Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
Can and should focus group discussion be used in quantitative research?
Can inputs obtained from participants in a focus group be quantified?
Is such data of any value to natural scientists?
Or is focus group discussions the reserve of qualitative research methods?
And should social scientists take note of the opinions of other social scientists?
Or would they simply share more of the same?
And why would the opinions of other academics be more authoritative than your own opinion?
I discuss data collection through focus group discussions in this article.
Focus groups are sometimes also called ‘group interviews’. You, as the researcher, will act as the facilitator of the discussions, thereby collecting data for your research.
The focus group discussion is an interview style designed for small groups of individuals who, because of their prior knowledge, experience or expertise can add value to a research project. As such it is an interview with a purposefully sampled group of people rather than each person individually.
Focus group interviewing can help you learn through discussion about almost any topic in a wide variety of disciplines. Group members are encouraged to share their opinions with the rest of the group. You, as the researcher, will normally facilitate the process, and you will need to take detailed notes on what is discussed. Somebody other than you can also be tasked in advance to take notes, or even minutes of the focus group event. It is also you who will analyse and use the information gathered after the event.
By creating a social environment in which group members are stimulated by the perceptions and ideas of others, you can increase the quality and richness of data through a more efficient approach than one-to-one interviewing. You can also use focus groups as a technique to confirm data collected by other methods.
Focus group interviews can be used to collect data quickly and conveniently from several people simultaneously. Group interaction is important. Although focus group interviews can be used as a stand-alone data collection method, it is more valuable, valid and accurate if triangulation is used to corroborate data gathered through focus groups and other data collection methods and sources. The technique is useful for research involving beliefs, impressions, experiences, and emotional concerns.
Some may feel that a focus group should be as small as possible. However, the arguments why a small group is better than a large group can also be used as reason why a large group would deliver better and more valid results. For example, a small group might make it easier to manage the number of inputs given. However, statistically the larger number of inputs given, the more accurate will be the average of the inputs as a true reflection of the “truth”. One or a few strong or vocal participants might force the discussions in a particular direction and in favour of a particular point of view. However, the larger the group, the more “strong” participants there should be, which facilitates objectivity. Control and the transcription of many inputs can be more difficult in a large group than in a small group, though.
Focus groups could, for example, be representatives from universities discussing ways in which to improve student performance, young people sharing their experiences with drug dealers targeting them, and many more. The discussion is usually based on a series of questions (the focus group ‘schedule’). As the researcher, you will usually act as a facilitator for the group by posing questions, keeping the discussion flowing and ensuring that all group members participate to the best of their ability.
Group members interact with each other while you gather information by taking notes, making an audio or image recording of the discussions and asking salient questions to the group in general. You will mostly analyse the information afterwards using conventional qualitative methods: most commonly, content or thematic analysis. Focus groups are distinctive for the method of data collection rather than for the method of data analysis.
Focus group interviews can facilitate the collection of information for research purposes. The following are advantages that focus group interviews can offer a researcher:
- It is flexible in terms of the number of participants, groups, costs, duration, etc.
- It is efficient in the sense that a large amount of information can be collected from potentially large groups of people in a relatively short time.
- It can facilitate the understanding of previously unclear topics.
- It allows you to better understand how members of a group arrive at or change their conclusions about interrelated topics and issues.
- It can be used to gather information from transient populations, such as academics attending a one or two-day workshop.
- It places participants on a more even footing with each other and you.
- The facilitator of a focus group can introduce the exploration of related but unanticipated topics as they arise during the group’s discussion.
- It is not necessary to follow complex sampling processes to compile a focus group because criteria for the composition of a focus group are fairly simple.
Despite the advantages that focus group interviews offer, it is not a flawless data collection method. The following are some disadvantages that go with focus group interviews:
- The quality of the data is dependent on the facilitating and motivating skills of the facilitator.
- Focus group attendance is voluntary, and an insufficient number of individuals may attend planned sessions.
- The duration of each focus group session needs to be brief to keep the participation and support of the members of the group.
- The limited time available for a focus group mostly does not allow for the discussion of many questions.
- Dominant personalities may overpower and steer the group’s responses in an unwanted direction.
- Information gathered through focus group interviews needs to be processed with care to ensure validity and accuracy of conclusions.
There are several pitfalls that you should avoid when undertaking focus group interviews. These pitfalls can reduce the quality of the information gathered. The following are such pitfalls:
- Organising a focus group for the wrong reason, for example because you don’t know what else to do or just because it sounds like a good idea.
- Not explaining the objectives of the focus group clearly to the participants.
- Using too few focus groups or including too few members in the focus groups.
- Using too many focus groups or focus group members per group.
- Poor facilitation of and preparation for the focus group meetings.
- Allowing an individual or a small group of individuals to bully other members or to steer the focus group discussions in an unwanted direction.
The following are rules for analysing focus group data which are different from the analysis of other textual data such as field notes or interview data:
- Provide quotations to support your evaluation of what the various trends and patterns of discussion are.
- Use quotations to illustrate the relevance for discussion of an argument or point rather than to prove its validity.
- Introduce each group member in terms of his or her profile to show that they have been invited on relevant merit.
- Raise a point, concept, theory or cognitive pattern supported by reputable sources of information before inviting discussions.
The focus group discussion is an interview style designed for gathering data from small groups of experts.
Focus group discussions are distinctive for the method of data collection.
You can use focus group discussions to collect data and to learn.
Some will argue that you should avoid quantifying results or offering magnitudes.
The rationale behind this is that statistical analysis of focus group inputs is seldom valid.
I do not agree.
Even if only opinions or beliefs, focus group inputs can corroborate conclusions and findings based on statistical data.
After all, focus group interviewing should not be the only data collection method that you use.
You can improve the quality and richness of the data that you collect by creating a friendly social atmosphere.
Data can be collected quickly and conveniently from several people simultaneously.
The members of the focus group can often corroborate data through their shared expertise, knowledge and experience.
Focus group discussions are especially useful for collecting data involving beliefs, impressions, experiences and emotional concerns.
The size of the group will have an impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the data collection process.
The analysis of the data is usually done by the researcher alone.
Focus group discussions must be well planned, prepared and facilitated.
You must know in advance what you wish to achieve with the focus group discussion.
You should share the purpose of the discussions with the group members.
The participants in the group discussions must have knowledge and expertise to add value to your research project.
I would like to encourage you to use focus groups to collect data for your research.
None of us has perfect knowledge.
And we do not always think objectively.
You should always be open minded when conducting research.
Accept that you are conducting the research to learn and be willing to listen to the opinions and advice of others.
This applies equally to social and natural sciences.
Enjoy your studies.