Purpose of the focus group interview
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Focus group is one of the research methods that can be used by undergraduate students in their dissertation. The aim of this essay is to explain the purpose of conducting such group as well as highlight its advantages and weaknesses. Before that is achieved, more general picture of what that methodology is will be given, explaining how focus groups are structured and what is the role of moderator. It will also discuss importance of group interactions during the analysis of the data. First of all, it shall be explained, what exactly focus group research method is. Patton, for example, defines it as follows: “A focus group interview is an interview with a small group of people on a specific topic. Groups are typically six to eight people who participate in the interview for one-half to two hours.” (2002, pp. 385).
In other words, it is a qualitative research methodology that aims to collect information about the opinions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and insights of a small group of people (Kitzinger and Barbour, 1999). According to Kress and Shoffner, “Such groups provide a means of obtaining group participants’ individual and unique understandings of experiences. In particular, focus groups are helpful in evaluation research or in understanding how people regard a specific experience or event” (2007, pp. 190). Focus group is structured in a different way as for instance individual interview, mainly because it does not rely on a set of questions prepared and asked by interviewer.
Instead, it is conducted by moderator or facilitator who guides group discussion and makes sure it goes in the right direction. Focus groups are often used in marketing research. For instance group interview is conducted with potential customers to discuss the way in which product should be advertised or what changes would be beneficial to it. There is a number of myths about advantages and disadvantages of using focus group methodology and being aware of them is very important before planning one. Morgan and Krueger (1993) in their chapter confront some of them, starting with the most common opinion, that group interview can be done quickly and does not require as much resources as other methods.
They argue that this belief leads to many inappropriate uses of focus groups methodology, and claim that in many cases, believed cheapness of that method wrongly triumphs over the fact that its use may not be effective enough in particular fields of research. They also point out, that focus group methodology need as much effort and careful planning as other ones and in many cases turns to be as expensive as them. Ideally, it is agreed that focus group should consist of strangers and it is another point that is argued by Morgan and Krueger (1993), according to whom it would be almost impossible to conduct focus groups in social settings such as organizations or local communities, if only strangers could be interviewed.
Even though, problems such as members of group do not get along well with each other or existence of dominant individual who is showing off to the group, can be encountered within a group of strangers it is more likely that they occur among people who know each other. In terms of problems however, there is also a common belief that people will not talk about sensitive topics in focus group. In fact, group discussion about sensitive topic has to be planned very carefully to ensure that participants will feel comfortable enough to talk about matters that are inconvenient to them, and this is when role of the moderator plays a vital part. As it has been mentioned before, focus groups are conducted by a moderator so this paragraph will explain more precisely importance of such person.
Richard A. Krueger in his book “Moderating Focus Groups” (1998) use a meditation developed by Jack Kornfield to help understand the approach that successful moderator should have: “Picture or imagine that this earth is filled with Buddhas, that every single being you encounter is enlightened, except one – yourself! Imagine that they are all here to teach you. All those you encounter are acting as they do solely for your benefit, to provide just the teachings and difficulties you need to awaken. […]”. This quotation explains well the fact that moderator by all means should not share his viewpoints or engage in discussion while conducting focus group, as he is only a tool in getting opinions from participants. Nonetheless, some moderators, to enhance discussion and make participants feel more comfortable within a group, would express some of their personal views.
Such strategy however, can limit the range of views expressed as it “tends to cue participants about what’s wanted from them” (Krueger, 1998, pp.6). In some cases however, facilitator is expected to share some facts about himself, as it may indeed create more relaxed atmosphere – for instance, if he has similar professional background, participants may be more open in discussion. On the other hand, Morgan and Krueger (1993) confronts the myth that focus group require moderators with highly developed professional skills. Even though they are very far from saying that anyone could moderate focus group, they point out that the most important things to do while planning focus group should be: 1.Defining purposes of the project; 2.Considering who the participants should be.
If that is sorted, appropriate moderator should be approached, one who’s professional background would be helpful in obtaining useful data from that particular group. Morgan and Krueger also highlight the importance of the ability to analyse collected data and point out that quality of group discussion hardly matters if researchers group lacks requisite analysis skills (1993, pp. 5). Therefore, next point to be discussed is importance of analysing data gathered through focus group interview. While some scholars are sceptical about focus group due to perception that data is subjective and difficult to interpret, others such as Stewart (2007) claim that it “require a great deal of judgment and care, just as any other scientific approach, and regardless of whether the analysis relies on quantitative or qualitative procedures.” (pp. 109).
Nonetheless, before data is analysed, whole discussion must be recorded and then transcribed so topics and themes can be easily seen. According to Seidel and Clark (1984, cited in Knodel, 1993, pp. 44-45), essentially, there are two basic parts to the analysis of focus group data: mechanical and interpretive. While first part depends on organising data into meaningful segments, the interpretive part “involves determining criteria for organizing the textual data into analytically useful subdivisions (in essence coding the data) and the subsequent search for patterns within and between these subdivisions to draw substantively meaningful conclusions.” (Knodel, 1993, pp. 45).
At this stage, it shall be point out that in general, scholars agree that there is no such thing as one and only right way to analyse data because each discussion is unique and should be approach differently. Very important aspect that should be taken into a count while analysing focus group data is group interaction as it can help, for instance, to understand some issues that appeared during discussion. In fact it is a factor that distinguishes this methodology from other ones available. Albrecht et al., however, warns against unwanted consequences that social interaction may cause, which is its impact on opinion formation and articulation.
He refers to Kelman (1961 cited in Albrecht et al, 1993, pp. 55) who suggested that opinions are produced through one of three processes: 1.Compliance – act of responding in a way that one believes is expected by questioner ; 2.Identyfication – while respondent’s opinion is affected by opinion of someone he admires; 3.Internalization – when one’s opinion is affected by opinions of others (i.e. majority of the group). Jenny Kitzinger (1993) in her study however, argues for advantages that come from exploiting and exploring group interactions. She points out main benefits that interaction between focus group participants brings, such as highlighting respondents’ attitudes, fostering discussion, help better understand the group as well as make participants feel comfortable enough to share their views on embarrassing topics.
She also argues that careful observation of such interactions allows researcher to, for instance, explore differences between participants and, more importantly, prevent situations described by Albrecht et al from happening. As previous part of this essay dealt with issues such as focus group structure, role of moderator, group interactions etc., it is time to consider more precisely on actual purpose of conducting focus group interview. The first paragraph stated in more general context that this methodology is used to obtain people’s opinions, attitudes and the way that they understand particular content. Now the question arises, when such knowledge might be useful? In other words, when conducting focus group should be considered?
In social sciences, the most popular use for this methodology is when research aims to investigate complex behaviours and motivations. Jacqueline Bobo in her research examines: ”the way in which a specific audience creates meaning from a mainstream text and uses the reconstructed meaning to empower themselves and their social group” (2003, pp. 307). She uses focus group methodology and conducts group interview with Black women viewers of the film “The Color Purple”. The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, is an adaptation of controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, and tells a story of Celie – young, uneducated, Black girl who is abused by her father throughout her childhood and later by her husband, but nonetheless, evolves into womanhood with a sense of her own worth gained by bonding with the women around her.
Bobo uses group interview to gather statements and reactions from the audience to the film, and the fact, that main subject eventually triumphs in the film. Quotations of interviewed women are used throughout the chapter, showing rather positive reception of the film, as well as confronting negative critique from male audience. While reading last few paragraphs of Bobo’s chapter, it appears that she chosen the best possible method to use in her case study. That is not only because it gave actual voice to the target of her research, but also because her research depends on exploring viewpoints of a group rather than individual.
It has been explained so far that focus group is effective methodology to generate data, however, it can be also used in conjunction with other techniques of data collection: “With their emphasis on shared and contested meanings, focus groups can help researchers to explore the findings that emerge from surveys, interviews or observations.” (Tonkiss, 2003, pp. 197). To support this point Tonkiss brings up an example of Jenny Pearce research (2003 cited in Tonkiss, 2003). Firstly, she asked over a hundred children in a secondary school in East London to draw maps and make lists of places they use in their local area adding to them notes such as what they were doing there, when and with whom they went there.
Based on these charts, she created a topic guide and conducted focus group with these young participants who were able to learn more about places they chosen and what is important they learnt it together through collective discussion. Pearce was able to explore children relationship to local areas and issues of danger and safety within those spaces, through combining focus group method with quantitative research. Such combination has been proved effective in a number of researches in which firstly survey or questionnaire is used to collect data and then via focus group respondents’ choices can be discussed and analysed. Coming to the conclusion, focus group method despite the fact that it may be considered as rather easy way of obtaining qualitative data, requires a lot of planning and, perhaps more importantly, great understanding of advantages that it offers.
The most obvious point should be that this methodology will not be successful when statistical data is required. Instead, as its key feature is interaction, focus group aims to create meanings from conversations, negotiations and arguments between participants and this context makes visible how they articulate and justify their ideas. All in all, this methodology can be found appropriate to use in media and communication studies, evaluation as well as organizational researches and the purpose of using it would be to understand the range of opinions surrounding chosen topic and learn about degree of consensus.
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