Exploring the use of focused ethnography in social work research: A scoping review

Patricia J. Shannon, Laura Soltani, Erin Sugrue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Focused ethnography (FE) is an emerging method for social work researchers who examine social justice issues within specific sub-cultures and service systems. FE methods may include researchers with background knowledge, specific research questions, and the use of intensive, short-term data collection methods in time-limited settings. Although relevant to applied studies in social work, FE methods remain underspecified. This scoping review examines the extent, variety, and characteristics of FE in social work research. The protocol follows the PRISMA Extension for Scoping Reviews Checklist and Explanation (PRISMA-ScR). We searched Social Science databases between 2018 and 2022. The critical appraisal of articles is guided by published FE methodology and American Psychological Association (APA) journal reporting standards for qualitative research. Researchers justified the use of FE in relation to their ethnographic goals, research populations, and specific questions. However, they were inconsistent in their discussion of the integration of theory and reflexive processes in research methods. While most studies used thematic analysis or coding of qualitative data, some lacked the recommended elements outlined in the journal reporting standards for qualitative research. In particular, they lacked transparency when discussing the impact of background knowledge and positionality on data analytic processes and findings. In this review, we discuss the strengths and limitations of FE for social work research and offer recommendations for methodological improvement. To enhance understanding and trustworthiness of reported findings, we recommend transparency in discussions of data analytic and reflexive processes, as well as uniform reporting in accordance with APA standards for qualitative research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalQualitative Social Work
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

Bibliographical note

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© The Author(s) 2023.


  • Culture
  • ethnography
  • evaluation
  • focused ethnography
  • rigor
  • scoping review


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