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4: Selecting Focus Groups as a Method

4: Selecting Focus Groups as a Method

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of milk on the way home from work might be an example.
Effects at the deep level, however, strike at the core of an
individual’s life. They have a strong hold over us as individuals and affect how we behave, think, and understand
things. Acceptance of our sexuality, self-hate, grief, and other
deep-rooted epiphanies serve to illustrate deep-level life
structures. Focus groups, in some cases, provide avenues to
understand a variety of deep structural elements.

5.5: Selecting Groups

Identify the challenges of assigning subjects to
different groups according to conceptual categories

Most researchers who use focus group techniques
acknowledge that group influences can distort individual
opinion. Some opinions may be more extreme and some
may be less verbalized than others because of the group
effects (Sussman et al., 1991). Having some idea about
how individuals thought about certain topics before the
group sessions start allows the investigator to gauge this
group effect. This is not to say that material obtained during the group session is false. Quite the contrary; the opinions voiced during the session, even those that contradict
pregroup questionnaires, merely demonstrate the impact
of group dynamics. Additional information, confirmation
or refutation of beliefs, arguments, discussion, and solutions heard during the group session shape participants’
thinking. What results is a collective understanding about
issues discussed by the group. If only for that reason,
selecting and recruiting your group participants has all of
the normal challenges of sampling, and more.
When you design a focus group interview study,
your plans for participant selection must be undertaken
very carefully. Even among marketing researchers, care
is required to create samples that include subjects with
necessary product user characteristics (Tynan & Dryton,
1989). For the more traditional social sciences, one should
begin using standard strategies for sampling to create a
theoretically and experientially appropriate sample pool.
From this pool, the smaller focus groups may be formed.

Focus Group Interviewing 101

For example, let us say you are interested in studying some aspects of the lives of incarcerated women.
Perhaps, you want to know how these women perceive
their family role as mother, even though they are separated from their children (Moloney, 1997). In most states,
there are few women’s correctional facilities, often only
one or two for the entire state. Thus, you easily can begin
with a census sample2 of women in prison to form the initial pool. Next, you might stratify this group into those
who have children currently of juvenile status (under the
age of juvenile jurisdiction) and those who do not. Using
the group with children, you might now have a sample
of 50 or 60 women. Assuming no rejections, you could
randomly assign women in this group to five or six focus
groups and conduct sessions in a fairly brief amount
of time.
Of course, when your question requires such a particular background, your options for finding subjects are
highly constrained. But what if you want to research a
question with a broader applicability? For example, we
might want to study something about attitudes toward
the criminal justice policies that directly impact incarcerated mothers. In that case, we would want a sample pool
of people who are not incarcerated, and possibly only
those who never have been. This raises a number of further questions about who should be included or excluded
to represent the study population. Should we include
those who have friends or family in prison or not? Should
we separate the men and women into different groups?
Should parents and nonparents be interviewed separately?
These are questions of research design. For purposes of
assembling an appropriate study group, we are guided
by two overall decisions: what identifiable factors might
shape a subjects’ participation in the discussion; and when
do these factors have to be held constant within a group?
Figure 5.1 demonstrates how participants may be recruited
into a study through relevant characteristics or experiences, and then stratified into different groups for a more
focused discussion among subgroups.
You can develop focus groups using other strategies
to create the initial sample pool. This is particularly true

Figure 5.1 Berg Sampling Strategy
(under 45)

(over 45)

(under 45)

(over 45)

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if you are using focus group interviews as an additional
line of action in a triangulated project. For example,
when Karen Ryan and colleagues set out to explore why
there were apparent “shortcomings… in the provision of
palliative care for people with intellectual disabilities,”
they designed a mixed method approach combining
focus groups with surveys. They further triangulated
their research by targeting two groups of research subjects, health service workers who attend to those with
intellectual disabilities, and palliative care staff. Using
surveys, the researchers asked subjects from each group
to quantitatively rate their levels of experience, confidence, interest, and ability to manage the pain relief
and comfort needs of terminal patients with intellectual
disabilities. The surveys indicated that both groups of
care providers were generally willing to provide the
necessary services, but felt that they lacked training and
experience to do so for this patient group. The researchers additionally organized 16 focus groups in which
each group of participants were from one or the other
of the target subject pools. In this way, they were able
to explore the meanings, concerns, and experiences of
a mixed study sample that closely matched the survey
respondent groups. The separate groups raised different,
but compatible issues, yielding useful recommendations
for caregivers.

5.5.1: Virtual Groups
When focus groups are administered properly, there are
extremely dynamic interactions among and between
group members that can stimulate discussions. Much of
the data occurs when one group member reacts to comments made by another. This group dynamism has been
described as a “synergistic group effect” (Stewart et al.,
2006; Sussman et al., 1991). The resulting synergy allows
one participant to draw from another or to brainstorm
collectively with other members of the group. Indeed,
it is this group energy that distinguishes focus group
interviews from individual interviewing approaches. The
composition of the group is an extremely important factor in the quality of the research. So, too, is the format of
the group. The researcher has options concerning how
the group can be assembled, and how they communicate
with one another.
Today, marketing researchers, particularly including
political campaign researchers, have expanded their focus
group strategies to harness the power of the Web via the
virtual focus group. Social scientists have also begun using
this method to create groups that would not be possible
if everyone had to meet in a room (Bloor & Wood, 2006;
Nucifora, 2000; Whiting, 2001).
For example, Adler and Zarchin (2002) used a virtual
focus group strategy to identify a purposive sample of

women who were on home bed rest for treatment of preterm labor. The investigators used e-mail to unite spatially
and temporally separate participants in a text-based group
discussion. This strategy provided a means for exploring the
lived experiences of these women along the lines of the effect
of bed rest on participants’ including their transition into bed
rest, loss of control and activities, changes in their identities
and roles, coping and personal growth, transition off bed
rest, and the effects of bed rest on relationships with others.
Online focus groups, like e-interviews (discussed in
Chapter 4), can be conducted in one of two ways: synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous sessions refer to sessions that are live. In other words, all participants take part at
the same time. They can use a chat room or online conferencing program. Asynchronous sessions typically use e-mail, a
Listserv, online discussion board, or mailing lists. The participants can read others’ comments and contribute comments themselves at any time, not necessarily when anyone
else is participating (Adler & Zarchin, 2002; Rezabek, 2000).
Asynchronous groups lack much of the group dynamic
that typically characterizes focus group research, but it does
allow participants time to think about their responses to the
discussion, and to say as much as they want on the subject
without fear of interruption or intimidation.
As of this writing, researchers are combining qualities
of both synchronous and asynchronous groups through
group texting discussions via smartphones. All participants can potentially receive one another’s comments as
soon as they are posted, while all are also free to reply
either in the moment or at a later time. We do not yet have
enough published research from this approach to evaluate
its strengths or limitations.
Another variation to the online focus group is what
has come to be known as the time-extended focus group
(see, e.g., Osiatynski & Wallace, 2005; Wrenn, Stevens,
& Loudon, 2002). This style of focus group uses online
communications technology, usually in a message board
format, where questions can be posted and responded to
either privately or for all to see; in a threaded message
style, where questions can be asked and answered and all
connected can view them; or even in a wiki community
writing format, where focus group members can see questions and answers and can even simultaneously respond
and post their impressions, answers, or other questions.
The concept of extended time derives from the ability to
leave these sessions online for prolonged periods of time.
During that time, participants can add to, change, or comment on their or others’ responses and statements.
As they did with focus groups in general, marketing
researchers have jumped into the online focus group strategy with both feet. For example, Holly Edmunds (2000,
p. 23), a leading scholar in the area of marketing research,
summarizes the advantages in using the Internet for market research by stating that such online focus groups

(a) cut costs; (b) have potential to reach a broad geographic
scope; (c) provide access to hard-to-reach participants such
as business travelers and professionals who have little
time during normal hours to participate; and (d) provide
for a convenient and a comfortable way of participating.
On the other hand, Tom Greenbaum (2003), another
leading marketing research scholar, argues against the
advent of online focus groups, listing a series of problems,
including the loss of the role and authority of the moderator in online focus groups; the loss of the ability to feel and
experience the atmosphere that arises during the course of
an in-person focus group; the inability to effectively use
group dynamics as an integral part of the overall focus
group process; and the loss of attentiveness on the topic
being discussed by the group when undertaken online.

5.6: Working with a Group

Identify strategies for gaining access to a study
population for focus group research

The moderator’s job, like the standard interviewer’s, is to
draw out information from the participants regarding topics
of importance to a given research investigation. The informal
group discussion atmosphere of the focus group is intended
to encourage subjects to speak freely and completely about
behaviors, attitudes, and opinions they possess, but to
stay on topic (Gubrium & Holstein, 2001). Therefore, focus
groups are an excellent means for collecting information
from informants who might otherwise tend to go off on their
own topics, such as young children and teens, as well as professionals in many fields, elected officials, and some elderly
adults. Actually, anyone who is easily distracted, somewhat egotistical, or just uncomfortable with the conversation
might be prone to get off topic in a one-on-one conversation,
but might not take control as readily in a group setting.
Most importantly, focus groups allow researchers to observe
interactions and discussions among informants. The data
collected during a group interview with seven participants
are therefore a single unit of data from one group, not seven
individual cases collected simultaneously. The heart of the
data is in the group dynamic.
Focus group interviews also provide a means for collecting qualitative data in some settings and situations
where a one-shot collection is necessary. One-shot data collections are usually associated with survey questionnaires,
where many respondents may be given the survey at once,
completing an entire round of data collection at once. In
some cases, focus group interviews may serve a similar
purpose. Certain groups of interest to social scientists
may remain available for study only for limited amounts
of time. For example, say you are interested in studying
people who participate in cosplay. You might decide that

Focus Group Interviewing 103

access to a sample of such cosplayers can be fairly easily
obtained at a cosplay event. However, such gatherings
only occur over short periods of time, perhaps as little as
a day. Now imagine there are 40 or 50 cosplayers wandering about a given convention center for one weekend, but
mostly participating in the event. Focus group interviews
might work well for this population if each group is relatively brief (and if you feed them). You could conceivably
hold four or five sessions during the course of a single
weekend and collect necessary research information.
Along with more traditional populations, then, semitransient ones such as prisoners; hospital, clinic, and HMO
patients; students and children in special courses; migrant
workers; parents at PTA or PTO meetings; and even conventioneers may be suitable for focus group interviews. Even
the settings where these semitransient groups are found
lend themselves to data-collection plans that are faster than
traditional individual face-to-face interviews. That is, they
gather. With good advanced planning, a researcher can
travel to a place where members of the target population
have already congregated to meet a preselected group in
a suitable prepared office. Otherwise, bringing all of your
informants together at the same time in your own research
space may take a considerable amount of coordination.

5.7: Common Missteps
When Using Focus Groups

Discuss the techniques for avoiding problems in
focus group research

There are a number of problems that researchers sometimes fall victim to when undertaking focus group interviews. These problems can seriously reduce the quality of
the resulting information from the focus groups and may
even interfere in the moderator’s ability to effectively elicit
useful and relevant information. In the following section, I
outline and describe the problems and offer some recommendations for avoiding these obstacles.
1. Being Too Vague about the Objectives of the Research.
Particularly since most focus groups use only a few questions as guides for the moderator to explore some area,
subject, or topic, it is very important that the investigator
be clear about what he or she is interested in examining
during the course of the focus group interview. Similarly,
it is important that these objectives are made crystal clear
to the moderator (if he or she is not the actual investigator). Planning the objectives using a cognitive map (see
Chapter 4) is one good method of assuring that you
are clear on why you are using focus group research, as
a strategy, and what sorts of questions you should be
including during the course of the interview.

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2. Using Too Few Groups. It is a serious error to plan on
using focus group interviews because you can only
identify a small group of individuals to serve as the
sample. Focus group interviewing is not a remedy for a
poorly planned sampling strategy. Often, a researcher
may use a series of several small focus groups, totaling 30 or more subjects in the full study. This can allow
for emergent results arising during the course of the
research and the introduction of these topics in subsequent focus groups, as well as comparisons of results
between groups (Morgan, Fellows, & Guevara, 2008).
But don’t be misled by the total. Five focus groups with
a total of 30 participants equals 5 cases, not 30.
3. Overreaching during Any Given Focus Group
Interview. Researchers need to be realistic about
how many questions and how much coverage any
given focus group can effectively handle. Most social
research-based focus groups stay to a handful of questions, both to assure that these interviews only run for
about 30–60 minutes and to ensure sufficient coverage
of information offered by the participants. It is sometimes difficult to gauge how many questions can be
effectively explored during a given amount of time.
Stewart et al. (2006) suggest that some of the factors
that influence how much time a group may take on a
subject may be associated with the group’s composition. For example, a group composed of individuals
with fairly homogeneous characteristics (a group of
male elders, for example) may be able to move through
many questions rather quickly, whereas a very heterogeneous group of individuals (differing ages, genders,
educational levels) or a group asked a series of questions with a number of different dimensions may labor
long and hard over even a few questions. As a rule of
thumb, then, the more complex, and/or emotionally
charged a topic, or the greater the heterogeneity of
expected views on a topic within a group, the fewer
topics and specific questions that should be included.
Overreaching necessarily creates pressures on the
moderator to speed up the process. In that case, the
moderator may start to pressure participants to provide shorter answers, or to otherwise limit discussion.
This undermines the focus group process considerably.
In contrast, a skilled moderator generally seeks to draw
more discussion and more detail from the participants.
The goal, of course, is to encourage the participants to
open up their answers and explore the topics.
In practice, most focus group interview guides
or schedules typically consist of fewer than a dozen
planned questions. Instead, the moderator is expected
to use his or her judgment with regard to probes and
adding various questions as situations and additional
topics emerge. The moderator needs some elbow room
to make that work.

4. Overly Large Groups. Some investigators may seek to
limit the number of focus group sessions that may be
necessary to include all the subjects in the sample; this
is a mistake. This may allow for a greater amount of
interaction, since there are more people to potentially
offer their views and attitudes. However, this can
create confusion and may result in more superficial
results than might otherwise have been possible with
a smaller group. Groups of six or eight participants
are fairly easy to manage. Larger groups are like large
classes; a few people talk a lot, while some of the
others stare at their shoes or their phones.
5. Too Much or Not Enough Influence from the
Moderator. Moderators must walk a careful tightrope
drawn between complete hands off and guidance or
steering of participants. The moderator should plan on
moving through all of the planned topics and/or questions, but must also have the latitude to move off the
plan to various areas that may spontaneously and serendipitously arise during the course of the focus group. On
the other hand, the moderator must also keep the session
moving forward and not spend all of the time delving
into a single topic or question when there are several topics or a series of questions planned for a given session.
6. Bullies. The moderator cannot force the group
dynamic to work in any particular fashion. But often
there will be a tendency for some participants to dominate the discussion while others back off. Without
being too heavy handed, the moderator must create a
discussion context that is inviting to all participants.
As with any interviewing, this is a learned skill that
looks like an art when it is done well.
One of the most difficult tasks for a moderator is
controlling dominating respondents while simultaneously encouraging passive group members. This must be
accomplished without embarrassing or completely shutting down the dominating participants. Often, like a traditional interviewer, moderators must rely on their ability to
develop rapport with group members. If the moderator has
been successful in developing a rapport, it may be useful in
efforts to encourage the quiet members to participate.

5.8: Confidentiality and
Focus Group Interviews

Examine the issue of confidentiality in focus
group interviews

One final issue requires discussion: the problem of confidentiality of information obtained through the use of focus
group interviews. Although it is easy to ensure that the
researcher will maintain confidentiality, what can be done