Accepted Paper:

What can I say? Dilemmas of ethnographic practice and product in public health research  


Sue Lewis (Durham University)
Andrew Russell (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Ethnographers of health face interesting challenges of practice and product; how is a critical voice established whilst remaining “on message” with health programmes, and how does the ethnographic approach survive in a research context that favours the interview as its preferred source of evidence?

Paper long abstract:

This paper addresses some of the dilemmas faced by the engaged ethnographer working in the field of health and medicine. How is a meaningful ethnography practised, when it is the interview, transcribed and systematically analysed, that is considered the prime evidence-generating tool in qualitative health research? Analytically, can interviews with senior managers and healthcare professionals sit comfortably alongside "conversations with a purpose" with members of the public? How can one stay true to the ethnography in dissemination, particularly in the media interview, without countering the (political) messaging demanded in contemporary public health campaigns? And how can the critical ethnographic voice survive when it must compete with the insistent demands of the collaborative, action-focused, formative but also politically sensitive project it must speak about?

The empirical source for these queries is research conducted with a then unique organization in public health, Fresh Smoke Free North East (Fresh). The first dedicated office for tobacco control in the UK, its aim is to reduce the region's high levels of smoking. Research objectives included describing the negotiated relationships of the organization with its partners, and to study public perceptions of smoking. This paper will highlight some of the challenges faced by the research team. Among others, how, if at all, was "impact" achieved and a critical edge established and voiced whilst remaining "on message" with Fresh's programme? And how was the promise to use an ethnographic approach fulfilled, in a research context that continues to favour the interview as its preferred source of evidence?

Panel P11
Current concerns in contemporary critical medical ethnography: resisting a structural anaemia in respect to a new politics of evidence