The Complexity of Contexts & Truths in the Focus Group Discussion

I find myself often thinking and writing about qualitative research design because, well, there is a lot to think and write about.  While there is a multitude of books, articles, experimentation, debates, and forums on the efficacy of various quantitative approaches and techniques, there is very little on applying quality principles to qualitative design.  This partially stems from the fact that there are some qualitative researchers who dismiss the idea of design issues, resting their case on the notion that a focus group discussion is simply an informal gathering of people where any “tool” that elicits a response is good and where design principles have no place.

Fortunately, there are researchers who have investigated the design implications of their research.  Jocelyn A. Hollander, a sociologist from the University of Oregon, is one such person.  Dr. Hollander published an article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography in 2004 titled, “The Social Contexts of Focus Groups” where she argues that the focus group environment presents a complex interaction of situations that shape the “truths” we hear from participants.  She goes on to say that participants do not harbor one single truth to a discussion topic but instead respond with only the truths that develop from the contexts (the complex group environment) the participant finds him/herself in.  These contexts can arise from demographics (e.g., the gender, age, and racial makeup of the group), associations (e.g., the relationship of group participants to one another), and conversation (e.g., the person who first responds to a moderator’s question).  These within-group contexts create demands on participants that ultimately impact the discussion outcome.  According to Dr. Hollander, group participants’ “responses are being shaped by the context, composition, and facilitation of the group” and that participants strategically select “the narratives from amongst the multiple possibilities to fit the perceived demand of the situation.”  So the moderator might ask, ‘What truth am I hearing now, or is it a truth at all?’

The impact of contexts and the idea of multiple truths paint the picture of focus group participants as not “uncomplicated information storage facilities” but rather “contradictory mosaics” deserving greater considerations in our qualitative designs and analyses.  Dr. Hollander asserts that we need “a more nuanced understanding of the contexts of focus groups” including more emphasis on the composition of our groups and a willingness to include a discussion of group dynamics – e.g., the order in which participants responded, the association of one group member to another – in our written reports.  By understanding and analyzing the “interactional forces” of the group situation, we can more clearly appreciate how our participants are sharing truths, withholding other truths, or manufacturing new truths for our (and their) benefit.

Within the current flood of discussions on techno-centric “innovations” in research design, this may be a good time for researchers to turn their efforts on finding the truth in their designs.

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