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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)

102 Chapter 5


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.

104 Chapter 5


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

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