Critical ethnography in public health: politicizing culture and politicizing methodology

Patti Shih

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Critical ethnography is a methodological approach to ethnographic research that is explicitly political in its epistemic and empirical focus on challenging power relations and political inequality. It has an epistemic concern about how the notion of “culture” is produced in the research process, through the assumed objective position of the researcher as the “knower” and the study participants as the “known,” and thus taken for granted as a true representation of social reality. This is particularly problematic if this account of culture is integrated into public health programs as an object of intervention and decontextualized from the wider social and political structures that shape inequalities in health and healthcare outcomes. Empirically, critical ethnography attends to an expansive analysis of power relationships, by highlighting issues of social exclusion, marginalization, and injustice in its research focus. The chapter draws on my experience as a novice ethnographic researcher in Papua New Guinea, which taught me the importance of understanding structural factors that contextualize the relationship between culture and health, as well as a critically reflexive research position. The chapter discusses how critical ethnography politicizes the interpretive process through a commitment to collaborative meaning-making between researchers and study participants, which enables the social utility of ethnographic knowledge for political action well after the completion of research.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of research methods in health social sciences
EditorsPranee Liamputtong
Place of PublicationSingapore
PublisherSpringer, Springer Nature
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9789811027796
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Critical ethnography
  • Ethnography
  • Epistemology
  • Culture
  • Public health research
  • Interventionism


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