those who will encounter this methodology in their reading rather than instructions for carrying out such research.

  7. Ethnographic Research

    Ethnographic Research. Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences. Data are collected through observations and interviews, which are then used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals function. Ethnographers observe life as it happens instead of trying to manipulate it ...

  8. Ethnography in qualitative educational research: AMEE Guide No. 80

    Ethnography is a type of qualitative research that gathers observations, interviews and documentary data to produce detailed and comprehensive accounts of different social phenomena.

  9. Ethnography

    Focusing on ethnography as a research methodology, the chapter outlines several key attributes that distinguish it from other forms of participant observation-oriented research; provides a general overview of the central paradigms that ethnographers claim and/or move between; and spotlights three principal research methods that most ethnographer...

  10. Ethnographic study: qualitative studies

    Ethnographic study: qualitative studies How to use an ethnographic study to evaluate your digital health product. From: Office for Health Improvement and Disparities Published 4 May 2020 Get...

  11. Practices of Ethnographic Research: Introduction to the Special Issue

    Methods and practices of ethnographic research are closely connected: practices inform methods, and methods inform practices. In a recent study on the history of qualitative research, Ploder (2018) found that methods are typically developed by researchers conducting pioneering studies that deal with an unknown phenomenon or field (a study of Andreas Franzmann 2016 points in a similar direction).

  12. Sage Research Methods Video: Qualitative and Mixed Methods

    Several examples of ethnography illustrating when it is best used in qualitative research. Skip to main content Menu. Menu close. Browse By . Discipline. Anthropology; Business and Management ... Chapter 1: Ethnography in Qualitative Research icon angle down. Start time: 00:00:00; End time: 00:06:42;

  13. Ethnography

    ISBN: 9781473952157 Publication Date: 2017-11-07 Being Ethnographic is an essential introductory guidebook to the methods and applications of doing fieldwork in real-world settings. It discusses the future of ethnography, explores how we understand identity, and sets out the role of technology in a global, networked society.

  14. Ethnography

    Qualitative study design Ethnography Purpose To describe the characteristics of a particular culture/ethnographic group. Definition Ethnography is the study of culture (Taylor & Francis, 2013) it is in many ways similar to anthropology; this being the study of human societies and cultures.

  15. Ethnography: traditional and criticalist conceptions of a qualitative

    This article presents an overview of ethnography as a research method that is used to gain a deeper understanding of human behaviour, motivation, and social interaction within specific and complex cultural contexts. Ethnographic research has long played an important role in medicine. 4 - 6 Becker and colleagues' landmark ethnographic study ...

  16. Ethnographic Research

    In this article Balcom et al introduce the concept of Institutional Ethnography and describe how it can be used for health care research A Synthesis of Ethnographic Research By Michael Genzuk of the University of Southern California, this is a good overview of this research methodology.

  17. Qualitative research: Qualitative research methodologies: Ethnography

    Qualitative research: Qualitative research methodologies: Ethnography Authors: Scott Reeves Kingston University & St George's, University of London Ayelet Kuper University of Toronto Brian David...

  18. Ethnography: A Comprehensive Guide for Qualitative Research

    Ethnography Uncovered: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding People and Cultures. Ethnography is a qualitative research method that focuses on the systematic study of people and cultures. It involves observing subjects in their natural environments to better understand their cultural phenomena, beliefs, social interactions, and behaviors within a specific community or group.

  19. (Pdf) Ethnography Research: an Overview

    Ethnography Research is a one of the most important qualitative research where researcher observe or interact with the target population and researcher plays an important role to obtain...

  20. Sample Size and Saturation: A Three-phase Method for Ethnographic

    The method is designed to account for on-the-ground realities confronted in contemporary ethnographic research, including time constraints during fieldwork, and can accommodate studies with medium to large scopes, broad foci, heterogeneous populations, and analysis of multiple qualitative data sources.

  21. Investigating Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: How Meta

    After building a robust sample of the literature, the team aligned qualitative and quantitative methods to map the understanding of inter- and transdisciplinary research. Datasets were created by querying scientific citation databases, as supplemented by bibliographies of the inter- and transdisciplinary literature ( Wciślik et al., 2020a ...

  22. What is Ethnographic Research? Methods and Examples

    Ethnographic research, rooted in the discipline of anthropology, is a systematic and immersive approach for the study of individual cultures. Ethnographic research methods involve the examination of cultural phenomena from the perspective of the subjects under investigation.

  23. Big enough? Sampling in qualitative inquiry

    Any senior researcher, or seasoned mentor, has a practiced response to the 'how many' question. Mine tends to start with a reminder about the different philosophical assumptions undergirding qualitative and quantitative research projects (Staller, 2013).As Abrams (2010) points out, this difference leads to "major differences in sampling goals and strategies."(p.537).

  24. Full article: Experiences of meaningful occupation among diverse

    Some examples of this type of study are for example people with psychiatric disability [Citation 29, Citation 30], being a working mother ... The authors believe that meta-ethnography of qualitative research has a good potential for understanding phenomena and possibilities for theory development. The method is demanding in terms of reflexivity

  25. Ethnography

    Abstract. Ethnography (Understanding Qualitative Research) provides a comprehensive guide to understanding, conceptualizing, and critically assessing ethnographic research and its resultant texts. Through a series of discussions and illustrations, utilizing both classic and contemporary examples, the book highlights distinct features of ethnography as both a research methodology and a writing ...