Ethnography in nutrition and dietetics research shows opportunities for allied health

Mrs Ella Ottrey1,2, Miss Jessica Jong1, A/Prof Judi Porter1,2

1Monash University, Notting Hill, Australia, 2Eastern Health, Box Hill, Australia



Ethnography is a qualitative research approach traditionally used in anthropology to learn about people and their culture. This systematic review evaluated the extent, range, nature and contribution of ethnographic methodology in nutrition and dietetics research.


Eight databases were searched from inception until November 2017. Original articles were included when reporting on empirical studies using ethnographic methodology (at least observation) to inform dietetic practice. A supplementary hand-search of reviews identified in the database search was undertaken. Independent assessors screened 1,008 titles and abstracts, with 284 full texts reviewed. Of these, 92 studies were included. Quality was appraised using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme tool.


Use of ethnography has accelerated over the past two decades. Ethnography has been applied to public health nutrition (n=72), clinical nutrition (n=13) and foodservice (n=7) research. Inquiry commonly focused on infant/child feeding, food choice, diabetes, nutrition in schools and food security. Interview (n=85), focus groups (n=17) and document analysis (n=10) were commonly used to collect data in combination with observation. Ethnographic studies illuminated sociocultural factors that underpin dietary beliefs and practices, informed training opportunities, programs and interventions, and identified target areas for policy and guidelines. Rigour and the quality of reporting varied considerably.

Significance of the findings to allied health:

Ethnography can strengthen understanding of complex health issues and their determinants, advancing efforts to improve health and wellbeing. Many opportunities exist to apply ethnographic approaches in allied health research contexts, such as to explain health inequalities, direct policy and inform intervention design and delivery.


Ella Ottrey is a clinical dietitian with 10 years of experience across a number of Victorian healthcare services. She is currently undertaking her PhD at Monash University exploring mealtimes in subacute care.