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2: How Focus Groups Work

2: How Focus Groups Work

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5.2.3: Statement of the Basic Rules or

Guidelines for the Interview

Although you do not want to simply list a bunch of rigid

rules of conduct, you do want to establish some ground

rules around the interactions during the focus group.

You need to explain that you expect an open, polite, and

orderly environment where everyone in the group will be

encouraged to participate. If you plan to toss questions

out to the full group, to be answered by anyone, tell the

group that this will be your procedure. If you intend to

ask each subject a question in turn, obtain a quick answer,

and then open it up for discussion by the group—tell

them that this will be how the interview will proceed.

Subjects need to know what to expect. The moderator

should also reinforce to participants that everyone may

have a different opinion or answer to the questions and

that you want to hear all of these opinions. Emphasize

that no one has to agree with anyone else, or pretend

to agree with them, but that they have to let each other

speak before voicing any disagreement. It is also a good

idea to point out any recording device and its purpose, if

one is present in the room. If the session is being recorded

by a hidden camera, this too should be indicated to the

group, as well as why the camera is not in the room. For

example, you might tell the group that the camera is hidden to avoid making them feel self-conscious, but that

they should be aware of its existence.

5.2.4: Short Question-and-Answer


Most focus groups operate with a short series of discussions, sparked by questions asked by the moderator

(Krueger, 1997; Krueger & Casey, 2000). These questions

could be written out and listed in a similar manner to

a semistructured interview guideline document (see

Chapter 4). You may even plan out intentional probes to

be used to facilitate more information in the event that

there is little discussion after asking the initial questions.

Experienced moderators are likely to deviate from such a

schedule, as the dynamics of the group begin to animate

the focus group experience, giving it a kind of life of its

own. Less experienced moderators, however, may feel

more secure having a script of questions to ask, which is

fine as long as the script does not inhibit participation from

your informants.

5.2.5: Special Activities or Exercises

Although many focus groups restrict their data collection

to responses from a series of questions, some, especially

those undertaken with children, may include drawing or

role-playing exercises so that subjects may better express

Focus Group Interviewing 97

their views (Wright, 1994). It may also be helpful to the

researcher to have a pencil-and-paper exercise to help validate the verbal responses that children are likely to offer

(Wright, 1994). The major consideration for thinking about

the inclusion of various additional exercises is age and

maturity of subjects.

Exercises and activities also allow the moderator to

determine what subjects individually know or believe

without the influence of others in the group. One useful

strategy is to have the subjects fill out a brief pencil-andpaper survey that is administered before the actual question-and-answer/discussion segment of the focus group

begins (discussed later as an extended focus group). This

prefocus group activity allows participants to think about

and perhaps commit to certain ideas and attitudes about

topics to be discussed during the group session (Wimmer

& Dominick, 2006).

Focus groups invite people to sit together and discuss

issues, events, and ideas. But not everyone in or out of the

group will be equally informed about the issues or events,

and it is difficult to assess or make use of different degrees

of knowledge beforehand. On the other hand, if the discussion is to focus on something relatively tangible, such as

issues raised in a particular film, or something that can be

made tangible, such as forms of advertising for which the

researcher can provide examples, then it is often useful to

start the session by watching parts of the film or reviewing other materials together. This shared experience gives

everyone a common frame of reference from which to discuss the research questions.

5.2.6: Guidance for Dealing with

Sensitive Issues

As in any interviewing session, focus groups require the

moderator to use sensitivity when dealing with certain

subject matters. These typically include questions concerning alcohol or drug use, stigmatized behaviors, grief and

loss, and certain mental health issues. In the focus group,

one way to approach such sensitive issues is to begin with

a general question for discussion that deals with the subject matter. For instance, let’s assume you are interested in

knowing about cigarette use by Asian American teenagers.

Rather than saying immediately, “Tell me about your cigarette smoking habits,” you might begin with a question

such as, “What do you think about cigarette smoking?” In

some cases, this slightly broader question may open the

door for discussion in the group about individual participants’ smoking habits—but without having placed anyone

on the spot. If this does not occur, the more specific question may subsequently need to be asked.

Sensitive topics may also appear less threatening to

participants when activities and tasks are incorporated

into the focus group session. Among the activities one

98 Chapter 5


might use are free listing, rating or ranking of things being

discussed, pictures to stimulate conversation, storytelling, projective techniques, and even some role-playing

(Colucci, 2007). Bloor, Frankland, Thomas, and Robson

(2002) suggest that focus groups may, in fact, be ideal situations for discussing sensitive topics, particularly when in

the presence of friends, and colleagues, or with others similarly situated or involved in sensitive activities to themselves. Among people who share some challenge, stigma,

or loss, the group discussion can become welcoming and

even therapeutic, even when the moderator lacks the personal experience or deep knowledge shared by the group.

Thus, focus groups may work particularly well, under certain circumstances, for addressing sensitive topics.

It bears repeating that no sensitive or threatening topics may be dropped on an unsuspecting group. Informed

consent procedures require researchers to alert participants

of the kinds of topics that will be discussed before they

agree to join, and moderators must remind participants

that they can withdraw if the process becomes uncomfortable. These are important technical procedures. As well,

a prepared researcher will try to ensure that the group

composition does not itself invite threatening conditions

(though disagreements are fine). For example, the suggestion above that group members might feel supported if

the other participants shared their particular challenge or

stigma only works if the whole group is more or less on the

same side of that issue. You can combine people who support “enhanced interrogation” (torture) techniques with

those who oppose them. That’s opinion research. You cannot combine people who support these techniques with

those who have been tortured.

5.3: Focus Group Data


Explain how moderators use the nonverbal data

collection cues

Observations give you data about people’s actions. With

focus groups or interviews, you can only ask about actions.

Such self-report data gives you stories about behaviors,

not actual behaviors. If you are interested in observing

behaviors and meanings as they emerge in their natural

setting, you may find that the simulated conversations of

focus groups are insufficient compared with traditional

forms of participant observations and various sorts of field

ethnography. More powerful still is the two techniques

in conjunction. One can observe natural interactions in a

formal or informal setting, and then bring the participants

together to discuss that setting and their roles in it. We

assume that the researcher and the participants will not

interpret the participants’ actions in exactly the same way,

but we rarely have the opportunity to discuss this behavior with them unless we use multiple methodologies.

Focus group data reflects the collective notions shared

and negotiated by the group. This is very different from

individual interview data, which reflects only the views

and opinions of the individual, shaped by the social process of living in a culture. The group data is based on interactions, cross-conversation, negotiation, confrontation,

and collective decision processes. Participants, one hopes,

do not merely answer questions when asked, but actively

explain themselves to each other. It is the desire among

group members to make themselves understood by others

in the group that yields the richest data.

Focus groups are therefore appropriate for measuring meanings, which are otherwise difficult to get at.

Focus groups are also well suited for studying attitudes,

preferences and priorities, and beliefs. And more than

any other method, they enable us to study participants’

rationalizations and justifications. Many methods can

be used to measure people’s opinions. But focus group

research challenges study subjects to explore and even to

defend these opinions.

The information obtained from focus groups provides

elements of data similar to those of traditional interviewing, direct observation, and even certain unobtrusive measures commonly used in qualitative research. Yet, I caution

that focus group data does not actually offer the same

depth of information as, for example, a long semistructured interview. Nor does it provide as much rich observational data as one might obtain, for instance, by observing

a class of sixth graders on the playground over a period of

several weeks.

Sussman et al. (1991) found that subjects’ responses

tended to be more extreme in focus groups when compared to responses offered in survey questionnaires. Taken

together with Fern’s (1982) earlier work, this suggests that

an interviewer must be willing to give up some degree of

data precision in exchange for the interaction experience.

Another interpretation is that people’s actual opinions

might be more extreme than they normally want to let on,

but when challenged, they will let loose.

The information collected during the course of a focus

group, like that collected during the course of a face-to-face

interview, is raw data. The researcher’s job is to prepare an

analytic statement based on this collected raw data. Ideally,

this assessment should be thoroughly grounded in the

data. The first step is to transcribe the entire discussion.

This should be a verbatim transcription of each question

asked by the moderator and each individual answer given

by the focus group participants. It should include all probes

asked by the moderator and various group members. It

should also include any slang, dialects, or pauses offered

by focus group members as they respond to the moderator and each other. Transcripts can also be annotated with

the researcher’s notes concerning the participants’ behaviors during the discussion. At what point did voices rise?


When did members try to interrupt one another? Were

there physically aggressive or intimidating acts? What

about nodding and other nonverbal indicators?

Subjects in focus groups may use body language,

gestures, or other nonverbal clues to encourage, or intimidate, others while they are speaking. When a participant

suddenly breaks off a comment, or shifts into a more

confessional tone, your notes should indicate anything

significant happening in the room that might have precipitated the change. As with all forms of interviewing,

of course, body language is not our data. However, it is

always worth noting if something nonverbal impacts the

flow of conversation. Even with such observations, your

notes will represent only a small portion of the basic verbal

data typically collected during a focus group interview.

Videotaping helps, when possible.

During the course of the focus group, either the moderator or a second observer working with the researcher

should take copious notes. Taken together, the transcription and the observer notes provide a complete record

of the discussion that unfolded during the focus group

interview and will assist in analysis of this data. The

next step is to analyze the content of the discussion to

identify trends and patterns that reappear either within

a single focus group or among a series of focus groups.

Thus, the researcher undertakes a variation of content

analysis (discussed in detail in Chapter 11), which begins

by examining the text for similarly used words, themes,

or answers to questions. Some system of indexing and

retrieval of these terms and patterns must be used (see

Chapter 11 again). The researcher should additionally consider the emphasis or intensity of respondents’ comments

(sometimes illustrated in observer notes). As well, the

researcher should consider the consistency of comments

and responses to probes both within a given focus group

and across a series of focus groups.

Traditional interviewing approaches sacrifice the ability to observe interaction for greater amounts of detail on

various attitudes, opinions, and experiences. In many ways,

it is the very give-and-take interactions characteristic of

focus group interviews that lead to spontaneous responses

from session participants. Hearing how one group member

responds to another provides insights without disrupting underlying normative group assumptions. Meanings

and answers arising during focus group interviews are

socially constructed rather than individually created. They

also emerge from the participants’ interests rather than the

researchers, which improves the validity of the data. As

Rubin and Rubin (1995, p. 140) explained:

In focus groups, the goal is to let people spark off one

another, suggesting dimensions and nuances of the original problem that any one individual might not have

thought of. Sometimes a totally different understanding of

a problem emerges from the group discussion.

Focus Group Interviewing 99

Because interactions between group members largely

replace the usual interaction between interviewer and subject, greater emphasis may be given to the subjects’ viewpoints. As with informal interviewing, focus groups can

sometimes be undertaken without preconceived questions,

focus questions, or guidelines (Morgan, 1997). This can

effectively eliminate the researcher’s perspective from the

resultant data. Conversely, should more guided responses

be desired, focus group interviews, like individual ones,

can be made more formal and structured.

David Morgan (2002, p. 148) offers a description of

what he terms his ideal focus group, which demonstrates the

difference in flow between a face-to-face interview and a

focus group session:

The ideal group would start with an opening question

that was designed to capture the participants’ interest,

so  that they themselves would explore nearly all the

issues that a moderator might have probed. Then, just

as the allocated time for that question was running out,

one of the participants in the ideal group would spontaneously direct the others’ attention to the topic for the

second question by saying something like, “You know

what really strikes me is how many of the things we’re

saying are connected to….”

I would add that my ideal group would also contain just

enough disagreement among participants that they constantly

feel the need to explain themselves very carefully. Naturally,

such an ideal type of focus group is unlikely to unfold.

However, Morgan’s illustration should serve as the model to

strive toward in undertaking focus group interviews.

The analysis of focus group data must take into

account both the individual responses and the group

interaction. As with any content analysis, we look at patterns in terms used, ideas expressed, associations among

ideas, justifications, and explanations. With focus groups,

however, we also need to examine the flow of ideas

throughout the group. The analysis needs to attend to consensus, dissensus, and resonance (Lune, Enrique, & Koppel,

2009). Consensus refers to points of agreement within the

group. Did certain suggestions, ideas, or explanations go

entirely unchallenged? Did the ideas recur among different speakers’ responses? These ideas represent general

points of agreement within your study sample. Different

participants may have entered into the discussion with

different ideas, but they have come to agreement around

specific and therefore important ideas or statements.

What about ideas or suggestions on which the group

could not come to agreement? Are there points of disagreement where compromise or flexibility seems impossible?

These ideas have stronger weight with the respondents

than ideas around which they are willing to shift their

positions. Within these points of dissensus or disagreement, were just a few people arguing or did most of the

group divide into opposing camps? A careful researcher

100 Chapter 5


must also distinguish between topics of disagreement (for

or against, for example) and reasons for the disagreement.

Often what appears to be a dispute about an event or idea

turns out to be a dispute about the definition of the event

or idea. One person may support some new legislation

because they agree with its goals while another opposes it

because they worry about the legal precedent in its wording. Are these people really on opposite sides?

And finally, resonance. Do certain expressions seem

to “catch fire” within the group? Are there moments in the

discussion where one participant expresses an idea that

suddenly unites all (or nearly all) of the members? These

are ideas or expressions that resonate within the study

group and which may have a powerful influence on the

thoughts or feelings of your study population in general.

Points of agreement and disagreement stand out for

obvious reasons. But we also want to measure the intensity of the feelings or expressions associated with them.

Disagreement can be polite, tense, threatening, angry, or

even abusive. Where and how do participants fight, if

it comes to that? Related to this, though it is difficult

to record the absence of something happening, we need

to note when and why some participants went silent.

If something in the group process leads to someone or

several group members choosing to withdraw, that must

have been a significant moment. Yet, since no one has mentioned it, one can easily overlook such moments.

There are several important rules of thumb for analyzing

focus group data, which are quite different from the analysis

of other textual data such as field notes or interview data:

• Avoid quantifying results or offering magnitudes; just

because four of seven group members made a statement

does not mean that 57 percent of the subjects agree on

that statement. Such an assumption is meaningless and

is not a finding in itself.

• Provide quotations to support your assessment of what

the various trends and patterns of discussion are. It is

not necessary for all participants to signal agreement

with a statement for us to observe a tendency toward

support for that statement.

• Offer relevant characteristics of each group member prior to offering their quoted responses in order

to provide a sense of three-dimensionality to group

members (e.g., a 26-year-old single Latina mother of

two stated, “…”). The operative phrase is relevant

characteristics, not random demographics.

• Make a point, or state a specific pattern, before offering

quoted materials intended to demonstrate the point or


• Use quotes to illustrate, not to prove. It does matter that

everyone in your group prefers the yellow box over the

green one, but it does not prove anything.

5.4: Selecting Focus

Groups as a Method


Evaluate the effectiveness of using focus group

techniques in research

Focus groups may be used either alone as a data-collection strategy or in combination with other techniques.

In their simplest form, focus group interviews can be

used as a sort of stand-alone data or primary data. As

suggested in the first chapter of this book, triangulation in qualitative research can be important to issues

of validity. Whenever you can demonstrate corroboration of information you have obtained, you are on solid

ground. One excellent use of focus group research, then,

is to probe the validity of results that were suggested by

other means. Although this is not its primary purpose,

this additional line of action may, in fact, offer either corroboration of other data or insights into areas other data

fail to illuminate.

You might consider using a version of focus group

interviews to pilot an interview schedule. In this instance,

you could have members of the focus group read through

the instrument under consideration. Next, the group

would discuss the usual concerns researchers have about

such research instruments: the level of language, comprehensibility of the questions, question order, affected

wording of questions, and so forth. A more interesting and

promising test would be to ask the group the questions

from your interview guideline, exactly as written, and see

whether everyone in the group understood the question in

the same manner or not.

As a primary means of data collection, focus groups

offer exceptional opportunities for the deep study of difficult subject matters. The interactive element allows participants to reflect on each other’s words, add to them, pick

up loose threads of their ideas, or even challenge them

directly. In this fashion, what might have been a passing

comment in an individual interview may be recognized

by other participants as significant to their shared experiences, and drawn out. Even a highly skilled interviewer

is likely to be surprised by the nuances of what his or her

subjects perceive that we do not.

Focus groups comprised of individuals with shared

experiences may, under the best of circumstances, become

supportive and empowering to the participants. The stories

that they choose to share with each other would be different from those that they would be likely simply to offer to

a researcher. Denzin (1989, p. 39) has suggested that biographical experiences have effects at two levels in a person’s

life: the surface level and the deep level. On the surface level,

effects may be barely felt or noticed. They are often taken

for granted and are nondisruptive. Picking up a container


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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