ARTICLE 79: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Data Collection Methods: Interviewing Part 3 of 4 Parts: Focus Group Discussions

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:

  1. It is flexible in terms of the number of participants, groups, costs, duration, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. It can facilitate the understanding of previously unclear topics.
  4. It allows you to better understand how members of a group arrive at or change their conclusions about interrelated topics and issues.
  5. It can be used to gather information from transient populations, such as academics attending a one or two-day workshop.
  6. It places participants on a more even footing with each other and you.
  7. The facilitator of a focus group can introduce the exploration of related but unanticipated topics as they arise during the group’s discussion.
  8. 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:

  1. The quality of the data is dependent on the facilitating and motivating skills of the facilitator.
  2. Focus group attendance is voluntary, and an insufficient number of individuals may attend planned sessions.
  3. The duration of each focus group session needs to be brief to keep the participation and support of the members of the group.
  4. The limited time available for a focus group mostly does not allow for the discussion of many questions.
  5. Dominant personalities may overpower and steer the group’s responses in an unwanted direction.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Not explaining the objectives of the focus group clearly to the participants.
  3. Using too few focus groups or including too few members in the focus groups.
  4. Using too many focus groups or focus group members per group.
  5. Poor facilitation of and preparation for the focus group meetings.
  6. 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:

  1. Provide quotations to support your evaluation of what the various trends and patterns of discussion are.
  2. Use quotations to illustrate the relevance for discussion of an argument or point rather than to prove its validity.
  3. Introduce each group member in terms of his or her profile to show that they have been invited on relevant merit.
  4. 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.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 77: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree studies: Data Collection Methods: Interviewing Part 1 of 4 Parts

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Interviewing is one of the most popular data collection methods in almost any research, therefore it deserves special attention. It involves questioning and discussing issues with people and can be a useful technique for collecting data which would likely not be accessible using techniques such as observation.

I discuss the following types of interviewing in this article:

  1. One-to-one interviewing.
  2. Structured interviewing.
  3. Unstructured interviewing.
  4. Non-directive interviewing.
  5. Focused interviewing.
  6. In-depth interviewing.

One-to-one interviewing. One-to-one interviewing should be treated as a narrative between two individuals. According to Holstein and Gubrium this can be achieved by approaching the interview as follows:

1.         The interviewee and interviewer should co-operate to obtain relevant and current information.

2.         Utilise open communication to gather logical information that will contribute to the achievement of the research purpose. This will require communicating in the context of the research environment.

3.         Carefully consider what is communicated to ensure that the information provided by the interviewee is relevant to the research context and problem statement, question or hypothesis.

4.         Guard against cognitive dissonance. Be objective and make sure that you interpret what the interviewee communicates correctly.

5.         Listen and observe more widely than just the interviewee. Take note of external cues that might influence the meanings of what is communicated, for example body language, tone of voice, the venue where the interview takes place, etc.

6.         Be alert to differences in interpretation of what is communicated between you and the interviewee. Ask questions to ensure that you understand what the interviewee means.

7.         Keep the environment in which the interview takes place in mind. External factors can also cloud the true meaning of the communication between the interviewer and the interviewee, and these should be eliminated if possible.

Structured interviewing. The structured interview is one in which the content and procedures are organised in advance. Organising the content and procedures in advance implies proper planning and includes determining the sequence and wording of the questions by means of a schedule. You, as the interviewer, should not modify your questions or schedule unnecessarily. This should not be necessary if you planned well. There will be direct verbal interaction between you and the subject. You should provide for a measure of flexibility even though the interviewing plan is structured and, by implication, relatively rigid. A structured interview is, therefore, a closed situation.

A structured interview is, thus an oral, in-person asking of a standard set of questions that is prepared in advance. The questions usually invite selected- or semi-structured responses. When asked a selected-response question, the subject selects the response from alternatives provided by the interviewer. Semi-structured questions are phrased to allow unique responses for each subject. Regardless of the type of question, the responses are coded, tabulated and summarised numerically.

Unstructured interviewing. The unstructured interview is an open situation, allowing greater freedom and more flexibility than in the case of the structured interview. You will need to plan and develop the questions to be asked, their content, sequence and wording, keeping the purpose of the interview in mind. Although relatively casual, the unstructured interview needs to be carefully planned.

The unstructured interview has been variously described as naturalistic, autobiographical, in-depth, narrative or non-directive. Whatever the label used, the informal interview is modelled on the conversation and, like the conversation, is a social event with, in this instance, two participants. The interactional rules may be explicit and easy to recognise by the two participants in the interview, namely you and the subject. In addition to its generally social character, there are several ways in which the interview constitutes a learning process. At the level of its process, participants can discover, uncover or generate the rules by which they are involved in the research process, be it as researcher or target group. You, as the interviewer, can become more adept at interviewing, in general, in terms of the strategies which are appropriate for eliciting responses, and in enabling people to talk about the sensitive issues.

Non-directive interviewing. According to Cohen, Manion and Morrison, the non-directive interview derives from the therapeutic or psychiatric interview. The non-directive interview will typically be free flowing with little, if any direction by you. The respondent must express his or her subjective feelings as fully and as spontaneously as he or she chooses or is able to. The respondent should, furthermore, be encouraged to talk about the subject being researched and to be free to guide the interview, with few set questions or pre-figured framework. You should prompt and probe, pressing for clarity and elucidation, rephrasing and summarising where necessary and checking for confirmation of this, particularly if the issues are complex or vague.

Focused interviewing. The focused interview is characterised by more interviewer control than in the case of a non-directive situation. This will enable you to use the data from the interview to substantiate or reject previously formulated hypotheses. You can place explicit verbal cues to the stimulus pattern or even represent it, thereby encouraging more concrete responses by interviewees.             

In-depth interviewing. An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview. In an in-depth interview you will fully explain the nature of the research project and the potential risks and benefits at the beginning of the interview. Once the interviewee has been briefed, you should ask him or her if he or she understands the information and is still willing to take part in the interview.

An in-depth interview is often characterised as a conversation with a goal. You may use a general interview guide or protocol but not a set of specific questions worded precisely the same for every interview. Rather, there are a few general questions, with considerable latitude to pursue a wide range of topics. The interviewee can shape the content of the interview by focusing on topics of importance or interest. In fact, you should encourage the interviewee to talk in detail about areas of interest. In-depth interviews typically last an hour or more. You will probably make an electronic recording of the interview to analyse common themes from descriptions of experiences. The benefit of this form of implied consent is the elimination of any record of the interviewee’s name. Confidentiality, however, is necessary for most types of interviews.

Interviewing can be used to collect data for most research methods and topics.

One-to-one interviewing is like a narrative between two people with the intention of collecting data for research.

It requires:

  1. Co-operation.
  2. Open communication.
  3. Careful consideration for relevance.
  4. Avoidance of cognitive dissonance.
  5. Taking note of external cues.
  6. Alertness.
  7. Taking external factors into consideration.

In structured interviewing the content of and procedure for the interview are organised in advance.

Although a structured interview is a closed situation, a measure of flexibility should be allowed.

The unstructured interview allows greater freedom and flexibility than the structured interview.

Although the unstructured interview is modelled on the conversation, it needs to be carefully planned.

The non-directive interview will be free flowing with little, if any, direction by the researcher.

The respondent can express his or her personal feelings spontaneously.

In the case of a focused interview the researcher will have more control over the process than in a non-directive situation.

The data gathered through a focused interview can be used to test a hypothesis.

An in-depth interview is mostly also a structured interview.

In an in-depth interview the interviewee is briefed in advance about the procedure, purpose and possible consequences of the interview.

You should introduce the in-depth interview with some general questions followed by impromptu questions on a wider range of topics.

The questions must still be relevant to your research, though.


Interviewing is an interesting way to collect data.

Most people are open and honest when they are interviewed about academic topics.

Even so, you should corroborate the data that you collect through interviewing.

Natural scientists are sometimes sceptical about data collected through interviewing.

However, they are often eager to discuss their research projects with other scientists who are experts in the same field.

And that is also a form of interviewing.

You should rather not use interviewing to collect data if you follow an ethnomethodological paradigmatic approach.

Ethnomethodology rejects interviewing as a data collection method.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

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ARTICLE 29: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Masters Degree Studies: Field Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Once when I sent out questionnaires for a research project, the CEO of a manufacturing plant collected and worked through the questionnaires completed by his employees.

There were probably 100 to 200 completed questionnaires. He removed all the questionnaires that he felt could put him in a bad spot and sent me the rest.

Of course, I did not use any of them.

I was fortunate that one of his employees phoned and told me what he did.

Field Research

For many researchers, the collection of data involves or at least includes fieldwork.

Not all field research deals with people.

Also, fieldwork is not limited to research in nature only.

Field research can require the use of quantitative or qualitative analysis.

Preparing for field research

You should first refine your research project and develop your data collection instruments before you embark on fieldwork.

This is because your topic and the context in which your research will be done will determine if you should do fieldwork or not.

Where field research will take place

Field research, or fieldwork, means conducting empirical research in real-world settings.

You can do fieldwork in a classroom, observing students or lecturers, in factories, on ships, in aircraft and many more.

Doing fieldwork is not a must for all research.

You will use fieldwork if your research topic demands it if you feel that it will enable you to do accurate and valid research, if your study leader expects it from you, if you can afford it, and if it is something that you will enjoy doing.

The research process

In the spirit of grounded theory, you should be open-minded about the realities that you encounter.

Let the data that you collect lead your thinking processes.

Don’t try to bend what you see and experience to fit your preconceived ideas.

Preconceptions that you should get rid of include personal beliefs and initial theoretical propositions.

It might be necessary to divide your observations into different categories.

Don’t categorize your observations and events prematurely, though.

The first days in the field are often seen as the most challenging and emotionally rewarding.

Meeting a new group of people in their environment, about which you might not know much, can be uncomfortable, perhaps even intimidating.

Remember that such people might not trust you in the beginning.

People are suspicious of the unknown and they may resist you and your research.

Your research will be as intimidating to them as their environment to you.

If your doctoral or master’s degree studies are an extension of your previous studies, you might feel more comfortable with the environment in which you will do research.

Even so, you will probably encounter some new experiences and observations.

Doing site visits is a formally recognized way of doing fieldwork.

Site visits can be the only data collection method that you may use.

However, it is mostly necessary to collect other data as well.

You should be able to develop categories, propositions and eventually meaning based on what you experience and observe in the field.

Participant observation takes place during a site visit and a site visit may include other data collection activities.

Can you see how you can integrate different research methods?

Experimental methods, for example, can fit in well with fieldwork.

An advantage of site visits is that they enable data to be collected from many field settings as part of the same study.

The data from any single setting or site may be limited in terms of quantity, quality and variety.

Studying cross-site patterns might be necessary for comparison, to identify trends or patterns in phenomena or behavior and for corroboration of data.

Not just any field setting will be suitable for research and data collection.

Difference In functions, context, time and size can render some sites irrelevant to your research topic.

It might sometimes be necessary to visit the same site at different times and more than once.

An example of this is where you do research on the effect over time of global warming on glaciers, rivers, vegetation, etc.

Site visits are likely to be more rigid than participant observation.

Site visits usually follow a pre-established schedule, as well as an agenda while you are in the field.

Site visits can be time-consuming and require substantial preparation.

It can also require good timing, for example, if you were to do research on the migration of salmon up rivers to spawn.

Interviewing, conversing with participants, and observing them while they do something that you do research on will also require good planning and timing.

Members of a field setting for interviewing may have helped you to arrange the schedule.

They will probably use the opportunity to schedule the interviews so that it will suit them.

The disadvantage of this is that they can also prepare their responses to your questions in advance, thereby making it artificial and probably not valid.

Their responses may be idealized and what they think you would like to hear.

This is an example of reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context means that the presence of the researcher affects the people being studied.

The same kind of situation can happen in the case of participant observation.

A further complication arises when you are accompanied by your host during the site visit.

The host may wish to monitor you and see and hear what you learn from his employees.  

Paradigmatic approaches that fit well with field research include behaviorism, constructivist, critical race theory, critical theory, functionalism, neoliberalism, positivism, pragmatism, radicalism and scientism.


Field research can deal with people, phenomena in nature or even history.

It may require qualitative and/or quantitative research.

You will need to do a literature study and decide how you will collect further data first before you will know what kind of field research you should do.

Fieldwork can be done almost anywhere.

You need to be open-minded and objective about the data that you collect through fieldwork.

Also, be prepared to go through a process of mental adjustment. You will need time to grow accustomed to strange people and an unknown environment.

The contextual conditions between participant observation and interviewing are not the same, but both can be damaged by reflexivity.

You can integrate fieldwork with most other research methods.

Fieldwork is not always necessary for all research on especially the doctoral level.

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