Accounting for Interactions in Focus Group Research

The RDR post on February 20, 2013 talked about focus group research and how it is anything but a “plain vanilla” research method in terms of design considerations.  kaleidoscopeTo illustrate, the post discussed the issue of group composition; specifically, the “homogeneity or heterogeneity the researcher wants represented by the group participants.”  Another important design consideration in face-to-face group discussions centers on the social context and especially the impact that participants’ interactions have on the discussion and, consequently, the research outcomes.  This is a pretty obvious facet of the focus group method yet, surprisingly, it is largely ignored in the analysis and reporting of group research. Researchers and non-researchers alike complain about the disruptive effect of “dominators” (outspoken group participants who assert their opinions without regard to others), the refusal of “passive” participants to speak their minds, and/or participants talking over each other (making it impossible to hear/follow the discussion) but focus group reports typically fail to discuss these interactions and the role they played in the final analysis.

The good news is that some researchers have given extensive thought to the interaction effect in focus group research and have promoted the idea that this effect needs to be a considered element in the study design.  One example is Lehoux, Poland, and Daudelin (2006) who have proposed a “template” by which qualitative researchers can think about, not only how group interaction impacts the group process but also, how participants’ interaction dictates the learning or knowledge the researcher takes away from the discussion.  The Lehoux, et al. template consists of specific questions the researcher should address during the analysis phase.  For instance, group-process questions include “What types of interactions occur among participants?”, “Which participants dominate the discussion?”, and “How does this affect the contribution of other participants?”  The knowledge-content questions ask things like “What do dominant and passive positions reveal about the topic at hand?” and “What types of knowledge claims are endorsed and/or challenged by participants?”

The credibility and ultimate usefulness of our focus group research depends on a thorough and honest appreciation for what goes on in the field.  The analysis and reporting of the “interactional events” that guided the discussions in our group research is the obligation of all researchers.  Otherwise, what really went on in our discussions is some kind of dirty little secret that leaves the users of our research – and the researchers themselves – blinded to the true outcomes.  Like a kaleidoscope, our understanding of what we “see” from our focus group research depends on how we account for the interactions taking place, and how each dominant and passive piece plays a role in creating the final effect.

4 comments

  1. Other than acknowledging that interaction effects exist and addressing them via group selection and noting them after the session, are you recommending any action by the moderator during the focus group? If you push the differences or emphasize commonalities, the moderator acts as an intervention and creates greater change in perceptions beyond what would happen naturally as part iof a group. I have sometimes asked individuals for feedback by paper during the session prior to the group discussion to help covary this interaction effect. Are you proposing any in session moderator action based on your observation about intersectional effects?

    1. The short answer is “no.” This post is just addressing the idea that participant interaction has a lot to do with the outcomes of our focus group research but is rarely given serious consideration in the analysis or reported in the final deliverables. It is an important yet missing piece of the research findings.

      The moderator, of course, plays a big role in these interactions. With or without saying a word (e.g., physical appearance), the moderator has an effect. As far as in-session intervention, the moderator walks a fine line between keeping the discussion on track (to satisfy research objectives) and letting the discussion flow organically. How the moderator does this will vary considerably depending on the topic, group structure, location, all kinds of factors. The moderator’s influence (explicitly through “actions” or implicitly) is another post, stay tuned.

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