From Sociology to Health Care, Psychology, Education, Communication, & Marketing Research: The Many Uses of Ethnography

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 177-179) which is a qualitative methods text covering in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography, qualitative content analysis, case study, and narrative research.

Ethnography is used across the health and social sciences where the goal is to gain an in-depth understanding of the meanings associated with particular customs or behaviors by living the experience to the degree possible. Anthropologists have traditionally conducted lengthy and entrenched ethnographic studies among native tribes in distant lands; however, beginning in the early 1970s, anthropologists such as Spradley (1972) put their ethnographic skills to work closer to home, researching social groups on American soil, such as men on skid row (and, specifically, the “culture” of alcoholism). The observation method (along with ancillary methods) has since been utilized by anthropologists to study a host of Western social groups and phenomena, expanding even into the virtual online world with, for example, Internet-based research to examine the expatriate experience in Buenos Aires (Freidenberg, 2011).

Researchers in the health sciences have used onsite nonparticipant observation coupled with in-depth interviews to study the level of advice and knowledge pharmacists impart in their interactions with their customers (Cramer, Shaw, Wye, & Weiss, 2010), the obstacles nurse board members face in impacting community health care policy (Hughes, 2010), and the treatment of older people with dementia in the hospital setting (Jurgens, Clissett, Gladman, & Harwood, 2012).

Ethnography has been used in the field of psychology in work that ranges from onsite nonparticipant observation of decision making in closed facilities of the mentally ill (Lyall & Bartlett, 2010) to planting covert observers in psychiatric hospitals (i.e., complete participant observation) to study the environment in which psychiatric diagnoses are made (Rosenhan, 1973).

Sociologists such as Haenfler (2004) and Williams (2006) have used the methods of complete participant observation and online ethnography, respectively, to study the youth “straight edge” subculture in order to understand the values and belief system of this group as well as the personal experiences and meanings in identity associated with belonging to this subculture, including the pledge to abstain from recreational drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

Researchers in education have used ethnography to investigate the in-classroom experience, specifically teachers’ approaches to educating school-age children on topics such as environmental issues (Cotton et al., 2010), as well as values and morality (Thornberg, 2008).

With the advent of digital communications, journalism researchers have conducted ethnographies to study how newsrooms are dealing with the transition from print to online publication (Robinson, 2011) as well as the use of new technology (Mabweazara, 2010).

Ethnography has also become popular among corporate and marketing researchers. “Corporate anthropologist” Brigitte Jordan, for example, conducted an ethnographic study for Intel Corporation in their assembly plants in Costa Rica and Malaysia to study the interaction, communication, work-flow issues, and productivity among employees (Jordan & Lambert, 2009). Mariampolski (2006) has adapted ethnography for marketers to observe consumers and business customers going about their daily routines in their natural environments. These ethnographic studies have included the investigation of diabetes patients’ use of glucose measurement devices; at-home use of paper towels and potential new uses of paper towels; decision making at the retail level for a variety of consumer goods manufacturers (e.g., shelf-stable Mexican foods) by way of “shop-along” observation (i.e., the researcher shops with the consumer participant as a passive participant); consumer behavior associated with seasonal and year-round barbecue grilling; and how various types of businesses compile reports for their customers utilizing specific office equipment.

Another obvious use of ethnography is in the study of open spaces. This includes research into such areas as the public spaces at a university library and how these spaces impact students’ learning experiences (May, 2011), as well as the design and social implications of the coffee shop as a community gathering space (Waxman, 2006).

Although ethnography may not be associated with research on delicate or sensitive topical areas, there are instances when ethnographers have successfully completed nonparticipant observational studies on sensitive issues. One example is the work Mariampolski conducted for faucet manufacturer Moen, Inc., to observe showering behavior among consumers (see ElBoghdady, 2002). In that study, the researcher recruited “social nudists” to be videotaped (using a specially devised video recording system) while going through their usual showering routine. As another example, Forbat, White, Marshall-Lucette, and Kelly (2012) report on a study involving onsite nonparticipant observations of clinician–patient consultations with men in various stages of prostate cancer treatment. The purpose was to learn what is spoken (and what is implied but not spoken of directly) in these consultations by the clinicians with patients (and their partners who also attended these consultations); and, specifically, the content and manner in which the topic of sexual functioning was discussed.

Cotton, D. R. E., Stokes, A., & Cotton, P. A. (2010). Using observational methods to research the student experience. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34(3), 463–473.

Cramer, H., Shaw, A., Wye, L., & Weiss, M. (2010). Over-the-counter advice seeking about complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) in community pharmacies and health shops: An ethnographic study. Health & Social Care in the Community, 18(1), 41–50.

Forbat, L., White, I., Marshall-Lucette, S., & Kelly, D. (2012). Discussing the sexual consequences of treatment in radiotherapy and urology consultations with couples affected by prostate cancer. BJU International, 109(1), 98–103.

Freidenberg, J. (2011). Researching global spaces ethnographically: Queries on methods for the study of virtual populations. Human Organization, 70(3), 265–278.

Haenfler, R. (2004). Rethinking subcultural resistance: Core values of the straight edge movement. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 33(4), 406–436.

Hughes, A. (2010). The challenge of contributing to policy making in primary care: The gendered experiences and strategies of nurses. Sociology of Health & Illness, 32(7), 977–992.

Jordan, B., & Lambert, M. (2009). Working in corporate jungles: Reflections on ethnographic praxis in industry. In M. Cefkin (Ed.), Ethnography and the corporate encounter (pp. 95–133). New York: Berghahn Books.

Jurgens, F. J., Clissett, P., Gladman, J. R. F., & Harwood, R. H. (2012). Why are family carers of people with dementia dissatisfied with general hospital care? A qualitative study. BMC Geriatrics, 12(1), 57.

Lyall, M., & Bartlett, A. (2010). Decision making in medium security: Can he have leave? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(6), 887–901.

Mabweazara, H. M. (2010). Researching the use of new technologies (ICTs) in Zimbabwean newsrooms: An ethnographic approach. Qualitative Research, 10(6), 659–677.

Mariampolski, H. (2006). Ethnography for marketers: A guide to consumer immersion. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

May, F. (2011). Methods for studying the use of public spaces in libraries/Les méthodes tion des espaces publics dans ies bibiothéques. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Sciences, 35(4), 354–366.

Robinson, S. (2011). Convergence crises: News work and news space in the digitally transforming newsroom. Journal of Communication, 61(6), 1122–1141.

Rosenhan, D. L. (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179(19), 250–258. Retrieved from

Spradley, J. P. (1972). Down and out on skid row. In S. Feldman & G. W. Thielbar (Eds.), Life styles: Diversity in American society (pp. 340–350). Boston: Little, Brown.

Thornberg, R. (2008). Values education as the daily fostering of school rules. Research in Education, 80(1), 52–63.

Waxman, L. (2006). The coffee shop: Social and physical factors influencing place attachment. Journal of Interior Design, 31(3), 35–53.

Williams, J. P. (2006). Authentic identities: Straightedge subculture, music, and the Internet. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(2), 173–200.

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