Focus Group Research Method


The Focus group research method has been widely perceived as a qualitative research methodology that seeks to address questions or collect information that necessitates deep understanding and those that other qualitative methods cannot achieve. As Glitz (1997) suggests, the method involves asking a group of people about their feelings, viewpoint, beliefs, ideas, and opinions towards the concerned research topic. These questions are presented in a setting in which the group interacts and all participants can discuss freely. Focus groups are somewhat similar to individual or group interviews though the distinctive feature is the group interaction.

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“The extensive utilization of group interaction as a source of information that would not be achieved without interaction is the seal of focus group method” (Fischer, 2005). It is a true research method as it employs a fairly standard methodology. It is an appropriate method of generating ideas for new initiatives and persists to be even more efficient when compared to individual interviews. The method is particularly useful when participants’ cohesion is deemed important in the research (Parker & Tritter, 2006). Its purpose is to collect background information, identify issues, stimulate new ideas, develop a hypothesis, evaluate programs and interpret quantitative results (Breen, 2006).

Background information

Focus group methodology is appropriate to use when collecting background information or general information about a particular topic of research. It is suitable when a researcher lacks any knowledge about what the population thinks of a particular area of research. Such a situation is common when there are no links to other prior researches. Sometimes, the researcher may have some knowledge and wishes to decide on the most relevant or appropriate knowledge to assist in decision making.

Intentional bias

Information from focus group studies is usually biased due to bandwagon effects associated with group discussions. This is not good for researchers who devote their efforts to making sure that responses are free from bias. However, there are situations in which research is based on intentional bias. For instance, the researcher may be aiming at reflecting the bias of a certain product sold in the market. In such a situation, a focus group is regarded as the most appropriate method to use on the targeted population.

Case versus base

As people will probably draw fake generalizations from comprehensive examples, focus group results should be considered as the starting point for any further research. The method is best for developing ideas and insights that can be confirmed through other approaches such as surveys and interviews (Fern, 1982). A Focus group should not be employed as an implementation technique since it might offer a means of claiming due to allied business.

Strengths and weaknesses

Focus Groups Strengths

The strength of the focus group research method depends on the research question as well as the thoroughness with which the technique is applied. A well-prepared methodology will provide concentrated quantities of rich information on the research topic derived from participants’ expressions.

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Group interactions contribute to the richness of information that would not be achieved from individual interviews. Discussions among members lead to the generation of information and insights typically missed in non-interactive methods while paying attention to the revealed experiences, exciting memories as well as ideas in members. Lindlof and Taylor (2002) explain how the group effect enables participants to trace the track through which the ensuing ideas flow topic after topic.

Ideally, focus group methodology offers an opportunity to the group members to disclose importance in contexts where they are validated. For example, if some employees are targets for discrimination in the workplace, they may find it difficult to voice their grievances. Nevertheless, using a focus group to study such situations proffers the potentiality to collect reliable information. This method, therefore, provides important information in the creation of the hypothesis of quantitative data.

Focus Groups Weaknesses

The Focus group research technique is not the best method for all researches as evidenced by the weaknesses associated with it. The method tends to be influenced by several limited dominant figures in the group hence making the results to be biased. The researcher should not, therefore, generalize the results to the wider population from which the group is selected considering that the participants are volunteers who could be more sociable and extroverted than the average person.

Subject conformity is a problem with focus groups. Social desirability or participants’ motivation to give socially acceptable answers to match with group norms is usually higher in a group than in other methods of research. Free discussions will always astray the desired focus of the research topic as participants become more involved. Rushkoff (2005: cited in Bruns & Jacobs, 2006) laments how the method becomes useless as focus group members aim to please others or the moderator misses the chance to present their own opinions.

Specific features

Insights not rules

Unlike surveys, focus groups do not generalize, meaning that predictions about the occurrence of an incident cannot be made from a small sample of responses. The method provides more surprises when compared to other methods of research. Participants in focus groups are not restricted to any choices provided by the researcher. They have the freedom to say anything they would like during the sessions. Therefore, focus groups are considered to be natural in that sense (Krueger & Casey, 2000). Conclusions are drawn from the content of discussions of the group, emotions, contradictions, ironies, and tensions of individual participants. This allows the researcher to confirm the facts as well as the meaning of those facts. For this reason, the focus group method grants reliable naturalistic data which leads to imperative insights into the behavior of human beings.

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Social and not individual

A Focus group appears like a sort of group interview which must involve several participants. The necessary group interaction makes it a social and semi-public method in nature. This shapes the information collected and the purpose to which it will serve. During group sessions, conversations, or discussions among the group members bring out information that represents the combined viewpoints of the members. The researcher can identify relationships that exist between different perspectives. Thus, the method is not trustworthy to determine a genuine perspective of an individual. As Krueger and Casey (2000) assert, focus group methodology is associated with a noisy social environment that is not appropriate for determining the knowledge content of an individual.

Homogeneous, not diverse

In developing programs to bring out as many perspectives as possible, researchers who employ focus group methodology usually select a small group of people of about 20-25 members with the same characteristics per session. This ensures that the quality of data is not decreased by variations in characteristics of individual members. Multiple sessions are conducted to get views from a wider population.

Flexible, not standardized

The interactive nature of focus groups may result in members deviating from the research topic and researchers trying to balance the needs of the group members to express themselves and the importance of staying focused. Morgan (1998) claims that one way to achieve this is to design an interview guide that will help the participants to relax, open up, comprehend, and reflect on alternatives.

Warm not hot

Focus group methodology applies to research topics that are not sensitive and personal since many people will avoid such issues being presented in public. Otherwise, the method will not produce reliable data.

Words not numbers

Unlike surveys, the analytical stage in focus group methodology depends on the words spoken by the group members. Reporting is however a matter of analyzing the patterns formed by words through appropriate methods other than numerical analysis.

Links with supplementary research methods

Focus group methodology is linked to further research methods given that some features are shared though not interchangeable. All qualitative research approaches are similar in that they illuminate local views in great detail. Methods like personal interviews provide similar information to focus groups but from an individual. Conversely, ethnography collects information for a longer duration yet from individuals as well as groups. In addition, most research methods share control of research experience with all participants. Participatory action research and focus group research has vigorous control over personal interviews and ethnography.

List of References

  1. Barbara, V. (1993). Undergraduate Research Behavior: Using Focus Groups to Generate Theory. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 19 (5): 300-304.
  2. Canning, C. S., Edwards, A. J. & Meadows, S. E. (1995). Using focus group to evaluate library services in a problem-based curriculum. Medical Reference Service, 143 (3): 75-81.
  3. Connaway, L. S., Johnson, D. W. & Searing, S. E. (1997). Online catalogs from the users’ perspective: the use of focus group interviews. College and Research Libraries, 58 (5): 403-420.
  4. Crowley, G. H., Leffel, R., Ramirez, D., Hart, J. L. & Armstrong, T. S. (2002). User perceptions of the library’s web pages: a focus group study at Texas A&M University. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28 (4): 205-210.
  5. Fagerheim, B. A. & Weingart, S. J. (2005). Using focus groups to assess student needs. Library Review, 54 (9): 524-530.
  6. Higa-Moore, M. L, Bunnett, B., Mayo, H. G. & Olney, C. A. (2002). Use of focus groups in a library’s strategic planning process. Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA), 90 (1): 86-92.
  7. Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42 (5): 361-377.
  8. Veldof, J. R., Prasse, M. J. & Mills, V. (1999). Chauffeured by the User: Usability in the Electronic Library. Journal of Library Administration, 26 (3/4): 115-140.
  9. Young, N. & Seggern, M. (2001). General Information Seeking in Changing Times: A Focus Group Study. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 41: 159-68.
  10. Yu, L. & Ann, A. (2000). Studying E-Journal User Behavior Using Log Files: The Experience of Super Journal. Library & Informa­tion Science Research, 22 (3): 311-338.
  11. Breen, R. L. (2006). A practical guide to focus group research. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30 (3): 463-475.
  12. Bruns, A. & Jacobs, J. (2006). Uses of blogs. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  13. Fern, E. F. (1982). The use of focus group for idea generation: the effect of group size, acquaintanceship and moderator on response quantity and quality. Journal of Marketing Research, 19 (1): 1-13.
  14. Fischer, C. T. (2005). Qualitative research methods for psychologists: introduction through empirical studies. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.
  15. Glitz, B. (1997). The focus group technique in library research: an introduction. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 85 (4): 385-390.
  16. Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
  17. Morgan, D. L. (1998). The focus group guidebook. Thousands Oaks, California: Sage.
  18. Parker, A. & Tritter, J. (2006). Focus group method and methodology: current practice and recent debate. International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 29 (1): 23-37.
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