Qualitative inquiry is an inherently human and, thus, subjective endeavor. The meaning of a particular concept or phenomenon will invariably differ from one person to the next, dismissing any assumptions that the research process is or should be an objective process.
Addressing methodological challenges, researchers employ a concept called bracketing to mitigate or at least address potential critiques of research rigor for the purpose of establishing and determining validity. What bracketing means will depend on the research orientation you adopt and the research methods you employ. In this article, we'll look at bracketing in qualitative research and what considerations you should keep in mind when accounting for subjectivity.
Before we fully talk about bracketing, let's first address where subjectivity comes from. Researchers may come to qualitative research thinking it must be a clinical, almost sterile process more often seen in chemistry, physics, or the other natural sciences. As a result, there is always a sustained push to mitigate or even eliminate any "biases" that can be seen as skewing the qualitative analysis.
In practice, positivist scholars critique the presence of preconceived notions that are formed without any engagement with existing scholarship. Under this paradigm, an analytical lens that is primarily developed from personal beliefs may not be sufficiently rigorous or connected to the overall dialogue in research.
That said, there is a competing school of thought that asserts that assumptions are a natural element of human analysis that can never be completely divorced from the research process, nor should they. Instead of looking to build an impenetrable wall between personal bias and analysis, sociocultural researchers look to develop a nuanced and contextualized understanding of the social world through a transparent accounting of personal subjectivities.
Bracketing is the product of this tension. Its origins lie in phenomenology, but bracketing has since expanded to other qualitative methodologies. While there are competing processes for bracketing interviews, observations, and other kinds of data, the overall goal is to address how the subjectivities that researchers may bring to the process can influence the data and the analysis.
There is no straightforward definition for bracketing, because how we address this subjectivity also depends on the orientation we adopt when conducting research. Most broadly, qualitative researchers can exist on a continuum defined by two approaches to phenomenology, or ways of looking at and interpreting the social world.
On the objective side of this continuum, a transcendental approach, in simple terms, asks researchers to look at the world from a sterile lens, like an alien visiting a new world. The goal is to avoid bringing any preconceived judgment of the subject they are examining and to focus on the core essence of the social and cultural practices and customs they observe.
The reasons for this approach stem from a desire to capture how the social world is perceived at the moment of consciousness before any personal beliefs inform and transform how social phenomena are understood. Transcendental phenomenology thus looks for a description of events and practices that are as free of biases as possible.
Some researchers look at the challenges presented by transcendental phenomenology and consider them to be all but impossible to meet. After all, ignoring any preconception about a research context, let alone ignoring all preconceptions, seems to be an unrealistic objective.
Indeed, those who take a grounded theory approach, where all data analysis arises from the researcher's interpretation of the data alone, find it more feasible to fully account for, rather than completely disregard, the thought processes that govern the analytical lens of the researcher.
Rather than try to define a research participant's intended meaning, those who take an interpretive approach to understanding phenomena examine how people make sense of the world around them. The goal of an interpretive approach, then, is to view the interaction between a person's subjectivities and the phenomenon that the inquiry focuses on.
Now that we have an understanding for the different ways through which we can interpret the social world, we can acknowledge how people may address their interpretations in scientific knowledge in different ways. Whatever the research approach, however, the concept of bracketing can be utilized.
Think about written text and how brackets or parentheses set aside additional meaning in a sentence (like this!). A writer uses parentheses to separate words or phrases from the core of the sentence to emphasize the presence of nuances or to allow the reader to separate meaning from the main clause.
The concept of bracketing in the qualitative research process works in a similar fashion. In discourse analysis, interpretations of qualitative interviewing depend significantly on who is interpreting the data.
Imagine that a group of people are analyzing the same set of interviews with elementary school teachers. How would a fellow teacher interpret the interview data, and how would their interpretations differ from that of a parent or a school principal?
Whatever the researcher decides when bracketing interviews, it's important for the researcher to consciously take stock of the factors that inform their analysis of the interview data. Once identified, these factors can then be addressed in the research, either by acknowledging their relation to the collected data or by isolating them from the data altogether.
You can find the practice of bracketing in studies that involve examination of cultural practices or interaction with human subjects. Descriptions of such phenomena are subjectively constructed, requiring a transparent accounting of the characteristics and sociocultural identifiers of the researcher collecting and analyzing the data.
In qualitative health research, think about how sensitive topics like bereavement and palliative care touch on people's emotions. In a research setting involving terminal illness and death, accounting for and separating their subjectivities can be difficult for the researcher. Even advanced nursing practitioners would have trouble adopting a clinically neutral stance in the face of terminally ill patience. Asking the same of researchers collecting data for a qualitative study can be similarly challenging.
The ultimate goal of research is to contribute to scientific knowledge, and the extent of that contribution depends significantly on the research being persuasive to scholars within the research community. Researchers need to believe (or at least find credible) the assertions being proposed in an academic journal, a formal essay, or a research presentation before they can consider it to be useful research.
As a result, research should be considered credible before any researcher can accept the findings presented to them as well as the analysis from which those findings are generated. Even among scholars who accept the inevitability of subjective influences, there is an expectation that those influences are presented in a transparent manner that adequately contextualizes the analysis.
Accounting for personal influences that might inform the collection and analysis phases in a study is essential to bracketing regardless of the approach the researcher adopts. Whether one is suspending "bias" or explaining how their subjective lens affects the study, recognition of what makes the inquiry subjective is an essential prerequisite to bracketing.
Researchers should first conscientiously consider their positionality relative to the research context and its participants. Above all, this should bring about a recognition that the human researcher is not an objective collector of information, and anything which may shape their interpretations should be acknowledged and addressed.
Ask yourself how you approach the research study you are conducting. Think about your search history or search results when building your literature review, for example. What scholars or theories have influenced your view of the research context? Are you conducting this research for a grant proposal or to complete a doctoral program? How do these motivations affect how you collect and analyze data?
A full accounting of your positionality and worldview can only enhance, not interfere with, the research in front of you. Be sure to list in your bracketing notes all possible influences that can be relevant to conducting your study and explaining your findings to your research audience.
If you are adopting a transcendental approach to phenomenology, the bracketing notes are your resource that help you suspend your preconceptions when conducting your study. This practice requires constant reflection on your own conduct in the field.
This approach requires an open mind when you engage with the social world. This might involve documenting as much of the concept or phenomenon as objectively as possible without making interpretations or judgments (e.g., describing what something is rather than whether it is "good" vs "bad" or you agree or disagree). Or it might require you to reflect on your observations afterward to determine if you need to adjust your analysis so it captures more of the essence of the object under inquiry.
On the other hand, an approach that acknowledges the necessity of subjective influences is less about suspending preconceptions and more about describing your analysis in the context of your analytical lens. What do you notice or focus on because of your identities? What might you overlook or misinterpret because of any outside status you might have in the field?
Bracketing within an interpretive paradigm requires constant reflection as well as deep engagement with participants in the field to capture as much of their perspectives as possible. A thick description, made possible by a rich understanding of how those in the field see the world, can help the researcher mitigate any misinterpretations and recognize differences in individual characteristics.