The contribution of theory to an ethnographic case study on interprofessional placements in healthcare education

By Noreen O’Leary, Nancy Salmon and Amanda M. Clifford

This Research Note is based on my experiences of writing ‘The contribution of theory to an ethnographic case study on interprofessional placements in healthcare education. The paper is a reflection on designing an ethnographic case study which draws on theory from the initial stages of research design through to data collection and analysis.

Developing this paper differed from other work I had been involved in. For review and original research papers the structure is relatively clear, or at least there are many examples to draw on. Less guidance was available for a paper reflecting on how theory was applied to the design and implementation of research. I found that I needed to write out all the actions and phases I had gone through in detail, highlighting a back and forth process of review and revisions. It was only then I could retrospectively fully see the order and sequencing of what my co-authors and I had done. Early iterations read as long monologues, highlighting aspects of the thinking process and reasons for and against certain decisions. During author group discussion around how to make this information relevant to other researchers a structure began to emerge. We settled on distilling a set of key steps that underpinned our use of theory and illustrating these with examples of what we had done during our case study research. 

One of the main benefits of writing this paper was that it immersed me in the realm of theory in research. Having previously found this to be a somewhat intimidating and confusing space, it forced me to deeply engage with not only theories themselves but really consider how and why theories are used. One of my key learnings was that there is often no perfect fit theory for a piece of research. I realised that my role as a researcher is to identify a theory or theories that add depth to the research, and which can be justified in terms of relevance to my specific research question and design. This perspective simultaneously made theory use seem less daunting and more beneficial to research. To quote Kurt Lewin (1951) ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’

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