Ethnography in health professions education: Slowing down and thinking deeply

G. Bressers, M. Brydges, E. Paradis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Web of Science)


Context Ethnography has been gaining appreciation in the field of health professions education (HPE) research, yet it remains misunderstood. Our article contributes to this growing literature by describing some of the key tensions with which both aspiring and seasoned ethnographers should productively struggle. Methods We respond to the injunction made by Varpio et al (2017) that HPE researchers should ground their methodological ventures in their historical and philosophical tenets. To do so, we first review core ethnographic texts that provide a background for ethnographic research in HPE, then provide an orienting definition to bind the specificities of ethnographic research. Finally, we review core theoretical and practical considerations for ethnographic research. Results Ethnography is a slow and deep approach to knowledge production, and as such it requires careful engagement with theory and deliberate choice of methods. Core theoretical tensions include the ontological, epistemological and axiological dimensions of ethnography, and concerns with quality and rigour. Practical tensions include the scope and remit of ethnography, the importance of observing naturally occurring behaviour and the crafting of rich field notes. Conclusions We encourage ethnographers to pursue scholarship that challenges the status quo. Ethnographers should favour deep encounters with research participants, dig deep into the cultural and structural aspects of HPE and be reflexive about knowledge outputs. At a time in HPE when the pressures to publish are high, using ethnography as a research methodology offers an opportunity to slow down and think deeply.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-233
Number of pages9
JournalMedical Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


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