Trisha Greenhalgh discusses classic ethnography texts and their applicability to health services research.
Ethnography is, traditionally, the remit of anthropologists. Think mud huts and pith helmets: months or years living among the ‘natives’, immersed in the strangeness of a distant culture and producing what Clifford Geertz called thick description . More recently, ethnography has been appropriated by both management academics and health services researchers to study the culture of organisations [2-4].
In general, doctors are not trained in anthropology – or indeed in other interpretive methods. The methodology has become distorted and over-rationalized by medically trained researchers whose criteria for excellence have been appropriated from the randomized controlled trial. They may wrongly equate rigour with the use of structured checklists of what to observe, how, and for how long – or for two researchers to make independent observations of the same phenomenon on the assumption that they should both come out of the experience with the same set of ‘facts’. In reality, ethnography draws extensively on subjective methods and rigour is as much about reflexivity (self-questioning) and criticality (considering alternative explanations) as about accuracy or reproducibility of measurement .