Intended for healthcare professionals

Practice Qualitative Research

Qualitative research methodologies: ethnography

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 07 August 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1020
  1. Scott Reeves, associate professor1,
  2. Ayelet Kuper, assistant professor2,
  3. Brian David Hodges, associate professor and vice chair (education)3
  1. 1Department 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. 2Department of Medicine, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M4N 3M5
  3. 3Department of Psychiatry, Wilson Centre for Research in Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2C4
  1. Correspondence to: S Reeves scott.reeves{at}

    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 research2

    • 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 …

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