Monday, December 01, 2008

Bracketing in Psychotherapy Research

Entry for 30 November 2008:

In the midst of the run-up to Thanksgiving, my old friend Connie Fischer contacted me for some help with a manuscript on “Bracketing” she was writing for Psychotherapy Research. Clara Hill was asking her for an example from therapy research. Since Connie’s area is psychological testing, she was a bit a stumped and wanted to know if I could provide her with an example. (Connie does wonderful stuff on humanistic approaches to psychological assessment, among other things.)

This was an interesting question for me, because of the short pieces I’ve written recently for the Applied Educational Research course website, on the Hermeneutic Circle and Sensitizing Categories (also posted on this blog). Bracketing is an interesting linguistic metaphor (brackets are what Americans call parentheses), and yet another take on issues of researchers’ prior understandings and what to do with these. While I don’t think that complete bracketing is possible, I do firmly believe that the attempt to bracket expectations and preferences for one’s data is an essential aspect of a responsible scientific process, because it helps open us up to what are informants are trying to tell us. In this sense, bracketing is close to my heart.

Accordingly, I sat right down and wrote the following example of bracketing in psychotherapy research for Connie:
For example, in their study of significant insight events in psychodynamic and cogntive-behavioral therapies, Elliott et al. (1994) attempted to bracket their expectations for what they would find: At the beginning of their study, the members of the research team wrote down what they thought they might find. They then literally stuck these expectations away during the conduct of the study, attempting to hear as clearly as possible what the data were telling them. In addition, at the end of the study, in order to capture their emergent expectations, they repeated this process, finally rating all the categories they had obtained for the extent to which they now realized they had expected these. They thus accomplished the double movement of both reflecting on their pre-understandings while also consciously striving to be open to their data. Beyond this, they were able to demonstrate the success of their bracketing, by showing that their actual findings differed from their expectations: that is, they had found things they hadn't expected and also failed to find other things that they had expected.
As for Connie’s take on bracketing and what she did with the example I sent her, we’ll all just have to wait for her paper, which will be coming out in Psychotherapy Research in 2009, as part of a special issued on research methods. Look for it!


Elliott, R., Shapiro, D.A., Firth-Cozens, J., Stiles, W.B., Hardy, G., Llewelyn, S.P, & Margison, F. (1994). Comprehensive process analysis of insight events in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic-interpersonal therapies. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41, 449-463.

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