Abstract: Unbracketing in Qualitative Social Work Research with Refugee Communities: When Does Bracketing End? (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Unbracketing in Qualitative Social Work Research with Refugee Communities: When Does Bracketing End?

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN
Jillian Graves, PhD, Assistant Professor, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI
Background & Purpose

Social work researchers may encounter methodological and ethical issues in qualitative research due to researchers’ identity and positionality. Qualitative methods are the most frequently employed methodology in social work research with forced migrants. Recognizing complex vulnerability, this presentation provides a methodological discussion of unbracketing in qualitative social work research with refugee participants. Bracketing refers to the practice where one acknowledges and “sets aside” a priori knowledge during research processes in order to mitigate bias and maximize rigor (Gearing, 2004). Ascribing to a temporal structure— start point, duration, and end point— the majority of the literature focuses on bracketing in the pre-analysis or analysis phase of research (Gearing, 2004; Starks & Trinidad, 2007). Few publications emphasize the post-analysis phase or unbracketing. The presenters are concerned with the epistemological assumptions that underlie bracketing and pose the question, “When does bracketing end?” for two studies involving refugees resettled in the United States. Unbracketing enables qualitative meta-inquiry to analyze methodological and ethical tensions in research processes and products.


The presenters applied bracketing and unbracketing to two studies examining health care usage among Bhutanese, Burmese, Eritrean, Iraqi, and Sudanese refugees in the United States. Both grounded theory studies involved in-depth interviews with refugees resettled in the United States to gather data on health services usage. The first study involved 71 Bhutanese refugees and the second study included 83 participants representing Iraqi, Eritrean, Bhutanese and Burmese ethnic groups. Unbracketing in the post-analysis phase involved reflexivity and community engagement activities. Unbracketing yielded a critical examination of the process of “setting aside” a priori knowledge and mitigating bias.


Results from this study yielded insights related to: privilege awareness, limitations of inclusion and exclusion criteria, beneficiaries of research, cross-cultural considerations, and practice implications in qualitative research with refugees. Both studies involved complex perceptions of the researcher’s professional identity and spoken and unspoken research processes. The findings point to limitations of conceptualizing bracketing as a linear process with set boundaries. The findings demonstrate interactionism in the bracketing process in qualitative research with refugees, which may be better served by a dynamic model of unbracketing.

Conclusions & Implication

Unbracketing enabled the researchers, in essence, to bracket the bracketing process in the two studies. It facilitated qualitative meta-inquiry that went beyond reflexivity to consider methodological rigor and ethical implications of research. The presenters deconstruct the bracketing process and posit an atemporal, permeable system of unbracketing. Unbracketing may serve as an analysis of self and other in multiple frameworks of qualitative inquiry. The researchers discuss transferability of unbracketing to various research contexts with forced migrant communities as a means to maintain a critical anti-oppressive approach to social work research. The presenters’ goals are to further qualitative social work research that is cognizant of vulnerability and responsive to the populations that are being researched.