focus group discussions

“Did I Do Okay?”: The Case for the Participant Reflexive Journal

It is not unusual for an in-depth interview (IDI) or focus group participant to wonder at some point in an interview or discussion if the participant “did okay”; that is, whether the participant responded to the researcher’s questions in the Reflexivitymanner in which the researcher intended. For instance, an interviewer investigating parents’ healthy food purchases for their children might ask a mother to describe a typical shopping trip to the grocery store. In response, the mother might talk about the day of the week, the time of day, where she shops, and whether she is alone or with her children or someone else. After which she might ask the interviewer, Is that the kind of thing you were looking for? Is that what you mean? Did I do okay in answering your question? The interviewer’s follow up might be, Tell me something about the in-store experience such as the sections of the store you visit and the kinds of food items you typically buy.

It is one thing to misinterpret the intention of a researcher’s question – e.g., detailing the logistics of food purchasing rather than the actual food purchase experience – but another thing to adjust responses based on any number of factors influenced by the researcher-participant interaction. These interaction effects stem, in part, from the participant’s attempt to “do okay” in their role in the research process. Dr. Kathryn Roulston at the University of Georgia has written quite a bit about interaction in research interviews, including a just published edited volume Interactional Studies of Qualitative Research Interviews.

The dynamics that come into play in an IDI or focus group study – and in varying degrees, ethnographic research – are of great interest to qualitative researchers and important considerations in the overall quality of the research. This is the reason that a lot has been written about the researcher’s reflexive journal and its importance in Read Full Text

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.

Writing Ethics Into Your Qualitative Proposal

A qualitative research proposal is comprised of many pieces and parts that are necessary to convey the researcher’s justification for conducting the research, how the research will be conducted (including the strengths and limitations of the prTQF Proposaloposed approach), as well as what the sponsor of the research can expect in terms of deliverables, timing, and cost. The eight sections of the Total Quality Framework (TQF) proposal are discussed briefly in this 2015 post in Research Design Review. One of the sections in the TQF proposal is Design. This is where the researcher discusses the research method and mode along with Scope and Data Gathering (consistent with the TQF Credibility component), and analysis (including aspects of processing and verification as described by the TQF Analyzability component). Another important part to the Design section is a discussion of the ethical considerations associated with the proposed research.

Every research proposal for studying human beings must carefully consider the ethical ramifications of engaging individuals for research purposes, and this is particularly true in the relatively intimate, in-depth nature of qualitative research. It is incumbent on qualitative researchers to honestly assure research participants their confidentiality and right to privacy, safety from harm, and right to terminate their voluntary participation at any time with no untoward repercussions from doing so. The proposal should describe the procedures that will be taken to implement these assurances, including gaining informed consent, gaining approval from the relevant Institutional Review Board, and anonymizing participants’ names, places mentioned, and other potentially identifying information.

Special consideration should be given in the proposal to ethical matters when the proposed research (a) pertains to vulnerable populations such as children or the elderly; (b) concerns a marginalized segment of the population such as people with disabilities, same-sex couples, or the economically disadvantaged; (c) involves covert observation that will be conducted in association with an ethnographic study; or (d) is a narrative study in which the researcher may withhold the full true intent of the research in order not to stifle or bias participants’ telling of their stories.

Furthermore, the researcher should pay particular attention to ethical considerations when writing a proposal for a focus group study. The focus group method (regardless of mode) brings together (typically) a number of strangers who are often asked to offer their candid thoughts on personal and sensitive topics. For this reason (and other reasons, e.g., the moderator may be sharing confidential information with the participants), it is important to gain a signed consent form from all participants; however, the reality is that there is no way the researcher can totally guarantee confidentiality. These and other associated ethical considerations should be discussed in the Design section of the focus group proposal.