Limitations of the Focus Group Method: An Overview

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 112-113).

Limitations

The interactive, dynamic nature of group discussions (see “Strengths of the Focus Group Method: An Overview”) may also present a potential limitation to the method. The exchange of information and ideas may have the focus group limitationspositive effect of eliciting new insights, but it may also have the damaging effect of unwittingly influencing responses from participants who are reluctant to voice dissenting opinions and just want to go along with the prevailing mood. Although a professional moderator can often identify the more introverted or shy participants in a group and use rapport-building techniques to encourage their candidness, these attempts are not always successful and the research outcomes may reflect more agreement on an issue than is actually warranted. Whether the nonexistence of differing attitudes among group participants is due to the reluctance of people to speak their minds or an honest reflection of personal points of view, some researchers can easily fall into the trap of believing that this lack of opposing attitudes is the same as a group consensus. As stated by Sim (1998, p. 348), “the absence of diversity in the data does not reliably indicate an underlying consensus” but is rather a possible product of the group environment, which may mask individual opinions.

Alongside the potential downside of group dynamics is the critical role of the moderator. Professional moderators trained in the complexities of group interviewing are essential to the success of the group discussion method. Although competent researchers are important to all qualitative methods, weak or not-fully-trained moderators pose a particular limitation to the focus group method where a myriad of factors can sway the outcomes one way or the other. The moderator not only has to deal with group dynamics, individual personalities, possible disruptive behavior, and potential runaway dialogue, but must also have the ability to (a) spark conversation as needed; (b) exude a firm but gentle authority over the group with a relaxed, personable style; and (c) minimize potential bias from the influence of domineering participants and/or peripheral aspects, such as observers and audiovisual equipment in face-to-face discussions.

An additional limitation (or, at least, a real challenge) to the group discussion method involves ethical considerations, particularly the issue of guaranteeing confidentiality to the participants. There are many people involved in a focus group study, all of whom will be privy to the research subject matter as well as the comments made by individual members of the group. The research topic may be a guarded secret (e.g., a pharmaceutical company’s new product concept) or, at the least, not for public knowledge (e.g., proposed policy changes to the county schools’ education program for gifted children), yet all the relevant information is necessarily disclosed to everyone involved with the research: group participants, observers, recruiters, as well as facility personnel and audiovisual operators (as needed for face-to-face discussions). Likewise, participants are encouraged to be candid and may be asked to reveal personal or otherwise sensitive information, which they can be expected to provide only if they feel safe in the discussion environment. A signed consent form—stipulating the purpose, process, risks/benefits of the research, as well as the confidentiality of all participant information (or not, e.g., if a video recording of the discussion will be used in the final presentation) and the option to withdraw from the study at any time—from all group participants is important; however, the reality is that there is no way the researcher can totally guarantee confidentiality.

Sim, J. (1998). Collecting and analysing qualitative data: Issues raised by the focus group. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(2), 345–352. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9725732

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