Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Rapid ethnographies in a changing world

Cecilia Vindrola-Padros

The COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken our globe to its core has highlighted the need for rapid, responsive and relevant research, now more than ever. The field of rapid research is not new and different approaches have been developed over at least 40 years to enable the sharing of research findings at a time when these can inform decision-making. Rapid ethnographies, rapid approaches that seek to maintain some features of conventional ethnographies (engagement with social theory, focus on socio-cultural meanings and practices and the desire to understand the emic or insider perspective) while carrying out data collection and analysis over compressed periods of time, have become more popular over the last decade (Vindrola-Padros and Vindrola-Padros 2018). Many rapid ethnographies have been developed on health-related topics, perhaps due to the time pressures and changing climates that characterise most healthcare systems (Vindrola-Padros 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has set an unprecedented demand on healthcare systems around the world and rapid ethnographies have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, generating high-quality findings in short amounts of time. Rapid ethnographies can provide insight into:

• Health behaviours and how these might align or not to government advice,
• The experiences of those receiving and delivering care, considering how certain emotions (fear, loneliness, hope, solidarity) might shape these, and
• The ways in which the impact of the disease and control measures are dependent on existing structural inequalities.

These approaches can be used to deliver emerging findings that can be used to inform response efforts as the study is ongoing. Dissemination will require collaboration with public health authorities and other relevant stakeholders to make sure the studies can generate rich, but at the same time, actionable evidence on the population’s perceptions, experiences and practices. Rapid ethnographies are also flexible in their design and can adapt to “track the pandemic” and the pressures placed on healthcare systems. For instance, the ‘field’ of study can move from intensive care units in specialist hospitals to the care that will need to be delivered to thousands of recovering patients in their communities. Rapid ethnographies on COVID-19 can be replicated around the world to capture cross-cultural similarities and differences on national responses, everyday life experiences and beliefs. As we struggle with a virus we do not know and uncertainties regarding how to control the spread and the long-term effects of the pandemic on society at large, research that can generate in-depth and timely findings will be crucial. The time is ripe for rapid ethnographies.

To find out about rapid research being carried out on COVID-19 around the world, visit our lab’s website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/qualitative-health-research-network/rreal-rapid-research-evaluation-and-appraisal-lab


Vindrola-Padros C, Vindrola-Padros B Quick and dirty? A systematic review of the use of rapid ethnographies in healthcare organisation and delivery. BMJ Quality & Safety 2018;27:321-330.

Vindrola-Padros C. Rapid ethnographies: A practical guide. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press; 2020.

Rapid Ethnographies by Cecilia Vindrola-Padros
Rapid Ethnographies by Cecilia Vindrola-Padros

About The Author

Cecilia Vindrola-Padros

Cecilia Vindrola-Padros is a Medical Anthropologist interested in applied health research and the development of rapid approaches to research. She has written extensively on the us...

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