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Defining focused ethnography: Disciplinary boundary-work and the imagined divisions between ‘focused’ and ‘traditional’ ethnography in health research – A critical review

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posted on 2023-08-08, 03:03 authored by Catherine TrundleCatherine Trundle, Tarryn PhillipsTarryn Phillips

This article offers the first critical review of focused ethnography, an increasingly popular research method across health disciplines. Focused ethnographers, we argue, exemplify the practice of methodological boundary work, defining their method in contrast to the ‘traditional’ ethnographic approach of anthropology and sociology. To examine this boundary work, we collected two samples of health research articles published over the last decade and compared how focused ethnographers and medical anthropologists described, justified, and practised ethnography.

We found that the core characteristics most often asserted to differentiate focused ethnography from conventional ethnography were: a more limited study timeframe and scope; a limited subpopulation sample; more concentrated research questions; the inclusion of insider researchers; and more orientation towards applied results. We show, however, that these are imagined binaries that fail to map onto actual differences of practice in the two samples and which obscure many similarities between them.

By contrast, we identified four alternative differences between the two methods of ethnography. These centre on understandings of ‘research time’; the very meaning of ethnography; the relationship of researchers to ‘data’; and the presumed best method of social intervention. We therefore define focused ethnography as a versatile method of ethnography that attends to specific epistemological expectations within the health sciences regarding valid proof and empirical description, the boundaries of research, the nature of research relationships, and the duty to improve biomedicine. Ultimately, our study highlights that methodological boundary-work matters, because assumed differences and unexpressed misunderstandings can prevent productive dialogue and fruitful collaboration between disciplines to address pressing health problems.


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© 2023 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC license (

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