• ethnography;
  • mental health;
  • nurses’ roles

This study focuses on nursing in an inpatient mental health setting. Its analytic structure follows from a previous review of nursing studies by Allen, which did not include studies of mental health nursing. Allen's review concluded that the nurses’ role could be understood as that of healthcare intermediary and that nurses’ work could be analysed as eight interrelated bundles of activity. These bundles include such matters as managing the work of others. This study aims to assess the fit of this model to mental health nursing and to add to the body of work concerning the social organisation of nursing. The research materials discussed are derived from an ethnography of a psychiatric unit. The analytic framework employed leads us to conclude that the work of mental health nurses can be understood, too, as that of the healthcare intermediary. However, one bundle is found to fit less well and this is attributed to the fragile uncertainty of knowledge in psychiatry. The use of an additional bundle to describe in-context nursing interventions is suggested. It is argued that getting to grips with the reflexive relationship between individual patient care and the social organisation in which this is practised is essential for any practice development efforts.