Akkademia di Psicopolis
Focus Groups

Focus 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.

How 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 tool.


Conducting 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 research
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 impressions, experiences,
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.

Selecting 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?

Strategies for Conducting Focus Groups

Like 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 idea.)