Focus groups for data collection – what’s the point?

Qualitative researchers spend a lot of time wondering ‘what does it mean’? We observe subjects and think about what is going on, and we analyse verbal data to interpret its meaning. Most people, when they are not sure of the meaning of a word, consult a dictionary. In preparation for the Focus Group workshop on October 2nd I decided to go back to my big old Websters dictionary to remind myself of what focus means. What is the point of all my rumination? Good point – since ‘point’ and ‘focus’ are strongly related. My dictionary suggests that ‘focus’ means (among other things) the point at which rays (or other phenomena) converge, or the point at which they (appear to) diverge. Converge and diverge, eh? That suggests that focus groups help us understand the convergence and divergence of ideas, amongst the members of the group, and more importantly how these occur.

Furthermore – focal length is the position in which something must be placed for clearness of image, - the point of concentration. The latter meaning is the one I think that springs to mind when we think about focus group interviews – that we ask the group to discuss a limited range of ideas which we wish to concentrate on. But it also means that the point of concentration is the group. If not, why not carry out individual interviews?

Most writers on focus groups indicate that they can be rewarding sources of qualitative data but are difficult to organise and moderate. Additional challenges include who to focus on? How to record the interactions between the focus group members?  Perhaps the most difficult challenge is how to analyse the data when the unit of analysis is the group.

But the rewards are great. The researcher can observe how consensus is reached or abandoned; how deviant ideas are suppressed or contested; how participants react to new ideas and even change their opinions and views during the group interview.

The researcher is reminded that qualitative interviews are not about eliciting facts, but about posing, confirming and refuting ideas about ‘facts’. In that way, focus group interviews seem more ‘natural’ and real than individual interviews.

How to overcome the challenges? I look forward to talking about that on October 2nd. Register today for the workshop.

Post by Dr Sue Nielsen