This is the first in a two-part series on focus groups. This week, we are looking at some of the why you might consider using them in a research project, and questions to make sure they are well integrated into your research strategy. Next week we will look at some practical tips for effectively running and facilitating a successful session.
Focus groups have been used as a research method since the 1950s, but were not as common in academia until much later (Colucci 2007). Essentially they are time limited sessions, usually in a shared physical space, where a group of individuals are invited to discuss with each other and a facilitator a topic of interest to the researcher.
These should not been seen as ‘natural’ group settings. They are not really an ethnographic method, because even if comprised of an existing group (for example of people who work together or belong to the same social group) the session exists purely to create a dialogue for research purposes.
Together with ‘focused’ or semi-structured interviews, they are one of the most commonly used methods in qualitative research, both in market research and the social sciences. So what situations and research questions are they appropriate for?
If you are considering choosing focus groups as an easy way to quickly collect data from a large number of respondents, think again! Although I have seen a lot of market research firms do a single focus group as the extent of their research, one group generates limited data on its own. It’s also false to consider data from a focus group being the same as interview data from the same number of people: there is a group dynamic which is usually the main benefit to adopting this approach. Focus groups are best at recording the interactions and debate between a group of people, not many separate opinions.
They are also very difficult to schedule and manage from a practical standpoint. The researcher must find a suitably large and quiet space that everyone can attend, and is at a mutually convenient time. Compared with scheduling one-on-one interviews, the practicalities are much more difficult: meeting in a café or small office is rarely a good venue. It may be necessary to hire a dedicated venue or meeting room, as well as proper microphones to make sure everyone’s voice can be heard in a recording. The numbers that actually show up on the day will always fluctuate, so its unusual for all focus groups to have the same number of participants.
Although a lot of research projects seem to just do 3 or 4 focus groups, it’s usually best to try for a larger number, because the dynamics and data are likely to be very different in each one. In general you are less likely to see saturation on complex issues, as things go ‘off the rails’ and participants take things in new directions. If managed right, this should be enlightening rather than scary, but you need to anticipate this possibility, and make sure you are planning to collect enough data to cover all the bases.
So, before you commit to focus groups in your qualitative methods, go through the questions below and make sure you have reasons to justify their inclusion. There isn’t a right answer to any of them, because they will vary so much between different research projects. But once you can answer these issues, you will have a great idea of how focus groups fit into your study, and be able to write them up for your methodology section.
How accessible will focus groups be to your planned participants? Are participants going to have language or confidence issues? Are you likely to get a good range of participation? If the people you want to talk to are shy or not used to speaking (in the language the researcher wants to conduct the session in) focus groups may not get everyone talking as much as you like.
Are there anonymity issues? Are people with a stigmatising condition going to be willing to disclose their status or experience to others in the group? Will most people already know each other (and their secrets) and some not? When working with sensitive issues, you need to consider these potential problems, and your ethics review board will want to know you’ve considered this too.
What size of group will work best, and is it appropriate to plan focus groups around pre-existing groups? Do you want to choose people in a group that have very different experiences to provoke debate or conflict? Alternatively you can schedule groups of people with similar backgrounds or opinions to better understand a particular subset of your population.
What will the format of your focus group be, just an open discussion? Or will you use prompts, games, ranking exercises, card games, pictures, media clippings, flash cards or other tools to get discussion and interactivity (see Colucci (2007)? These can be useful not just as a prompt, but as a point of commonality and comparison between groups. But make sure they are appropriate for the kind of group you want to work with, and they don’t seem forced or patronising. (Kitzinger 1994).
Last of all, think about how you are going to analyse the data. Focus groups really require an extra level of analysis: the dynamic and dialectic can be seen as an extra layer on what participants are revealing about themselves. You might also need to be able to identify individual speakers in the transcript and possibly their demographic details if you want to explore these.
What is the aim within your methodology: to generate open discussion, or confirm and detail a specific position? Often focus groups can be very revealing if you have a very loose theoretical grounding, or are trying to initially set a research question.
How will the group data triangulate as part of a mixed methodology? Will the same people be interviewed or surveyed? What explicitly will you get out of the focus groups that will uniquely contribute to the data?
So this all sounds very cautionary and negative, but focus groups can be a wonderful, rich and dynamic data tool, that really challenges the researcher and their assumptions. Finally, focus groups are INTENSE experiences for a researcher. There are so many things to juggle, including the data collection, facilitating and managing group dynamics, while also taking notes and running out to let in latecomers. It’s difficult to do with just one person, so make sure you get a friend or colleague to help out!
Quirkos can help you to manage and analyse your focus group transcriptions. If you have used other qualitative analysis software before, you might be surprised at how easy and visual Quirkos makes the analysis of qualitative text – you might even get to enjoy it! You can download a trial for free and see how it works, but there are also a bunch of video tutorials and walk-throughs so you quickly get the most out of your qualitative data.
Further Reading and References
Colucci, E., 2007, Focus groups can be fun: the use of activity-oriented questions in focus group discussions, Qual Health Res, 17(10), https://qhr.sagepub.com/content/17/10/1422.abstract
Grudens-Schuck, N., Allen, B., Larson., 2004, Methodology Brief: Focus group fundamentals, Extension Community and Economic Development Publications. Book 12.
Kitzinger, J., 1994, The methodology of Focus Groups: the importance of interaction between research participants, Sociology of Health and Illness, 16(1), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9566.ep11347023/pdf
Robinson, N., 1999, The use of focus group methodology with
selected examples from sexual health
research, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 905-913