Focus group discussions can be an effective method for learning about a range of attitudes and behavior associated with a particular topic. An important strength of this method is the diversity of perspectives to be gained as well as the associated verbal and nonverbal dynamic that ensues among group participants. It is this group interaction that defines the focus group discussion and makes it a valuable qualitative research method. Two earlier articles in Research Design Review – one from 2018 and another from 2013 – discuss group interaction and encourage researchers to hone their skills in fostering participant interaction as well as sharpen their analytical sensibilities of “interactive effects” and the implications of these effects in the interpretations and reporting of the outcomes.
This emphasis on group interaction may leave researchers wondering what, if any, role individual thinking plays in the focus group method. Yet each participant’s thinking about a topic or issue is critical to understanding focus group data. It is, after all, the reason researchers carefully screen and recruit group participants, i.e., to hear about experiences and attitudes that will vary from individual to individual.
This is also why moderators are trained on, not only how to engage participants in an interactive discussion but also, how to “draw out” and hear from each participant, especially the less social or more timid individual. At the end of the day, the moderator’s job is to come away with useful insights pertaining to the research questions that stem from the group interaction in conjunction with the moderator’s knowledge of the individual thinking gained from each person in the discussion.
There are two important moments in a focus group (either in-person or online) when the moderator can (and should) capture individual thinking. One of these moments is at the very start of the discussion and the other is at the end of the discussion. In both instances, the moderator asks participants to privately write (or type) their responses to a few questions specific to the subject matter without the influence from other participants’ discussion or comments. It is in this manner that the moderator comes to understand the individual thinking among the participants related to the topic which can then be effectively incorporated into the moderator’s conduct of the discussion while also adding important new information that might otherwise go undetected.
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