Focus group interview
Focus group research is a qualitative research method. It seeks to gather information that is beyond the scope of quantitative research. The term “focus group” is often used to describe many types of group discussions. Focus group research, however, is a true research method. As such, it uses a fairly standard methodology. Focus group research involves organised discussion with a selected group of individuals to gain information about their views and experiences of a topic.
Focus group interviewing is particularly suited for obtaining several perspectives about the same topic. The benefits of focus group research include gaining insights into people’s shared understandings of everyday life and the ways in which individuals are influenced by others in a group situation. Problems arise when attempting to identify the individual view from the group view, as well as in the practical arrangements for conducting focus groups. The role of the moderator is very significant. Good levels of group leadership and interpersonal skill are required to moderate a group successfully.
There are many definitions of a focus group in the literature, but features like organised discussion (Kitzinger 1994), collective activity (Powell et al 1996), social events (Goss & Leinbach 1996) and interaction (Kitzinger 1995) identify the contribution that focus groups make to social research. Powell et al define a focus group as “A group of individuals selected and assembled by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the research”.
Focus groups are a form of group interviewing but it is important to distinguish between the two. Group interviewing involves interviewing a number of people at the same time, the emphasis being on questions and responses between the researcher and participants. Focus groups however rely on interaction within the group based on topics that are supplied by the researcher.
Hence the key characteristic which distinguishes focus groups is the insight and data produced by the interaction between participants.
The main purpose of focus group research is to draw upon respondents’ attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions in a way in which would not be feasible using other methods, for example observation, one-to-one interviewing, or questionnaire surveys. These attitudes, feelings and beliefs may be partially independent of a group or its social setting, but are more likely to be revealed via the social gathering and the interaction which being in a focus group entails. Compared to individual interviews, which aim to obtain individual attitudes, beliefs and feelings, focus groups elicit a multiplicity of views and emotional processes within a group context. The individual interview is easier for the researcher to control than a focus group in which participants may take the initiative. Compared to observation, a focus group enables the researcher to gain a larger amount of information in a shorter period of time. Observational methods tend to depend on waiting for things to happen, whereas the researcher follows an interview guide in a focus group. In this sense focus groups are not natural but organised events.
Focus groups are particularly useful when there are power differences between the participants and decision-makers or professionals, when the everyday use of language and culture of particular groups is of interest, and when one wants to explore the degree of consensus on a given topic (Morgan & Kreuger 1993).
The role of focus groups
Focus groups can be used at the preliminary or exploratory stages of a study (Kreuger 1988); during a study, perhaps to evaluate or develop a particular programme of activities (Race et al 1994); or after a programme has been completed, to assess its impact or to generate further avenues of research.
Focus groups can help to explore or generate hypotheses (Powell & Single 1996) and develop questions or concepts for questionnaires and interview guides (Hoppe et al 1995; Lankshear 1993). They are however limited in terms of their ability to generalise findings to a whole population, mainly because of the small numbers of people participating and the likelihood that the participants will not be a representative sample.