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Conceptual Baggage

"Conceptual baggage" is a term we borrow from Sandra Kirby and Kate McKenna in Methods from the Margins: Experience, Research, Social Change (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1989). On page 32, they write: "Conceptual baggage is a record of your thoughts and ideas about the research question at the beginning and throughout the research process. It is a process by which you can state your personal assumptions about the topic and the research process. Recording your conceptual baggage will add another dimension to the data, one that is always present, but rarely acknowledged. By making your thoughts and experience explicit, another layer of data is revealed for investigation. The researcher becomes another subject in the research process and is left vulnerable in a way that changes the traditional power dynamics / hierarchy that has existed between researcher and those who are researched."

What is Conceptual Baggage?

Conceptual baggage refers to stereotypical assumptions, idiosyncratic concepts, and theoretical frameworks used or implied in sociological inquiry. Conceptual baggage is not always acknowledged and explicitly examined. However, it influences knowledge production and reproduction by affecting what questions are asked, from which angle issues are taken up, what social realities are considered worth pursuing, and which group's experiences are legitimized and theorized.

Effects of Unexamined Conceptual Baggage

Usually, the first hint of unexamined conceptual baggage is a rocky interview. The interviewer may be caught off guard when a respondent comes to talk about experiences that destabilize the categories or the conceptual framework on which the interviewing questions are based. Although the interviewer may be discouraged, we believe one can learn a great deal from closely examining transcripts of interviews that have gone badly. The objective of such an examination is first to identify patterned disjunctions, rebuffs, or clashes between the interviewer's questions and respondent's answers. Painstaking effort is then required to discern how the disjunctions have come about, and to what extent they may be the effects of conceptual baggage.

Three examples from the data set illustrate the working of conceptual baggage, how to recognize and address it. The examples pertain to assumptions about:

The self-searching process involves revealing (and making an explicit part of the analysis) where one is coming from, including one's research interests and curiosities, any personal agendas one may bring to the research, one's own life history and social position.

To better understand the working of conceptual baggage, we invite you to take part in the exploration by first filling out the following information.

IdentificationPersonal Location
Research interest
Personal agenda
Biography and/or beliefs
Socio-economic position

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