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Using ethnography to study improving healthcare: reflections on the ‘ethnographic’ label
  1. Caroline Cupit,
  2. Nicola Mackintosh,
  3. Natalie Armstrong
  1. Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Natalie Armstrong, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK; na144{at}

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While methods broadly described as ‘ethnographic’ have been increasingly employed to research the organisation and delivery of healthcare,1–4 a single or widely accepted definition of ethnography has proved elusive and perhaps unnecessary.1 5 Nonetheless, even as authors publishing in this journal have adapted ethnographic approaches for the purpose of studying improving quality and safety in healthcare, they have often attempted to retain some of its anthropological ‘essence’.6 For instance, Dixon-Woods7 characterises ethnography in terms of its focus on observational methods, questioning of the taken for granted, description and analysis of routine behaviours in their natural settings, and use of the researcher’s own skill and judgement to both gather data and to interpret them drawing on social theory.

In a recent debate over use of the ethnographic label in this journal, Jowsey8 argued that ethnography was not simply a method of collecting data but also included theoretical analysis and interpretation of those, and that it requires a researcher’s recognition of their own positionality (i.e., where the researcher ‘sits’ in relation to those he or she is studying, e.g., in terms of gender, culture or power). Waring and Jones9 also drew attention to ethnography as an account of the ‘social and cultural organisation of ‘everyday life’’, and to the researcher’s insider perspective. Although these authors have not been ‘purist' about the ethnographic label, they have strongly advocated that researchers using the term ‘ethnography’ …

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