Focus Groups

Individual Thinking in the Focus Group Method

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 Individualism in focus groupsamong 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 Reviewone 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.



Image captured from:

The Focus Group Method

In 2018, five articles were published pertaining to the focus group method. Two of these articles discuss the key differentiating attribute of focus groups, i.e., participant interaction and engagement, and the important role this attribute plays in the integrity of the research.

The interactive component of the focus group method also raises questions concerning mode, which is the subject of two other articles in this compilation. Specifically, these articles address the strengths and limitations of the in-person and online asynchronous focus group modes.

The fifth article in this paper discusses the concept of saturation in the context of determining the “right” number of focus groups to conduct for a particular study. Saturation has been discussed before in RDR, with the emphasis being on the idea that saturation alone is an inadequate measure by which to derive the number of events and, in fact, as a sole measure, saturation jeopardizes data quality, see “Designing a Quality In-depth Interview Study: How Many Interviews Are Enough?”

The focus group method has been discussed in RDR over the years, such as this article on mode differences, and this article (actually, slide show) on applying the Total Quality Framework to focus groups, and a discussion on the use of projective techniques, as well as an article on the many considerations in the design and implementation of the focus group method.

Limitations of In-person Focus Group Discussions

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 116-119).

The interactive, dynamic aspect of the focus group discussion method is its greatest potential strength as well as its greatest potential liability. This is especially the case in the face-to-face, in-person limitations of focus groupsmode where the close physical proximity of participants can unleash any number of factors that will threaten data quality if left unchecked.

One of the most important factors is the caliber of the discussion; specifically, the extent to which all participants have a fair chance of voicing their input. This is critical because the success of the group discussion method hinges on generating a true discussion where everyone present participates in a dialogue with the other group members and, to a lesser degree, with the moderator. A true participatory discussion, however, can be easily jeopardized in the social context of the in-person focus group (as well as the online synchronous discussion mode) because one or more participants either talk too much (i.e., dominate the discussion) or talk too little (i.e., are hesitant to express their views). In either case, the quality of the data will be compromised by the failure to capture the viewpoints of all participants, leading to erroneous interpretations of the outcomes.

The potentially negative impact that the face-to-face group interaction can have on data quality is an important consideration in qualitative research design, yet this impact—or, the effect of group interaction on the research—is often overlooked when conducting the analyses and reporting the outcomes. Researchers who have explored the role of interaction in focus group research include Grønkjær et al. (2011) and Moen, Antonov, Nilsson, and Ring (2010). Grønkjær et al. analyzed the “interactional events” in five focus groups they conducted with Danes on Read Full Text