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8: Confidentiality and Focus Group Interviews
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.
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
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.
TRYING IT OUT
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.
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.
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
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.
Ethnographic Field Strategies
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
Recall the importance of planning for
watching, listening, and learning in
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
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
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
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
 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