An earlier post to this blog discussed the idea that qualitative research, namely focus groups, shares many of the research-design issues or concerns associated with quantitative research. This commentary was an excerpt from a working paper titled “Focus Group Research: A Best Practices Approach” and was intentionally non-specific; opting rather to use the initial post to emphasize that “no less than quantitative, focus group…research merits discussions pertaining to a variety of design components…” and to call on “a robust ongoing industry-wide conversation” regarding best practices. This post (also partly excerpted from the working paper) talks about the important role of individual response in qualitative design.
One of the “design components” shared by quantitative and qualitative (such as focus group) research has to do with the researcher’s sensitivity to the unique contribution each respondent/participant brings to the research process. Quantitative and focus group research schemes are equally interested in individual attitudes and behavior – quantitative methods in a highly-structured, wide-spread sort of way (breadth) and focus groups via a highly-interpersonal approach (depth). In many instances, focus group research individualizes quantitative further by deriving meaning and context to survey data that is often masked by necessary standardization and coding. Like quantitative, focus group research methods respect individuality, knowing that the ability to maximize the quality of individual response contributes greatly to the accuracy and usability of the outcome. Focus group efforts show regard for the individual participant in the carefully crafted recruitment (screening) process, the use of probes, and by enabling a meaningful contribution from each participant in a safe research environment.
This attentiveness to the individual is part and parcel with typically-quantitative constructs such as validity. These constructs are rarely (ever?) uttered in the same breath with qualitative research yet the essential underpinning of these concepts – trustworthiness, quality, dependability – are germane to all research designs. In focus group research, the moderator’s control of question administration (by probing and clarifying questions on the spot to unearth any possible misinterpretations or alternative meanings) assures that the intended question (or necessarily re-worded question) is indeed the question being answered. It is this question-answer validation – enabling the researcher to maximize the quality of individual responses – that powers the critical advantage and ultimate usefulness of focus group research.
So why do so many moderators relinquish one of the key benefits of qualitative research – question-answer validation – by employing group or team-activity techniques? It has never been clear to me what the researcher gains by asking two or more group participants to create a collage or sort a picture deck, or asking an entire focus group to embellish each other’s scribbles in “pass the doodle.” While entertaining, these techniques move away from a concern for the individual and potentially lead to superficial “insights” based on analyses of a team effort full of compromise, acquiescence, or disjointed scribbles.
A best-practices approach to focus group (and all qualitative) design entails an understanding of the impact individual response has to the integrity of the research.