The Focus Group Method: Where It Came From & How It Is Used

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 109-110).

The focused interview approach used with individuals and groups as described by Merton and Kendall (1946) was never intended as a stand-alone research method. Rather, the purpose was to “test” certain hypotheses or assumptions that resulted from content analyses conducted on “a particular situation,” such as reactions to a radio program. In other words, group interviewing, from the early days of Merton, served the purpose of supporting quantitative research by affirming or denying theories derived from survey data, or generating new ideas and hypotheses that could be verified by further survey research. To this point, Merton emphasized that from the results of group discussions, “there is no way of knowing in advance of further quantitative research which plausible interpretations (hypotheses) will pan out and which will not” (Merton, 1987, p. 558).

Focus group discussions today are, to some degree, used in conjunction with quantitative research (as prescribed by Merton) and, indeed, are an effective method for exploring new ideas and informing the design of a survey questionnaire (e.g., in terms of subject matter and language) as well as evaluating and deepening the researcher’s understanding of the survey data. The work of O’Donnell, Lutfey, Marceau, and McKinlay (2007) on physician decision making is one example of how group discussions have been integrated with the research process to improve the quantitative component. Other examples come from Vogt, King, and King (2004), who conducted focus groups with Gulf War veterans concerning war-related stressors to aid in the development of their instrument to assess psychological status, and Alquati Bisol, Sperb, and Moreno-Black (2008), who conducted triads with deaf and hearing youth to assist in the development of a survey questionnaire concerning HIV/AIDS and sexual behavior.

Group discussions, however, are more often utilized as the sole qualitative method to investigate phenomena independently from quantitative research. In this respect group interviewing has been used for a broad range of topics or issues across the health care and social science disciplines. For example, Nicholas et al. (2010) conducted focus groups among children with chronic health problems to assess the viability of the face-to-face versus online mode for discussions with this target population, and Ferrell et al. (1997) conducted group discussions with survivors of breast cancer to understand their perspectives related to quality-of-life issues. Sociologists have used group discussions to study gender violence among teenagers (Aubert, Melgar, & Valls, 2011). Researchers in the education field have used focus groups to examine the experiences of racism among Black students in predominantly White universities (Harper et al., 2011). Communication researchers have studied the phenomenon of cyberbullying by way of group discussions with 10- to 18-year-olds (Vandebosch & Van Cleemput, 2008). And the marketing research industry utilizes group discussions extensively to research a variety of issues among consumer and business segments concerning products, services, web presence, and technology.

Focus group discussions with corporate employees are often underutilized yet can be an impactful and useful approach. Employee focus groups can address a number of corporate issues pertaining to communications, human resources, and customer service. Discussions with employees can also prove effective when a tragic or unfortunate event has occurred at the company; such as the time I conducted focus groups with employees to understand their thoughts, emotions, and communication needs after a shooting incident at their corporate headquarters.

Alquati Bisol, C., Sperb, T. M., & Moreno-Black, G. (2008). Focus groups with deaf and hearing youths in Brazil: Improving a questionnaire on sexual behavior and HIV/AIDS. Qualitative Health Research, 18(4), 565–578.

Aubert, A., Melgar, P., & Valls, R. (2011). Communicative daily life stories and focus groups: Proposals for overcoming gender violence among teenagers. Qualitative Inquiry, 17(3), 295–303.

Ferrell, B. R., Grant, M. M., Funk, B., Otis-Green, S., & Garcia, N. (1997). Quality of Life in Breast Cancer Survivors as Identified by Focus Groups. Psycho-Oncology, 6(1), 13–23.<13::AID-PON231>3.0.CO;2-S

Harper, S. R., Davis, R. J., Jones, D. E., McGowan, B. L., Ingram, T. N., & Platt, C. S. (2011). Race and racism in the experiences of Black male resident assistants at predominantly White universities. Journal of College Student Development, 52(2), 180–200.

Merton, R. K. (1987). The Focussed Interview and Focus Groups: Continuities and Discontinuities. Public Opinion Quarterly, 51(4), 550–566.

Merton, R. K., & Kendall, P. L. (1946). The focused interview. American Journal of Sociology, 51(6), 541–557.

Nicholas, D. B., Lach, L., King, G., Scott, M., Boydell, K., Sawatzky, B., … Young, N. L. (2010). Contrasting Internet and face-to-face focus groups for children with chronic health conditions : Outcomes and participant experiences. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 9(1), 105–122.

O’Donnell, A. B., Lutfey, K. E., Marceau, L. D., & McKinlay, J. B. (2007). Using focus groups to improve the validity of cross-national survey research: A study of physician decision making. Qualitative Health Research, 17(7), 971–981.

Vandebosch, H., & Van Cleemput, K. (2008). Defining cyberbullying: A qualitative research into the perceptions of youngsters. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(4), 499–503.

Vogt, D. S., King, D. W., & King, L. A. (2004). Focus groups in psychological assessment: Enhancing content validity by consulting members of the target population. Psychological Assessment, 16(3), 231–243.

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