To explore the acquisition of knowledge in anaesthetic practice using qualitative methods. Methods An ethnographic study examining the nature of expertise in anaesthesia in one English hospital. The study used qualitative research methods, including observation of anaesthetic practice and interviews with members of the anaesthetic team. An integral part of the study was a process of feedback to the anaesthetic team including presenting observational data and conducting debriefing interviews with individual team members. Results The study highlights the continued importance of the clinical apprenticeship in passing on knowledge, but also emphasizes the central role of practising independently in the acquisition of skills. Anaesthetists who participated in debriefing interviews or read observational transcripts found the experience valuable for thinking about their own practice. Discussion One suggestion arising from the use of qualitative methods in this setting is that the type of detailed, systematic observation and data recording used in this study could be beneficial in the training and, possibly, appraisal of anaesthetists. This novel and innovative application of qualitative methods in anaesthesia is described and discussed with a view to broadening the debate about specialist training.