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Qualitative study design



To describe the characteristics of a particular culture/ethnographic group. 




  • Ethnography is the study of culture (Taylor & Francis, 2013) it is in many ways similar to anthropology; this being the study of human societies and cultures. 

  • Exploration and data collection can occur in either an emic or etic approach. Emic meaning that the observation happens from within the culture. Etic meaning the observation is external looking in (Taylor et al., 2006) 

  • Used to explore questions relating to the understanding of a certain group's beliefs, values, practices and how they adapt to change. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

  • Ethnographic studies can be about identifying inequalities. For example exploring racial and cultural aspects of how a cultural group functions and the rules that guide behaviours. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

  • One form of ethnography is an auto-ethnography which involves exploration of the self as the topic being explored. 



  • The researcher places themselves as a ‘participant observer’ amidst the culture. 

  • The setting is a very important consideration within ethnographic studies as the exploration of the people and their behaviours must be within the context of that cultural situation. 

  • Methods used include, but are not limited to: observation, interviews, focus groups, review of documentary evidence and keeping field notes. (Taylor & Francis, 2013) 

  • Steps involved include:  

  1. Identify the culture to be studied  

  1. Identify the significant variables within the culture 

  1. Review existing literature 

  1. Gain entrance 

  1. Immerse within the culture or observe the culture 

  1. Acquire the informants 

  1. Gather data 

  1. Describe the culture 

  1. Develop theories. 

(Taylor & Francis, 2013) 


strengths Strengths


  • Direct insight into the lives and experiences of the people and the group of interest. 

  • Allows for rich detailed data to be collected (Howitt, 2019). 

  • Provides an opportunity for researchers to uncover new unknown ways of thinking. Researchers may become aware of behaviors, trends and beliefs that are present within one culture although these may be previously unknown to other cultures. This enables new opportunities for improved ways of viewing and solving issues within other cultures.   


limitations Limitations


  • Biases can be apparent because a researcher will always bring with them their own culture and own perspective which may impact their interpretations of the experiences they observe within this different culture. 

  • Genuine co-operation and engagement from the people of interest may not always be forthcoming and rapport might be difficult to establish. 

  • There can be a greater cost involved for this study type than others. Due to the need for transport, accommodation and researcher time that is spent in the field among the participants. This can be greater than what would be spent in a different research methodology where the engagement may be limited to a laboratory or shorter duration. 

  • Certain logistics can pose challenges for this type of research approach, such as travelling and gaining access to communities depending on their unique cultural values, for example there are many indigenous societies that only permit people of certain genders to have access. 

  • As the setting may be very specific to a particular group or community of people it may not be possible to generalise and apply the findings very broadly. 

  • Researchers need to be aware of the impact that their presence can have on the behaviours of the population they are investigating. 

  • The “Hawthorne effect” can be a limitation to observing genuine behaviours within a group. This is a situation founded by Dickson and Roethlisberger in 1966 when they reviewed previous experiments conducted at the Hawthorne factory. These experiments observed the ways that different influences, such as the level of lighting, impacted on the efficiency of factory workers. Their re-examination demonstrated that participants can behave differently to what they usually would when they are aware that they are being studied or recorded. As such, the methods selected need to counteract this effect for all study types, but for ethnographic studies especially, as authenticity of the cultural experience is quite important to ethnographic methodology. 


iconExample questions


  • What expectations and beliefs do people within specific communities hold about their healthcare options? 

  • What practices are being undertaken by healthcare professionals in specific settings and are these consistent with best practice? 

  • What barriers are certain communities experiencing in relation to different healthcare access? 

  • Are people within a specific community receiving the appropriate information and communication about aspects of their health for them to then make informed educated decisions? 


iconExample studies



Howitt, D. (2019). Introduction to qualitative research methods in psychology: putting theory into practice. Pearson Education.

Taylor, B. J., & Francis, K. (2013). Qualitative research in the health sciences: methodologies, methods and processes: Routledge.

Taylor, B. J., Kermode, S., & Roberts, K. L. (2006). Research in nursing and health care: creating evidence for practice (Third edition. ed.): Thomson. 

O’Connor, S. J. (2011). Context is everything: The role of auto‐ethnography, reflexivity and self‐critique in establishing the credibility of qualitative research findings. European Journal of Cancer Care, 20(4), 421–423. 

Dickson, W. J & Roethlisberger, F. J., (1966) Counseling in an organization: a sequel to the Hawthorne researches. 1898-1974 & Western Electric Company (U.S.) Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, Boston