Podcast 45: The Qualitative Research Series - Capturing the social in motion with ethnography with Dr Fiona Webster


Welcome to another episode of The Words Matter Podcast.

I hope you enjoyed the previous two episodes of the Qualitative Research Series; the first one introducing qualitative research with Perri Tutleman and the last episode on grounded theory with Professors. Jane Mills and Melanie Birks. I found the conversations so enjoyable and look forward to continuing through the series.

So we continue our journey into and across qualitative research, and in today’s episode I’m speaking about Ethnography with sociologist Dr Fiona Webster. Fiona is an Associate Professor at Western University London, Ontario, Canada. Her research interest lies in the sociology of chronic pain and other chronic health conditions, with a particular focus on using critical and institutional ethnographic approaches.

Fiona has published extensively using and ethnography including a powerful ethnographic study of chronic pain management in primary care, titled 'The social organization of physicians' work in the midst of the opioid crisis', published in the journal PLoS One (see here).

She has also written a book titled 'The Social Organization of Best Practice An Institutional Ethnography of Physicians’ Work’ which explores how best practice for acute stroke care was developed, translated and taken up in medical practice across various sites in the province of Ontario (see here).

So in this episode we talk about:

  • What ethnography is, its problematic history and its place as ground zero for qualitative research.
  • Ethnography’s ability to captures complex, naturally occurring social interactions in contexts that are not subject to experimental control (see a really useful paper by Fiona introducing ethnography here).
  • The different epistemological approaches within ethnography and touch on Hammersley’s critique ‘What’s wrong with ethnography’ which articulate the methodological and epistemological confusion which he perceived within ethnography, namely 'naive realism' and 'relativism'. I would suggest you also real Grant Banfields rebuttal “What’s really wrong with ethnography where he proposes 'subtle realism' as a solution to the confusion).
  • The way in which ethnographic research is carried out, from data collection (such as participant observation, field notes and interviews) and some of the ethical issues of prolonged immersion in the field and who can be researched in the research field.
  • The Hawthorne effect, that is peoples' change in behaviour when they know they’re being observed and how this does (or doesn't) relate to ethnographic observation.
  • Data analysis and reflexivity within an ethnographic study.
  • Finally, Fiona suggests some classic and influential ethnographies for those wanting to find out more about ethnography, including the books Forgive and Remember: Managing Medical Failure, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Boys in White and finally the autoethnography Leaving the Boys: A Story of Motherhood and Career, Feminism and Romance.

So this was just a wonderful conversation with Fiona. She describes the theory and practice of ethnography perfectly, and her powerful insights into institutional ethnography and the rich data and findings that ethnography generates just made me want to do some ethnography!

Find Fiona on Twitter @FionaWebster1

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