The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 111-112).
The unique advantage of the group discussion method is clearly the participant interaction and what it adds to (goes beyond) what might be learned from a series of in-depth interviews (IDIs). When conducted to achieve its full potential, the back-and-forth dialogue among the participants benefits the researcher (and the quality of the data) in several important respects:
- A dynamic group discussion will often stimulate spontaneous ideas and personal disclosures that might otherwise go unstated in an IDI.
- A relaxed, interactive, as well as a supportive (e.g., homogeneous) group environment can be conducive to discussing sensitive topics (e.g., a discussion of the immigration process among recent Chinese immigrants to the United States).
- As participants exchange opinions, they consider their own views in relation to others’—which may encourage participants to refine their thoughts. In this way the group interaction gives the researcher insight into how people think about the topic(s) being studied and on what basis opinions may change. For example, in a focus group with college students who are considering various study-abroad programs, some participants might change their criteria for selecting one program over another after hearing other participants’ considerations. This discussion would help the researcher identify the important aspects of study-abroad programs that may impact students’ decision making.
Participant interaction, or the social aspect of focus group discussions, can be a particularly important advantage when conducting research with vulnerable and underserved population segments. For instance, women’s studies researchers such as Wilkinson (1999) believe that focus groups offer feminist psychologists an important research approach over other psychological research methods because they (a) come “closer to everyday social processes” (p. 227) and are less “artificial” than other methods; (b) are highly interactive, which “produces insights that would not be available outside the group context” (p. 229); and (c) reduce the moderator’s “exploitation” of the research by shifting control of the discussion to the participants. Other researchers have found the social nature of focus group discussions to be conducive to investigating societal constraints and health needs among Emirati women (Bailey, 2012; Winslow, Honein, & Elzubeir, 2002).
There are two other important strengths of the group discussion method: (1) it allows for the presence of observers, especially in the face-to-face (in-person and sometimes video) mode; and (2) it increases the likelihood that a wide range of attitudes, knowledge, and experiences will be captured in one group session. Whereas most qualitative research methods can conceivably accommodate observers, observers tend to take on a particularly engaged and active role in group interviewing. Face-to-face focus groups are traditionally conducted at a facility equipped with a one-way mirror (and online video group platforms also offer a client backroom), behind which members of the research team can view and hear the discussions. (Note: Group participants are informed of the presence of observers prior to the discussion.) Viewers often include people affiliated with the research sponsor who have a vested interest in learning firsthand about the attitudes and behavior of members of the target population. In addition to gaining clarity on participants’ wants and needs, observers can be helpful in redirecting the discussion on the spot, if necessary, when participants make unanticipated comments that introduce a new way of thinking about the research topic. In these situations, it is important to be able to change course in the research or otherwise pursue new lines of questioning as unanticipated insights emerge from the discussions.
The range of opinions and behavior that can be represented in any one focus group is another important strength of the method because such a range is a factor in finding the “surprising insights” mentioned above. Even the most homogeneous group of participants will relate different experiences and thoughts, thereby giving the researcher an awareness and appreciation of the extent of divergent views on a particular issue. Unlike the IDI method that requires many separate interviews to uncover the spectrum of perspectives related to the subject matter, group discussions offer a time- and often cost-efficient method for revealing differing viewpoints.
Bailey, D. C. (2012). Women and Wasta: The use of focus groups for understanding social capital and Middle Eastern women. Retrieved from The Qualitative Report website: http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR17/bailey.pdf
Wilkinson, S. (1999). Focus groups: A feminist method. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23(2), 221–244.
Winslow, W. W., Honein, G., & Elzubeir, M. A. (2002). Seeking Emirati women’s voices: The use of focus groups with an Arab population. Qualitative Health Research, 12(4), 566–575. https://doi.org/10.1177/104973202129119991