The 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
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 positive 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 Read Full Text
The unique advantage of the group discussion method is clearly the participant interaction and what it adds to (goes beyond) what might be learned from a series of in-depth interviews (IDIs). When conducted to achieve its full potential, the back-and-forth dialogue among the participants benefits the researcher (and the quality of the data) in several important respects:
A dynamic group discussion will often stimulate spontaneous ideas and personal disclosures that might otherwise go unstated in an IDI.
A relaxed, interactive, as well as a supportive (e.g., homogeneous) group environment can be conducive to discussing sensitive topics (e.g., a discussion of the immigration process among recent Chinese immigrants to the United States).
As participants exchange opinions, they consider their own views in relation to others’—which may encourage participants to refine their thoughts. In this way the group interaction gives the researcher insight into how people think about the topic(s) being studied and on what basis opinions may change. For example, in a focus group with college students who are considering various study-abroad programs, some participants might change their criteria for selecting one program over another after hearing other participants’ considerations. This discussion would help the researcher identify the important aspects of study-abroad programs that may impact students’ decision making.
Participant interaction, or the social aspect of focus group discussions, can be a particularly important advantage when conducting research with vulnerable and underserved population segments. For instance, women’s studies researchers such as Wilkinson (1999) believe that focus groups offer feminist psychologists an important research approach over other psychological research Read Full Text