groups are "small groups of unrelated individuals that
are formed by the researcher and then led in a group discussion
of a topic" (Schutt, 1999: 308). Focus groups are similar
to interviewing people one-on-one but there are important
differences. When conducting an individual interview the
researcher is trying to learn about biographical details,
political opinions, product preferences, etc., and how the
individual interprets aspects of the social world.
But these remain essentially the self-reflections of just
one person (unless a suitable sample size is attained and
aggregated to produce group measures). In a focus group,
the object of the analysis is the interactions among the
group members-- how the group collectively creates meanings
and negotiates definitions of whatever is discussed. Focus
groups thus have the strength of being a more "natural"
than one-on-one interviews which are by comparison more
structured and somewhat more artificial. The guided discussion
in the focus groups more closely captures the spontaneous
give and take of social interaction that goes into opinion
formation, which is lost in a structured interview. This
is the crucial distinction that most novice researchers
fail to grasp. The most common mistake is to misapply the
focus group as merely a quick and dirty way of doing a bunch
of individual interviews. That is to miss the whole point
of the enterprise, which is to explore how the group collectively
understands and defines the issue of
interest to the researcher.
to do it: Focus groups typically consist of 7-10 people
drawn from a population that the researcher is interested
in. It is best to select people that are relatively homogenous
because this tends to reduce inhibitions and facilitate
interaction. It is also important for the researcher/discussion-leader
to create an environment where everyone is expected to participate
and no perspective will be favored. The researcher/discussion-leader
poses some open-ended questions to guide the discussion,
taking notes and recording the session so that the information
can be analyzed later.
For example: a student may be interested in how students
define the Notre Dame community. Do students include staff
members (janitors, secretaries, and maintenance personnel)
as members of the Notre Dame community? What sort of qualitative
distinctions exist in the various statuses of Notre Dame
employees or students? After the session is over, the researcher
analyzes the transcript to see how the group collectively
defines the concept of the Notre Dame community and how
it is applied.
Caveats: Like any research methodology, focus groups have
strengths and weaknesses.
They are extremely useful for uncovering unanticipated findings
and discovering hidden
meanings that other techniques are unable to capture. However,
there is no way to generalize the findings so they must
be qualified in this manner. As always the selection of
methodology should be appropriate to the research question.
If the research question is posed at the groups level, and
how people interact to "socially construct" the
interpretation of an issue, then focus groups are an appropriate
FOR USING FOCUS GROUPS
a focus group is much like conducting an interview. In fact,
according to B.L. Berg, in Qualitative Research Methods
for the Social Science Student: "The focus group
may be defined as an interview style designed for small
groups. Using this approach, researchers strive to learn
through discussion about conscious, semi conscious, and
unconscious psychological and socio-cultural characteristics
and processes among various groups. . . Focus group interviews
are guided discussions addressing a particular topic of
interest or relevance to the group and the researcher."
For instance, college administrators often ask to speak
with groups of students to understand the nature of a problem
such as whether writing instruction is as effective as it
should be beyond a first-year writing course or whether
technology is used to best effect in classes across the
curriculum. The advantage of a focus group is that once
one person starts talking others do so as well. In turn,
having a group address a given issue fosters the multiple
perspectives we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter.
It may be more difficult to get an interview started than
it is to get a conversation going in a focus group.
A typical focus group session consists of 5-7 participants
under the guidance of a
facilitator, usually called the moderator. Your job, as
in a standard interview, is to draw out information from
the participants regarding topics of importance to a given
investigation. The informal group discussion atmosphere
of the focus group interview structure is intended to encourage
subjects to speak freely and completely about behaviors,
attitudes, and opinions they possess. Interactions between
group members allow participants to brainstorm collectively,
so that a larger number of ideas, issues, topics, and even
solutions to a problem can be generated through group discussions
than through individual conversations.
Focus groups are a way to include multiple perspectives
on your issue, and to interpret
the significance of the way people talk about an issue (their
assumptions, evidence, etc.), in exactly the way we have
been analyzing the rhetorical strategies writers use as
they talk about their subjects. Focus groups will provide
you with an original source of evidence that should complement
(or complicate, or contradict, or extend) the evidence you
will find and analyze in scholarly articles from the library.
Participants for Your Focus Group
Focus groups should consist of 5-7 participants, in addition
to you, the moderator. Think
carefully about the range of participants you'll need to
gather the information you desire. Depending on your issue,
you might choose participants based on gender, ethnicity,
major, year in school, living situation, etc. Do you want
a wide range of participants, or do you want to control
the focus of the conversation by only looking at one particular
group of people. For instance, if you wanted to find out
if technology served students' needs, would you talk to
people in just the sciences? Or perhaps your question focuses
on whether colleges and universities should take race and
ethnicity into consideration when selecting new freshman
from the applicant pool? What is the purpose of having preference
to the minority status in admissions? What does a diverse
campus offer to its students?
for Conducting Focus Groups
the interview, you will need to do some PLANNING. Make clear,
specific arrangements with participants for the time and
place of the focus group session, and be clear about how
much time it will take. You should tape-record your session,
since you might lose too much information trying to take
notes. Focus groups require permission from respondents
to use the information in what you write and an assurance
of anonymity, as well as the right of refusal by participants,
just as interviews do. Make a sheet with your signature
that spells this out clearly, and make sure all your participants
sign it before the session. (You may refer to participants
in your essay by letter, number, or some other designation.).
Prepare a Script. Use the guidelines for designing interview
questions, so that you will
have a variety of open and closed questions. Consider asking
participants for definitions,
impressions, examples, their ideas of others' perceptions,
and the like. Also, consider quoting from key passages in
the scholarly research you will be using, and asking for
the group's responses to these "expert" theories.
Not only will this be interesting, but it will help you
organize and integrate your focus group evidence with your
library sources in your essay. Ask a wider range of questions
than you think you might need, so that you can explore side
issues if they arise.
Ask Questions that Draw People Out. During the focus group,
be ready to draw out
participants with follow up questions ("Can you offer
an example?" "Where do you think this impression
comes from?" etc.). Be ready to encourage all participants
to speak, without letting one member dominate. (You may
need to ask facilitating questions such as "Do the
rest of you agree with X's statement?" "How would
you extend what X has said?" "Does anyone have
a contrasting experience?")
Limit the Time of a Focus Group Session. When deciding how
long the session should
last, remember that it will take approximately 3 times longer
to transcribe it. (Aim for 20 to 30 minutes.) You must transcribe
your session, so that you can close-read the participants'comments
and quote specifically.
Notice Non-Verbal Interactions. While the tape recorder
will give you a record of what
was said, be sure to notice non-verbal interactions and
responses in your session, taking notes of body language,
reluctance or eagerness to speak, dynamics between group
members that eitheropen up or shut down conversation. These
responses should be part of the data you will analyze.
Interpreting the Data from your Focus Group
1. Once your transcribe your focus group session, decide
how you will refer anonymously to your participants.
2. Use your rhetorical analysis skills as you analyze your
data, interpreting the significance of the way participants
talk about issues, as well as the information they relate.
Interpret the non-verbal communication in the group, as
well as the verbal communication.
3. As you make claims based on the focus group data, remember
that data from focus group interviews are group data; they
are not identical to individual interview data. They reflect
thecollective notions shared and negotiated by the group.
Additionally, while you mightspeculate about how the focus
group data might be indicators of larger trends, be carefulabout
the kinds of claims you make. (In other words, one first-year
student's idea is notnecessarily every first-year student's