Doing ethnography in a war zone

This semester, I’m using Doctors at War: Life and Death in a Field Hospital, authored by Mark de Rond in a class I am teaching. De Rond is a professor of Organizational Ethnography in the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge in the UK. One of the topics that he examines is how people manage when dealing with difficult circumstances or extreme environments. For this study, he was embedded as an ethnographer for six weeks with a surgical team in a military hospital at the front lines of the war in Afghanistan which is referred to as Camp Bastion. This period of time parallels the typical tour of duty for medical personnel who worked at the hospital. Since he did not have a medical background, de Rond had to study up on the work of field hospitals prior to engaging in field work. Having first participated in the training session that team members engage in prior to embarking for the field hospital, de Rond set out to represent the lived experiences of those whose lives “revolve around damage-control resuscitation and early surgical management in a war zone” (p. xvii).

This short book is written in a reader-friendly style that is organized in 13 chapters with an epilogue. Endnotes provide further sources for readers who would like to follow up with other sources. de Rond’s portrait of Camp Bastion is based on fieldnotes of observations, email exchanges,  and interviews and conversations he undertook with people he met during his fieldwork. The book details the devastating consequences of warfare on those involved — including military personnel and civilians — as well as how medical personnel manage their work. The narrative is gripping and action fast-paced. In the epilogue, de Rond details how he came to the project, some of his own emotional responses, as well as the complications that arose when he came to publish the book. He also discusses some of the well-known problems conducting ethnography, including representation of the other, ensuring confidentiality, and issues of trust and betrayal when the boundaries between participant and observer fall away over time.

de Rond paints an unvarnished portrait of  what goes on in a field hospital as medical professionals make life and death decisions, alternatively dealing with the rapid decision-making involved in working with incoming casualties and the stretches of boredom as the team members wait for the next intake. You can hear de Rond talk about this study at:

This book was awarded an Honorable Mention for the 2018 Outstanding Book Award at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry.


de Rond, M. (2017). Doctors at war: Life and death in a field hospital. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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