Employing an ethnographic approach: key characteristics
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Employing an ethnographic approach: key characteristics

Veronica Lambert Lecturer, School of Nursing, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland
Michele Glacken Head, Department of nursing and health studies at St Angela’s College, Sligo, Ireland
Mary McCarron Associate professor, Nursing and midwifery at the School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Aim Nurses are increasingly embracing ethnography as a useful research methodology. This paper presents an overview of some of the main characteristics we considered and the challenges encountered when using ethnography to explore the nature of communication between children and health professionals in a children’s hospital.

Background There is no consensual definition or single procedure to follow when using ethnography. This is largely attributable to the re-contextualisation of ethnography over time through diversification in and across many disciplines. Thus, it is imperative to consider some of ethnography’s trademark features.

Data sources To identify core trademark features of ethnography, we collated data following a scoping review of pertinent ethnographic textbooks, journal articles, attendance at ethnographic workshops and discussions with principle ethnographers.

Review methods This is a methodological paper.

Discussion Essentially, ethnography is a field-orientated activity that has cultural interpretations at its core, although the levels of those interpretations vary. We identified six trademark features to be considered when embracing an ethnographic approach: naturalism; context; multiple data sources; small case numbers; ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives, and ethical considerations.

Conclusion Ethnography has an assortment of meanings, so it is not often used in a wholly orthodox way and does not fall under the auspices of one epistemological belief. Yet, there are core criteria and trademark features that researchers should take into account alongside their particular epistemological beliefs when embracing an ethnographic inquiry.

Implications for practice/research We hope this paper promotes a clearer vision of the methodological processes to consider when embarking on ethnography and creates an avenue for others to disseminate their experiences of and challenges encountered when applying ethnography’s trademark features in different healthcare contexts.

Nurse Researcher. 19, 1, 17-24. doi: 10.7748/nr2011.

Peer review

This article has been subject to double blind peer review

Accepted: 21 July 2010

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