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
“The Focus Group Method: 18 Articles on Design & Moderating” is a new compilation that includes a selection of articles appearing in Research Design Review from 2010 to early 2020 concerning the focus group method. There are certainly many other articles in RDR that are relevant to the focus group method — such as those having to do with visual cues, e.g., Visual Cues & Bias in Qualitative Research, and analysis, e.g., Exploring the True Colors in Qualitative Data, and multiple methods, e.g., Working with Multiple Methods in Qualitative Research — however, the 18 selected articles were chosen for their specific application to the focus group method. It is hoped that this brief text will be useful to the student, the teacher, and the researcher who is interested in furthering their consideration of a quality approach to designing and conducting focus group discussions.
“The Focus Group Method: 18 Articles on Design & Moderating is available for download here.
A similar compilation devoted to the in-depth interview method may be downloaded here.