focus group discussions

Focus Group Dynamics & Quality Outcomes

Focus group dynamics

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, the ability of the moderator to multitask has important implications to the quality of focus group discussion data. For example, to gather quality data, the moderator must maintain concentration on the research objectives while also following up on new and/or contrary ideas as they emerge from discussion participants. The quality of research outcomes also demands that, in a multi-group study, the moderator consistently cover all the key topic areas of the discussion guide across all groups while also contending with the unpredictability of group dynamics as defined by each group of participants.

Group dynamics can lead a discussion in any number of unexpected directions. Here are just a couple:

  • Group Think
    • For whatever reason, participants appear to be in agreement on one or more topics. The moderator can
      • Look for inconsistencies by assessing whether one or more participants are contradicting earlier comments and, if so, ask about it.
      • Paraphrase what is being said and ask participants to clarify their basis for agreement.
      • Play devil’s advocate
        • “I have heard the opposite from other users of this product. Help me understand how this group thinks differently.”
  • Stray From the Guide
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are relevant but earlier than intended per the discussion guide. The moderator can
      • Ask participants’ permission to discuss the topic at a later time.
      • Choose to discuss the topic at that moment in time (if not too disruptive to the flow of discussion).
    • Participants may bring up topic areas that are not relevant to the research. The moderator might say
      • “Thank you for bringing this up. This may be something for us to consider for future discussions.”

An important component of these and other forms of group dynamics is participants’ behavior. For instance, one or more participants in a focus group may

  • Dominate the discussion preventing others from contributing. The moderator can
    • Make it clear in the introduction that it is important to hear from everyone.
    • Let the participant speak before interjecting, “Thank you for that comment. Let’s hear from someone else. Sally, what do you think about the current climate crisis?” or “Thank you. Any reactions to David’s comment?” 
  • Be argumentative or hostile, has “an axe to grind.” The moderator can
    • Be sure participants understand the purpose of the research & how the discussion will be conducted.
    • Let the participant vent. Listen politely and then, “Susan, I hear you. Thank you for your comments. But we need to move on with today’s discussion. Can you and I talk afterwards about your concerns?”
    • Take the opportunity to use the participant’s comments to start a new discussion – “Jack, you make a good point…”
  • Be shy, quiet and doesn’t make eye contact. The moderator can
    • Make a special effort during introductions to engage the participant via active listening techniques.
    • “Back off” from the shy participant until sufficient rapport has been established and then attempt to engage the participant – “John, what do you think about the idea of adding solar panels to your home?”
    • Be considerate and, if the participant does not want to contribute to the discussion, do not risk angering or upsetting the participant.
  • Enter into side conversations or be distracted. The moderator can
    • Call for a “time out” whereby the discussion is briefly stopped and the conversation/distraction is resolved.

Focus Group Data Analysis: Accounting for Participant Interaction

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 153-154).

The complexity of the substantive data resulting from the focus group discussion method is no small matter. For one thing, more and richer data sources typically stem from focus group research compared to the in-depth interview (IDI) method. Video recording, for instance, is more Focus group interaction analysiscommon in the in-person focus group method and requires special attention because it may include important nonverbal information beyond the substance of the words that were spoken. For example, the participants’ facial expressions may provide valuable insights in addition to what is manifest by the spoken words themselves.

A more profound contributor to the complexity of processing group discussion research is not a data source but a component that is the essence of the method: that is, the interactivity of the group participants. It is participant interaction that sets this method apart from the one-on-one IDI approach. From the perspective of the Total Quality Framework, complete and accurate analyses and interpretations of group discussions are achieved by expending the necessary time and effort to consider the group members’ interactions with each other and with the moderator.

Whether it is by way of video or transcriptions of the discussions, the dynamic interaction fostered by the group environment has the potential of offering the analyst views of the research outcomes that go beyond what is learned from the process of developing codes and identifying themes. Grønkjær et al. (2011) talk about analyzing “sequences of interactions” (e.g., “adjacency pairs,” a comment
from one participant followed by a response from another participant), stating that the analysis “revealed a variety of events that impacted on content” (p. 27). Other suggested means of studying group interaction include the template from Lehoux et al. (2006), discussed in “Accounting for Interactions in Focus Group Research”; asking relevant questions during the analysis, such as, “How did the group resolve disagreements?” (Stevens, 1996, p. 172); and, as espoused by Duggleby (2005) and complementing the work of Morrison-Beedy, Côté-Arsenault, and Feinstein (2001), the integration of participants’ interactions into the written transcripts, for example, incorporating both verbal and nonverbal behavior that more fully explains how participants reacted to each other’s and the moderator’s comments.

Whereas online discussions produce their own transcripts (i.e., the text is captured by way of the online platform), the in-person and telephone modes require one or more transcriptionists to commit the discussions to text. Roller and Lavrakas (2015, p. 35) discuss the necessary qualities of transcriptionists and the importance of embracing them as members of the research team. In addition to the six required characteristics outlined by Roller & Lavrakas, the transcriptionist in the group discussion method must be particularly attentive to the dynamics and interactivity of the discussion. To accomplish this complete task, the requirements of the transcriptionist need to go beyond their knowledge of the subject matter and extend to their know-how of the focus group method. Ideally, the person transcribing the discussions will be someone who has at least some experience as a moderator and can readily isolate interaction among participants and communicate, by way of the transcripts, what the interaction is and how it may have shifted the conversation. For example, a qualified transcriptionist would include any audible (or visual, if working from a video recording) cues from the group participants (e.g., sighs of exasperation or expressions of acceptance or agreement) that would provide the researcher with a clearer understanding of the dynamic environment than simply the words that were spoken.

Duggleby, W. (2005). What about focus group interaction data? Qualitative Health Research, 15(6), 832–840.

Grønkjær, M., Curtis, T., de Crespigny, C., & Delmar, C. (2011). Analysing group interaction in focus group research: Impact on content and the role of the moderator. Qualitative Studies, 2(1), 16–30.

Lehoux, P., Poland, B., & Daudelin, G. (2006). Focus group research and “the patient’s view.” Social Science & Medicine, 63(8), 2091–2104. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.05.016

Morrison-Beedy, D., Côté-Arsenault, D., & Feinstein, N. F. (2001). Maximizing results with focus groups: Moderator and analysis issues. Applied Nursing Research, 14(1), 48–53. https://doi.org/10.1053/apnr.2001.21081

Roller, M. R., & Lavrakas, P. J. (2015). Applied qualitative research design: A total quality framework approach. New York: Guilford Press.

Stevens, P. E. (1996). Focus groups: Collecting aggregate-level data to understand community health phenomena. Public Health Nursing, 13(3), 170–176. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8677232

 

The Skilled Focus Group Moderator & the Ability to Multitask

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 143-147).

MultitaskingThe importance of consistency (or, the danger of inconsistency) in qualitative data collection has been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review (see “The Recipe for Quality Outcomes in Qualitative Research Includes a Healthy Dose of Consistency” and “Mitigating Researcher-as-instrument Effects”). From the perspective of the Total Quality Framework, moderator inconsistency can be a real concern in the focus group method because of the extreme multitasking required of the moderator. More so than in the in-depth interview method, the focus group moderator has to manage multiple points of view and ensure the full engagement of all group participants within a well-defined slot of time (typically, 75–120 minutes depending on the mode). Because of these challenges and the inherent unpredictability of the group dynamic process, the moderator may find it difficult (if not impossible) to cover all areas of the discussion guide across different focus groups and/or practice consistent behavior in the articulation of research questions in each group. This inconsistency across groups does not necessarily lead to inaccuracy in the research data (i.e., biased outcomes) but may result in variations in the data that do not actually exist.

For example, a series of focus group discussions among people who are active in environmental causes might include some groups that were easily managed by the moderator, who was able to cover the entirety of the discussion guide, thereby providing a well Read Full Text