(Professor Rosemary Deem, Lancaster University, Department of Educational Research, 1997)
1. What are they?
group interviews initiated by a researcher also used by market researchers and political parties
as a technique they are positioned in between individual interviews and naturalistic participant observation of groups
they usually concentrate on a particular theme/set of issues
discussion is controlled by a moderator, BUT
the data arise out of the interaction between group members, rather than from interaction between the moderator and the group
2. Why use a focus group?
to explore an issue where there is little previous research or to get ideas about a controversial topic
where individual interviews are too restrictive, inappropriate, too time-consuming or too difficult to arrange
as an economical method of collecting a tot of verbal data
where participant observation is precluded or would not offer relevant data
where a range of views and ideas are sought from a group of people
where preliminary ideas are needed prior to using other methods, eg questionnaires
as part of a multi-method study
as a stand-alone technique
3. Strengths and weaknesses of focus groups
allows observation of group interaction in controlled setting
good for less structured themes/topics
very helpful for exploratory research
allows the researcher to produce concentrated data on a precise topic
quick and easy to conduct
participants can often exert more influence over the discussion than in one-to-one interviews, so less of a power imbalance
can provide rich and in-depth data
is a flexible method
relies entirely on group interaction
not naturalistic - created by a researcher
may not work for all topics
participants may steer discussion in directions not relevant to the research
some participants may dominate discussion
raises ethical issues about confidentiality - everything said is shared with other participants, taping invades privacy, who will hear tapes?
may not be suitable for people lacking confidence or relatively inarticulate
may prove difficult to recruit participants
4. Planning a focus group
what resources are available: time, money, moderators?
how many groups? Morgan (1997) suggests between 3 and 5 usually sufficient
how many people per group (if too small, power dynamics can disrupt)?
heterogeneous/segmented groups: theoretical or random sampling?
how will group members be recruited?
where will the focus groups be held?
how long will each group last?
will discussions be unstructured, funnelled, structured?
how will the data be recorded (audio-tape, notes, video, one way mirror)?
will there be a pre-test or pilot group?
5. Conducting focus groups
the group should cover a maximum range of relevant topics (researcher should not try to narrow focus if unexpected issues arise)
it should provide data which is as specific as possible (ie data which offers concrete and detailed experiences)
it should encourage interaction providing in-depth data not superficiality
it should take into account the personal context and perspective of respondents' responses (i-iv from Merton et al 1990)
establish ground rules with participants: one person speaks at a time; everyone to participate no-one to dominate; everything said is confidential
moderator needs to make sure that the discussion: does not just bounce back between them and the group does not veer too far off the subject does not fall into a lull does not become repetitive
some notes should be taken at the time (by an assistant) or afterwards, even if using audio or video-taping
the moderator needs to intervene tactfully and not too often, moving on when necessary
the moderator needs to find a way to draw the discussion to a close when the allotted time is up
6. Analysing focus group data
depth/detail of analysis depends on purpose -exploratory preliminary use of focus groups requires less than if focus groups the main data source
consider manual and software methods
analysis needs to focus on group interaction data not on individual responses
coding may rely on emergent themes, pre-determined templates, or a mixture
should consider quantitative as well as qualitative analysis of codes
analysis should try to distinguish between what the participants found interesting and what they thought was important. Ask participants at time or in post-group questionnaire?
Merton, R. K., M. Fiske, et al. (1990). The Focussed Interview. New York, Free Press.
Morgan, D. L. (1993). Successful Focus Groups. London, Sage.
Morgan, D. L. (1997). Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, USA & London, Sage. (2nd edition)
Stewart, D. W & P.N Shamdasani (1990). Focus Groups: theory and practice. London, Sage.