Home > Ethnography, Social theory, Uncategorized > Some of our favorite theories for doing ethnography in health care spaces

Some of our favorite theories for doing ethnography in health care spaces

At Ethnographic Research, Inc., we always emphasize the value of social theory in ethnography and its ability to add depth and nuance to our results. It is like having the ghosts of sociology’s past prodding us to consider looking at our data this way or that way, just in case there might be a big insight around the corner. Research for the health care industry is no exception. In fact, given how challenging in-context observations of health care settings can be, it’s a crying shame not to make the most out of that data. That’s where theory lend a hand. There is a ton out there, but here are a few theories we tend to use the most:

Stigma: Emile Durkheim, Erving Goffman. Stigma is an essential variable to consider when we do projects on living with an illness. Sometimes the stigma is the result of the physical effects of an illness, its accompanying behaviors (like injecting insulin in public), or by just having the illness (like a sexually transmitted disease). The impact of stigma can be as traumatic as the physical effects of the illness itself, and Durkheim and Goffman helped us understand these dynamics.

The sick role: Talcott Parsons. Talcott Parsons’ functionalism hasn’t necessarily stood the test of time, but we still use his idea of the “sick role.” The basic notion is that when we’re deemed “sick” and take on the “sick role,” we’re excused from normal responsibilities while also being required to work towards getting better. For us, we often use it more broadly in examining how having a specific illness impacts a person’s social roles and their engagement with the world around them. Given our long history of studying different conditions, we can then compare the “sick role” of X illness with the many other illnesses we’ve studied in the past.

Gender theory: Simone de Beauvoir. We always make sure to attend to how gender roles impact the interactions and behaviors we observe. You could pick many influential gender theorists, but de Beauvoir was one of the first to draw the line between sex and gender, and this idea of the social construction of gender is arguably the fundamental starting point of most or even all current gender theory.

She also wrote that women and their bodies were the “inessential other,” deemed both alien to and lesser than men and men’s bodies. We can see this in women’s experiences of health care. In a study we did on a rare, difficult to diagnose illness, women, in trying to find out what was going on with them, weren’t taken seriously by the HCPs. Their physicians downplayed their symptoms as “just stress” or “just needing to lose some weight” when they had a condition that would be fatal if left untreated. 

Presentation of the self: Erving Goffman. Goffman is back for a second round! For Goffman, when we interact with others we act, as if in a play, and our choice of words and our body language are designed to convey a certain image to the person we’re interacting with. This concept is essential when trying to decipher the interactions that patients have with their health care providers. It helps us make sense of how both sides communicate and how those communications are interpreted, which ultimately shapes treatment decisions and patient outcomes.

These interactions usually play out in the exam room, what Goffman would call the “front stage,” the stage that our clients tend to be most interested in. We always argue that we should also observe the “backstage,” their offices, labs, and break rooms, to see what HCPs are doing outside of direct patient care, to see how they interact with other staff members, and to get the entire picture of what’s involved in their day’s work.

This front stage and backstage distinction of Goffman’s is also important when we study the experiences people have with their illnesses away from the doctor’s office. It’s our job to understand how the public face of someone’s experience of an illness might differ from the private, backstage experience they keep to themselves or just share with their closest friends and family. It is often only in this backstage space where we can see what’s really going on.

The quantified self: Deborah Lupton. Just so we can include something from this century, the quantified self has become a more influential theory in the last couple of years in both our health care research and our technology research. It basically explores how we are increasingly measuring the wellbeing of our bodies with numbers. The most common example is fitness tracking (e.g., FitBits and Apple Watches), but you can see it elsewhere, like assessing diabetes status through the numerical output of a glucometer.

The quantified self can be considered a kind of extension or offshoot of the “medicalization of society,” another valuable theory from the previous century, the 70’s. It contends that more and more aspects of our lives are falling under the umbrella of medicine. A classic example of medicalization is giving birth. Where once done with family in the comfort of the home, now having babies in hospitals is the norm. Medicalization comes up periodically in our research too, like a project we did on Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Our participants’ friends and family didn’t take RLS seriously; they didn’t believe it was a real condition (rather the result of the medicalization of society). This led our participants to feel the stigma of having a “fake” condition and it impeded their ability to take on the sick role.

Often we combine these theories in our quest to understand and organize our fieldwork, our analysis and our reporting. What are some theories you love to use in your work?

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