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Ethnography in health care
What can ethnography do for quality and safety in health care?
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  1. M Dixon-Woods
  1. Senior Lecturer in Social Science and Health, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 6TP, UK; md11@leicester.ac.uk

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    Used carefully, ethnography can identify errors in health care and provide explanations for their occurrence.

    Originally developed within anthropology, ethnography is one of the most longstanding social science research approaches. Its emphasis is on the description and analysis of “the everyday”—routine behaviours in their natural settings. Many would characterise ethnography as the process of querying understandings and practices that are taken for granted: it renders the everyday world problematic by making the “ordinary” into the “extraordinary”. It is best understood as a holistic approach that does not rely on any single method of data collection. Observation, which may be unstructured “hanging out” or more structured and purposeful scrutiny of situations to look for particular things, is perhaps the defining feature of ethnography. These observations are often supplemented by interviews (sometimes very informal and part of the “hanging out” process) or documentary materials collected from the setting (e.g. posters, internal memos, reports of meetings), photographs, artefacts, and so on.

    The interpretation of these data is very much a function of the researcher’s own skills and judgement,1 and will usually involve searching for themes and patterns in the data and generating explanations and theories …

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