Focus Group

Focus Groups [or grouped depth interviews] can provide a qualitative supplement to surveys, and are often used as a preliminary step in developing a survey, especially if there is not time or resources to do participant observation or fieldwork. Sociologist Robert Merton who was asked by Columbia University to evaluate the response of people to some radio programs in the 1940s, pioneered the concept. 

Within sociology, focus groups were not a widely used methodology until the 1990s. Instead, focus groups first became widely used in marketing to explore consumers' reactions to products or by clients such as city governments to assess potential reactions to proposed changes. However, that began to change in sociology as postmodern thought began to question the positivist types of traditional research such as the quantitative research required by survey research. Some rightly claimed that the major journals in the field were limiting themselves to publishing only research with a very statistical approach. These critics were correct, in part, and it was useful to raise consciousness to the vast variety of types of research that we can do. In addition to postmodernists questioning “how do we know” there was a rise of feminist and other minority scholars who rightly claimed that random studies overlooked or eliminated the “VOICES” of the marginalized. So, as these dissatisfactions emerged there was a process of reexamining methods, which had not been part of the mainstream for a while.  Focus groups “fit the bill”

Ester Madriz used focus groups because she saw them as a particularly effective methodology for women, especially the Latina immigrants she interviewed about their fears of crime [Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls 1998].  Her reasons include

1) You can interview several people at once.

2.) A rich amount of data is expressed in participants’ own voices versus a survey.

3) The group dynamic stimulates a free flow of ideas to bring up areas of a subject the researcher may not have thought about.

4) While the researcher organized questions into a discussion guide the researcher’s views are less strongly imposed on subjects than with only survey.

5) It is not as intimidating for marginalized people who may feel anxious or fearful about filling out a survey.

6) Collective testimony allowing participants to share experiences with others from a similar background. This can help some deal with their problems e.g. fear of crime.

So focus groups are currently used to explore new topics and provide background as a preliminary topic for more randomized research or a through field study, or to confirm results of past studies. They can also be used in sociology to allow members of a target population (e.g.RAB members) help a researcher develop a better questionnaire and sometimes to interpret data. The group setting in which participants discuss feelings and beliefs about the topic at hand offers a dynamic environment to probe respondents’ perspectives and to test the researcher's understanding of issues.  The chance for participants to interact helps bring out unique sources of information and furthermore gives the researcher a check on the validity of an opinion when several people express it, rather than relying on one informant. It can reveal potential problems in research plans and point the researcher in a new direction.

Focus Groups: RETUrN

© Professor Phylis Cancilla Martinelli