Focus Groups (or the unexpected virtue of group interaction!)

I need more data! Yes I’m afraid I need more qualitative data for the sake of my research; which means extension of my PhD deadline but this is not the topic of this post. As the “Birdman” movie inspired title says this post is about one of the qualitative data methodologies called: Focus Groups! I decided to collect my brand new data by using this methodology not only because I can gather information from many people quicker than individual interviews but also many other advantages that the methodology provides. I have been reading couple of very useful papers and wanted to summarise the key points here for future reference to myself and for those who needs collated information on focus groups. Please note that this post is work-in progress and I’ll be updating it regularly as soon as I find key sources about Focus Groups.

If you have already used this methodology I’d love to hear your tips, and suggestions for designing and conducting focus group sessions; just leave your comments!

What is Focus Groups?

Focus groups as a research technique aims to collect data through group interaction on any topic determined by the researcher. This method was first used by Merton in 1950s to examine people’s reactions to wartime propaganda. Although Merton never used the term focus group he credited with developing the ‘focused interview’ with groups (Kitzinger, 1994).

One essential feature of focus group is that interaction between group members is the source of the data (Morgan, 1996). Group interaction is the essential feature of the method; it distinguishes from one-to-one interviews or questionnaires because of the ability to reflect on this interaction between research participants. As Morgan and Krueger (1993) mentioned such interaction offers valuable data on the extent of consensus and diversity among participants. This ability to observe the participants’ agreement and disagreement is a unique and most important strength of the focus groups method.

Focus groups also differ from other group meetings whose primary purpose is something other than research which does not allow interactive discussions. It also distinguishes from those naturally occurring groups where no one acts as a moderator/interviewer.

Focus groups are often conducted with existing groups (Morgan, 1989) and typically they consist of structured discussions among 6 to 10 participants in formal setting. Focus groups have been used across a wide variety of different fields such as communication studies, education, political science, public health, marketing for everything from breakfast cereals to political candidates and many others (Morgan, 1996).

Focus Groups vs. Other Methods:

Focus group technique distinguishes from other research methods in certain features. Following points summarise some of these:

  • Interviews may be appropriate for investigating individual biographies, but focus groups are more suitable for examining how knowledge and ideas develop and operate within a given cultural context.
  • Fern’s (1982) work looked at the productivity of individual interviews and focus groups and he noted that each focus group participant produce 60-70% as many ideas as they would have in individual interviews. He also concluded that two different focus groups with 8 participants would produce as many ideas as 10 individual interviews. In addition to the ability of collecting data on group interaction, there is no doubt that another important feature of the method is that it is cost-effective technique for interviewing several people at once.
  • When focus groups method is compared with surveys, the difference can be summarised as: questionnaires are appropriate for obtaining quantitative information to conclude how many people hold a certain opinion whereas focus groups are better for exploring how those opinions are constructed. Also focus groups are not set up to generalise the results in the same way as survey research.

Although focus groups can be used as a self-contained method; it can also be used in combination with other research methods such as surveys, individual in depth interviews. The most frequent combinations of focus groups with other methods is surveys or in depth individual interviews. Mostly the latter is used since both methods are qualitative. You might want to have look at Morgan (1996) for details.

Before and During the Sessions:

Before conducting focus group sessions, the design is the key. How many sessions will be conducted, how many participants should be recruited to each session are just some questions. Then arranging location, preparing yourself skillfully as a moderator by preparing guidelines for running the group discussions.

  • Preferred number of carefully selected similar types of focus group participants is 6 to 8 (Kruger, 2002). Max. 10 people is suggested per session (Morgan, 1996; Kruger, 2002).
  • One or preferably more (especially if focus group is the only technique used in the project) sessions should be conducted. Rule of thumb is 4 to 6 focus group projects for projects (Morgan, 1996).
  • Participants should be categorised as homogeneous as possible by age, sex, marital status, socioeconomic status, geographical location etc.
  • Location of the focus group session should be comfortable and participants preferably needs to be seated in circle setting to provoke interaction.
  • It is suggested that sessions are moderated by the researcher who runs the discussions and assistant moderator who will not participate in the discussion but arrange logistics such as helping with the equipment, refreshments, arranging the room, recording the session etc. (Kruger, 2002).
  • Participants are allowed to say anything they’d like to which makes focus groups considered as naturalistic (Kruger and Casey,2000).
  • The number of questions covered may be limited as the response time will vary between participants.

Role of the Moderator:

  • The researcher listens not only for the content of focus group discussions, but for emotions, ironies, contradictions and tensions which enables researcher to learn not just the facts (as in survey method) but also the meaning behind the facts (Grudens-Schuck et al, 2004).
  • Researcher needs to moderate the group conversation in way that discussions continue naturally as well as focused. Researchers must balance the focus of participants as well as their needs to laugh, tell personal stories, disagree, contradict to themselves and revisit the earlier questions.
  • As a moderator you also need to make sure that each participant is talking and not one person is dominating the session.
  • In case you don’t have a professional lab which allows you to video record the session; two people should manage the process: one to facilitate discussion (moderator) and the other to take notes and tape-record the event (assistant moderator).
  • Please see below figure for the summary of moderator skills from Kruger’s (2002) fantastic guideline called “Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews”.

kruger2002

 

  • As Kruger (2002) during the sessions as a moderator make sure you:
    • listen for inconsistent comments and probe for understanding
    • listen for vague or cryptic comments and probe for understanding
    • consider asking each participant a final preference question
    • offer a summary key questions and seek confirmation.

After the Session:

Once the session has ended the next big thing is the analysis and reporting of the results. Even before these two you should first transcribe the sessions by using high quality play-back equipment. If you haven’t video recorded the event make sure you draw a diagram of seating arrangement immediately after the session. Later when analysing your data as Kruger (2002) suggested consider words, context, internal consistency, frequency or extensiveness, intensity, and specifity of the discussions (see Kruger, 2002 for details). Here are some advice on reporting the results:

  • Numerical analysis of focus group data is not a preferred way. Therefore, it is not reasonable to report the results by percentage. (see Grudens-Schuck et al, 2004 for examples). Reports should not present major findings via statistics.
  • Focus groups rely upon words of the participants therefore the report will be based on patterns formed by words, themes or perspectives.

(This section of the post will be updated when I ultimately start the analysis of the sessions.)

Beware:

At last but not least, bear in mind the following:

  • The focus group results cannot be generalised and the method isn’t meant to create generalisations (Robinson, 1999; Fern, 2001; Grudens-Schuck et al, 2004).
  • Groups cannot be regarded as representative of the wider population.
  • It is not necessary for the group to reach any kind of conclusion, agreement or disagreement.
  • It is possible to reflect on groups’ overall reaction but not on an individual basis (Grudens-Schuck et al, 2004). The focus group is not a reliable technique for determining an individual’s own point of view and therefore researcher must not assume that the individual has provided their final opinion on topic as s/he might responded in a way to be supportive rather than honest (check the term “group-effect” for details).
  • Focus groups do not produce reliable data on sensitive topics that produce extremely strong feelings.

To conclude, Focus Groups method is a cost-effective technique to interview several people at once, quickly but make sure you analysed the key data coming from your sessions: the unexpected virtue of group interaction!

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