OBJECTIVE: This paper aims to locate the ethnographic tradition in a socio-historical context. METHOD: In this paper we chart the history of the ethnographic tradition, explaining its roots and highlighting its value in enabling the ethnographic researcher to explore and make sense of the otherwise invisible aspects of cultural norms and practices. We discuss a number of studies that have provided detailed and context-sensitive accounts of the everyday life of medical schools, medical practitioners and medical students. We demonstrate how the methods of ethnographic fieldwork offer "other ways of knowing" that can have a significant impact on medical education. CONCLUSIONS: The ethnographic research tradition in sociological and anthropological studies of educational settings is a significant one. Ethnographic research in higher education institutions is less common, but is itself a growing research strategy.
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