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8: Confidentiality and Focus Group Interviews

8: Confidentiality and Focus Group Interviews

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Focus Group Interviewing 105

Figure 5.2 Group Agreement for Maintaining Confidentiality

In order to respect the privacy of all participants in this study, [title of study here], all parties are asked to

read and sign the statement below. If you have any reason not to sign, please discuss this with the project


I, _____________________________________, agree to maintain the confidentiality of the information

discussed by all participants and researchers during the focus group session.

Signature: _______________________________________________________________________________________

Project Director’s Signature: _________________________________________________________________________

among the participants? Ensuring confidentiality is critical

if the researcher expects to get truthful and free-flowing

discussions during the course of the focus group interview.

If group members feel apprehensive or inhibited by fear of

somehow being exposed, they will not fully disclose their

feelings and perceptions.

In market research situations, this issue of confidentiality may not be viewed as terribly significant. After all,

who really cares if the car manufacturer learns that someone thinks his or her automobile is ugly or fails to perform

well? What difference does it make to have some cereal

company learn that someone thinks the picture on the box

is childish or the taste of the product is awful? Although

executives need this information to improve product sales,

none of these comments is very self-disclosing. Of course,

that might depend on the product, how it is used, and why

it is needed.

When focus groups are used for social scientific

research, however, a different kind of information is

obtained. A focus group interview among medical marijuana patients, for example, could reveal very sensitive

pieces of information. Discussion among obese focus group

members may not be the kind of information members

want to be identified with. Conversations among elementary school teachers about how they perceive particular

ethnic groups could be very troublesome if revealed. Thus,

certain procedures must be taken to ensure confidentiality.

The logical course to take is to have every member

of the focus group sign a statement of confidentiality. In

other forms of research, such as individual interviews, this

is fairly common practice. The difference, however, is that

in the individual interview, this contractual agreement is

between researcher and subject. In the focus group situation, the agreement must be among all group members and

the moderator/researcher. An example of such an agreement is offered in Figure 5.2.

Enforcement of this agreement, as with all confidentiality agreements in research, largely is one of honor rather

than law. Use of this sort of document, however, does

allow the participant an opportunity to think about issues

of confidentiality. If a participant believes he or she will

not be able to keep material confidential, this is the opportunity to withdraw. Similarly, if a group member is fearful

about confidentiality, he or she can drop out of the group.

Reminding participants of this is also part of the moderator’s job.

Allowing concerned or unwilling subjects to withdraw is an important ethical element in all research. It is

also important for the quality of your focus group data.

Having an unwilling participant in the group could prove

to be very disruptive or problematic for a moderator. The

discussions, topics, and solutions the group might be able

to develop could be seriously compromised.

5.9: Why It Works


Recognize causes behind the success of focus


The focus group interview is an innovative and evolving strategy for gathering what might otherwise be fairly

difficult-to-obtain information. Recently reborn in the

social sciences and revitalized in the past decade because

of telecommunications and the Internet, the focus group

interview promises to become an integral part of datacollection technology among many qualitative researchers.

It operates well as a stand-alone means for data collection

or as an additional line of action. The limitations of focus

group interviews in general, whether conducted in a traditional format or online, must be weighed against the

advantages focus group interviewing may offer in a given

research endeavor.

People generally seem to want to be understood.

And while subjects in a regular interview may be overly

concerned with providing the researcher with the best

answer, or with avoiding difficult discussions, participants

in focus groups talk to one another. They often genuinely

try to express their feelings, opinions, and ideas. And best

of all, when others disagree with or misunderstand them,

they will lay out all of their best rationalizations and justifications in order to get the other to understand. For the

106 Chapter 5


researcher, this can be like being an unobtrusive witness to

all of the most important conversations that your subjects

have on the topic you are investigating.

5.10: Why It Fails

5.10 Report reasons that might render group research


The fact that the group dynamic occurs almost naturally

and somewhat outside of the researcher’s control means

that all sorts of things can go wrong with group research.

Some of these problems have been discussed in the chapter.

One or more people might bully the rest, which silences

many participants and raises questions about validity of the

data that you get from those who are speaking. Participants

may get into arguments, which can poison the atmosphere

of the room and shut down any hope for open dialogue. Of

particular concern, group think may set in as participants

decide to just go along with whatever seems to be an emerging consensus instead of expressing their own thoughts.

Even where the conversation is not dominated by bullies or group think, you never know why any one or more

participants are being quiet. They might just agree with

the flow of conversation and choose not to speak. They

might be offended and withdrawn. They might disagree,

but fear to jump in.

Finally, a significant threat to focus group interviewing

as a technique is that participants may fall back on stock

answers and conventional impressions for the sake of getting along, rather than actually questioning any of the ideas

that you are hoping to question. As a researcher, you have

little justification to disregard someone’s contributions just

because the things they say are commonplace. But sometimes you might feel that the participant is not being genuine. And there is not much to be done with that feeling.


Suggestion 1

Organize two groups of seven to eight people for a discussion

of the topic “teenage peer pressure.” One group should consist

of teenagers and the other group should consist of parents. In

each group, one person will serve as the facilitator, one person

will take notes, and the rest of the participants will discuss the

topic. Try to videotape the interaction as well. Finally, each

group should discuss how effective the interview was based on

the elements provided on page 95.

Suggestion 2

Consider how you would use the Berg sampling strategy if you

wanted to conduct a focus group study on attitudes toward

smoking cessation. Identify several characteristics that can be

used to divide participants into subgroups. Think about how many

sessions you would want and how many participants you should

have in each session to avoid some of the common mistakes

researchers make when conducting focus group interviews.

Suggestion 3

Create a moderator’s guide for a focus group interview on

parents’ attitudes toward bullying in schools. Develop the guide

keeping in mind that your participants will be parents of schoolgoing children. Think carefully about the guidance for dealing with

sensitive issues.


1. There is wide disagreement in the literature about

what exactly constitutes a small group for focus group

interviews. Some sources suggest 6–9 subjects (Pramualratana, Havanon, & Knodel, 1985, p. 205); others

recommend 6, 7, or 8–10 group members (Bachman

& Schutt, 2003, p. 243; Bogdan & Bilken, 2003, p. 101);

still others claim that 6–12 participants may be the

ideal size (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005; Lengua et al., 1992,

p. 163). One thing seems certain: The more complex

the research problem, the more effective it is to have a

smaller size (perhaps, 5–7 people) focus group.

2. Census samples include all the people who fit a certain

characteristic or who exist in a specific location. For

instance, a nurse researcher might use such a sampling procedure to study all the patients being treated

at a single hemodialysis center. Any potential subject

who does not want to participate in the research falls

into the researcher’s rejection rate. Typically, this procedure is used when the total number of potential

subjects is not very large.


Chapter 6

Ethnographic Field Strategies

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter, you should be able to:


Describe some of the problems associated

with accessing research locales.


Identify the pros and cons of conducting

research invisibly.



Recall the importance of planning for

watching, listening, and learning in

ethnographic research.

Explain how ethnographic research data is



Outline two operations that form part of the

process of disengaging from a field research



Analyze the relevance of reflexivity as used

in ethnography.


Recall that the major elements in criticalethnography is addressing concerns on

power and control structures.


Outline the uniqueness of ethnography

with respect to other forms of research.

Examine how typologies, sociograms,

and metaphors are used in studying

ethnographic research data.

6.10 Give potential causes behind the failure of

Ethnography has been around for a very long time,

particularly as practiced by cultural anthropologists; however, social scientists differ sharply on both the conceptual

meaning of ethnography and its applications. A technical

definition would be the study of culture, but that alone does

not help us to distinguish ethnography as a research method from any other research in which culture plays a part.

Researchers have used the term in many different ways.

Spradley (1979, p. 3), for example, offered that “ethnography is the work of describing a culture. The essential core of

this activity aims to understand another way of life from the

native point of view.” Zigarmi and Zigarmi (1980) referred

to an ethnographer as virtually anyone who enters the natural setting in order to conduct field research, a concept that

itself suffers from confused understanding (see Guy, Edgley,

Arafat, & Allen, 1987). Some researchers, for example,

Ellen (1984) and Stoddart (1986), suggest that ethnography

involves the end product of field research—namely, the

written accounts of observations. Other researchers, such

as Warren and Karner (2005), have tended to equate ethnography with participant observation and suggest it is

the written accounts of these observers. Similarly, Babbie

(2007) suggested that ethnography is a detailed and accurate description of some natural setting but offered no

deeper explanations. Some early ethnographic authorities,

such as Agar (1973), Johnson and colleagues (1985), Preble

and Casey (1969), and Weppner (1977), described ethnography as an extremely effective method for studying illicit

drug use and users. Their cases demonstrated the power of

ethnographic fieldwork to reveal hidden elements of otherwise poorly understood subcultures within our own societies. In an attempt to differentiate this style of research from

anthropological ethnography, many such drug researchers

have called this form street ethnography or urban ethnography.


ethnographic field strategies.


108 Chapter 6


I used the term organizational ethnography to describe field

research on the cultural dimensions of organizations (Lune,

2007). Leininger (1985, p. 33) coined the term ethnonursing to

describe ethnography conducted by nurses, whereas Roper

and Shapira (2000) and LoBiondo-Wood and Haber (2002)

referred to this activity as medical ethnographies. Lofland

(1996, p. 30) described the strategy of analytic ethnography

as follows:

I use the term “analytic ethnography” to refer to research

processes and products in which, to a greater or lesser

degree, an investigator (a) attempts to provide generic propositional answers to questions about social life and organization; (b) strives to pursue such an attempt in a spirit

of unfettered or naturalistic inquiry; (c) utilizes data based

on deep familiarity with a social setting or situation that is

gained by personal participation or an approximation of

it; (d) develops the generic propositional analysis over the

course of doing research; (e) strives to present data and analyses that are true; (f) seeks to provide data and/or analyses

that are new; and (g) presents an analysis that is developed

in the senses of being conceptually elaborated, descriptively

detailed, and concept-data interpenetrated.

However, the various ways researchers speak about ethnography may amount to little more than terminological

preferences. Agar (1986) came to this conclusion in his

examination of the language differences among various

ethnographers and ethnographic traditions in his book

Speaking of Ethnography. Ethnography is primarily a process that attempts to describe and interpret social expressions between people and groups. Or, as Geertz (1973) had

suggested, the researcher’s task is to convey thick description, such that a wink can be distinguished from a twitch,

and a parody of a wink is distinguishable from an actual

wink (see Wilcox, 1988, p. 458). The goal is to get at the

meanings behind the acts.

Nonetheless, the important point about the concept of

ethnography, regardless of one’s language and terminological preference, is that the practice places researchers in

the midst of whatever it is they study. From this vantage,

researchers can examine various phenomena as  perceived by participants and represent these observations

as accounts. Unlike most other forms of data collection,

ethnography aims to uncover the perspectives, priorities,

and systems of meaning within the studied culture or

group. This approach to research brings to the fore the

question of the researcher’s own perspective, an issue that

always matters but which is much more actively engaged

in ethnography.

Some researchers, Ellen (1984, 1987), for example,

have described the ethnographic process as subjective soaking. According to Ellen (1984, p. 77), this occurs when

the researcher “abandons the idea of absolute objectivity

or scientific neutrality and attempts to merge himself or

herself into the culture being studied.” Other subjectivist

and existential approaches have given rise to the notion of

fieldwork as transition, in which cultural elements, including human ideas and perceptions, are considered opaque

texts. From this vantage, the primary objective of ethnography is to read the text, which requires an understanding

of the cultural context and meaning system in which the

text is produced. The text, however, may be considered

the literal textual context of the ethnographer’s notebooks,

memos, and the like. This orientation toward ethnography, then, can be understood as the product of interaction

between the observer and the observed (Clifford, 1980).

Along similar lines, some researchers seek to understand

the worldviews of native inhabitants of social environments or what may be called the emic view. This emic or

insider’s view of the world can be contrasted with the

etic view or outsider’s worldview (Creswell, 1999, 2007;

LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 2002; Tedlock, 2000). Munhall

(2006) explains that etic derives from the term phonetic

and arises in the analysis produced by the researcher.

The etic dimension of the research, then, operates in the

understandings and latent meanings uncovered by the

research in the course of the study. But these meanings and

understandings are outside of the insider’s (emic) general

perceptions. Instead, these etic understandings are the

products of interpretations of meaning, theoretical and

analytic explanations, and understandings of symbols as

mediated through the researcher (an outsider).

The more traditional anthropological approach of ethnography, as represented by the works of Malinowski,

Evans-Pritchard, and Boas, has been primarily concerned

with this type of subjectivist translation. During the past

50 years, however, anthropological methods, like other

sociological ones, have undergone considerable advancement, refinement, and change (see, e.g., Adler & Adler,

1987; Miller & Tewksbury, 2006; Tewksbury, 2001). Ellen

(1984) and Agar (1996) both consider these changes no less

than a quiet revolution, resulting in a new ethnography.

During the past 25 years, this new ethnography (no

longer new, but not traditional) has grown popular among

nursing researchers (see, e.g., Leininger & McFarlane, 2002;

Morse & Field, 1995). Frequently, one finds this technique

referred to as ethnonursing research (Burns & Grove, 2000;

McFarland et al., 2012), which refers to “Observation of and

participation and reflection with participants throughout

the research process allow discovery of emic (people’s) and

etic (professional’s) values, beliefs, care practices, and health

practices” (McFarland et al., 2012, p. 261). For example,

ethnonursing pioneer M. M. Leinenger combined decades

of ethnonursing research around the world to develop the

model of culturally specific “care constructs,” among which

was the “father protective care construct” that she applied

to explain specific father–child relations that contribute to

the health and well-being of boys. While first observed and

identified in New Guinea, Leinenger found comparable


practices in multiple, otherwise unrelated cultures in North

America (McFarland & Wehbe-Alamah, 2015).

The principal concern in this chapter is to examine

ethnography as an effective research strategy. Van Maanen

(1982, p. 103) suggested that ethnography has become

the method “that involves extensive fieldwork of various

types including participant observation, formal and informal interviewing, document collecting, filming, recording,

and so on.” Most of this work is in the “new” modes of

ethnographic research. It is not, however, the intent of this

chapter to diminish the significant contribution made by

the more traditional (textual) orientation. In fact, a section

of this chapter on ethnography as a narrative style discusses the more traditional ethnographic orientation.

One other significant aspect of ethnography is the

distinction sometimes made between micro- and macroethnography (sometimes referred to as general ethnography).

One obvious difference is the scope of a given investigation. Macroethnography attempts to describe the entire

way of life of a group. In contrast, microethnography

focuses on particular incisions at particular points in the

larger setting, group, or institution. Spradley (1980) differentiated types of ethnographies along a continuum of size

and complexity of social units under investigation and,

thereby, moves from the more microethnographic focus

to the more macroethnographic (see also Munhall, 2006).

Typically, these specific points are selected because they

in some manner represent salient elements in the lives of

participants and, in turn, in the life of the larger group or


A second fundamental difference between micro- and

macroethnography is that the former analytically focuses

more directly on the face-to-face interactions of members

of the group or institution under investigation. By examining these interactions, their implications (or as Mehan

[1978] suggests, their outcomes) can be considered. For

example, Wolcott’s (1973) The Man in the Principal’s Office

was intended to offer an accurate description of the real

world of one elementary school principal and, by extension, to identify the various behaviors, attitudes, and processes shared by other elementary school principals. The

study did not claim that the focal subject was statistically

representative of all American principles, but that he occupied a social location that had consistent meaning across

the nation within this one social institution.

In spite of various differences, both micro- and macroethnography share the overarching concern for assessing everyday community life from the perspectives of

participants. From detailed examinations of people and

their social discourse and the various outcomes of their

actions, underlying principles and concepts can be identified. As a result, neither micro- nor macroethnography is

fully understandable individually without some consideration of the other. For example, it would be impossible

Ethnographic Field Strategies 109

to understand the concept of classroom management in

relation to the concept of learning without some consideration of how this relates to learning environments in

general (see Allen, 1986).

This chapter is divided into two parts. First, I will

review some general, technical aspects of fieldwork, with

advice on how to manage the important stages of research:

accessing a field setting; becoming invisible; watching,

listening, and learning; analyzing ethnographic data; and

disengaging. The intention is to help you to prepare for

your fieldwork experience by highlighting the main goals

and difficulties at each stage of the work. Next, I will

address researcher identities and perspectives throughout,

as these issues become pertinent, and discuss the often

complex challenge of analyzing and writing results.

6.1: Accessing a Field

Setting: Getting In


Describe some of the problems associated with

accessing research locales

All field investigations begin with the problem of getting

in. This particular problem should be addressed during

the design stage of the research. It involves consideration

of who the subjects are and the nature of the setting. Of

course, this all depends on where you need to get and why

you need to get there. Presumably, your research question has already led you to choose fieldwork for your data

collection because there is some specific field you need to

learn more about. The discussion that follows, therefore,

refers to the work you do after you have already planned

the outlines of your research interests. It might help you to

sketch out a fieldwork project you would like to undertake

and bear this project in mind as you read.

Robert Burgess (1991b, p. 43) suggested that access is

“negotiated and renegotiated throughout the research process.” He further observed that “access is based on sets of

relationships between the researcher and the researched,

established throughout a project.”

The approach offered by Burgess is rather informal

with an emphasis on making the most of circumstances

as you find them. Relations in the field depend on

multiple interactions with various people in the setting. Roger Vallance (2001) has a slightly different take

on the matter. Vallance suggests that access should be

sought through introduction and referrals. According to

Vallance (p. 68):

The essence of my contention can be summed up in the oftquoted saying; it is not what you know, but who(m) you know.

In a sense, this is analogous to snowballing: using one

research participant to indicate others who can be equally

110 Chapter 6


or more informative . . . . Instead of using contacts to widen

the sample as in snow-ball sampling, the suggestion here

is to use one’s contacts and relationships to gain the vital,

initial entry into the field, where one can engage with possible research participants.

In an ideal situation, Vallance’s suggestion is probably

well taken—assuming the investigator is undertaking

research in an area or on a topic in which he or she knows

many people actively engaged in related work or activities

or has reliable access to key personnel. This approach also

works well for research in formal settings with a hierarchy

of authority in which you would need contacts and introductions to move across the different levels. However, in

many instances, researchers conduct studies in areas in

which they simply do not know anyone who can serve

as the kind of entrance guide or core to a snowball sample

to be rolled through the project. For example, although

a number of researchers have investigated burglary, few

(if any) have themselves known active burglars prior to

beginning their research (see, e.g., Cromwell & Nielsen,

1999). Even in cases where you have a guide to introduce

you, however, you must constantly renegotiate your presence and others’ acceptance.

James Williams’s (2015) fieldwork in Cape Town

among networks of undocumented migrant men required

multiple levels of negotiated access. The first, and often

overlooked, level required Williams to negotiate his legitimacy and seek acceptance from South African anthropologists. While Williams relates that his fellow academics

were generous hosts and guides, he also describes how

his study challenged (or at least ignored) the categories of

migration and poverty that local researchers had adopted

to determine who among the poor were “worth” studying.

Throughout his time among the anthropologists, Williams

was routinely offered the suggestion that he was studying the wrong migrants, or the wrong poor people. This

critical advice had to be answered before he could even

begin to negotiate his place among the various networks

of armed and organized but nonetheless highly vulnerable

young men who worked on the margins of urban life after

dark in a dangerous, cash-only economy. Yet, Williams was

able to find guides who would both protect and educated

him during his years in the field.

Hertz and Imber (1993) detail the similar problems

associated with conducting field studies in elite settings. As

they suggest, there are very few studies of elites because

elites are by their very nature difficult to penetrate. Unlike

some other segments of society, elites often are visible and

fairly easy to locate. Yet, because they are able to establish

barriers and obstacles and because they can successfully

refuse access to researchers, many elites are difficult to

study. As well, to paraphrase Moby, they have much to hide.

On the other hand, successful studies of elites frequently depend on personal networks and key informants,

as Vallance describes. For example, Susan Ostrander

describes the circumstances of her unusual access to internal documents, meeting, and private accounts of activities

at the Boston Women’s Fund, an elite and private philanthropic organization: “During the entire period of this

research, I  was a fully engaged member of this organization’s board of directors, ending my term in 2002. During

the past 15 years, I have served (and continue to serve) on

various committees dealing with grants, program, strategic

planning, retreat planning, and fund-raising” (2004, p. 31).

A cautionary note is in order before one trades on

one’s connections to get into private or elite settings.

One of the salient aspects of all fieldwork is that it provides rich observational opportunities from an insider’s

perspective. Where and how one enters a field site both

opens and closes off points of access on site. If one were

studying boards of directors, for example, it would seem

almost impossible to gain access without the support

of at least one board member. If, on the other hand, one

were researching labor relations, having the endorsement

of upper management would necessarily raise questions

about the loyalties and interests of the researcher. That is,

employees might well hesitate to speak with an investigator who is strongly associated with the employers, particularly concerning labor relations.

Richard Tewksbury (2002, 2006) offers an interesting

twist on an orientation originally offered by Joseph Styles

(1979). Styles (1979, p. 151) referred to an outsider strategy of observation, which is not fully participatory but

allows the researcher to appear available to participate.

Tewksbury (2002) uses this approach to gain access to a

gay bathhouse (a locale where men go seeking to have sex

with other men). As Tewksbury explains it, the researcher’s role becomes one of a potential participant in various

activities of the natural setting. Tewksbury (2001, p. 6)

explains this potential participant role as follows:

[It] combines aspects of complete observation, complete

participation and covert observational research designs.

Whereas the researcher adopting a potential participant

role seeks to appear to those being researched as a “real”

setting member, the “science” activities are conducted in

covert manners. To anyone noticing the potential participant, the researcher is a real member of the setting being

studied. To the scientific community, the potential participant is a complete observer, acting in a covert manner

inside the research environment.

Using this strategy, Tewksbury was able to enter the bathhouse, spend several hours circulating there, and chat

freely among the patrons while conducting observations

of their activities, movements, interactions, and use of

physical features in the facility (Tewksbury, 2002).

How might you gain access to difficult-to-reach

groups? As simplistic as it may seem, the answer often lies

in reading the literature. While various settings and groups

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