More than numbers: Why use focus groups?

Dr Jess Morgan, working in the University of York, has taken time out from writing up a massive mixed-methods study to splurge on why you might like to use focus groups in your research study. You see, they aren’t just a way of getting a tonne of interviews done without having to do all the driving between coffee shops.

There are loads of different reasons that you might choose to use focus group discussions instead of individual interviews when carrying out qualitative health research. I’m going to outline my top six (there are more but six seems just about enough)….

1. Focus groups let you explore group normative values and assumptions. What does this mean? These are the things that are just ‘known’ – the unspoken rules that people in a group follow. For example, this might be ‘good parents bring their children to the hospital when they’re unwell’ or ‘good mothers breast feed’. They’re not always the ‘right’ thing to think but they’re the social values that lie underneath our interactions. Focus groups can let you explore how groups come to an opinion about something, through identifying and discussing these implicit societal processes. Participants can be encouraged to think about their own assumptions and identify the nuances in them.

2. Following on from this, focus groups let participants discuss the uncertainty that occurs when normative values and assumptions conflict – particularly if they have multiple group identities (eg parent, healthcare professional, young woman and sporty). So a doctor might struggle to balance up the time commitment that a medical career traditionally requires, with the societal norm of being actively involved in their children’s lives. Negotiating how they adapt the views within these two norms is more easily explored in a focus group where other people may value this differently, and bring up these within-person conflicts.

3. Focus groups are fantastic for potentially contentious subject matter. Seeing how groups discus multiple conflicting viewpoints can be fascinating, and can lead participants to further clarify why they hold their views. For the researcher, this means the fine details of a particular issue can be really deeply examined and tested. It takes a skilled moderator to do this well, knowing when to prod or quell an issue.

4. Linking point 2 and 3, through a focus group, you can see how people are influenced by the society in which they function. How do their thoughts and attitudes change over the period of a group, as they hear other participants put forward their own arguments? This benefit of focus group discussions has been called ‘structure eavesdropping’ and is probably best imagined as a way of listening in to the clinic waiting room discussions, except this time you can guide the talk away from last night’s Corrie episode and towards your area of interest. Unless you are investigating what people think of last night’s Corrie, obviously.

5. Focus groups discussions can get people to think about and talk about things that they haven’t previously considered in depth – like how a certain service could be better designed. By getting everyone together to do this, you find they bounce ideas off each other and go much further into the details than they might have done on their own in an individual interview. The group, if it’s functioning well, can weigh up the benefits or disadvantages of their own and others ideas, testing them in a way that an individual may not be able to do.

6. Finally, focus groups have been found to be great for teenage participants, who can sometimes struggle with the intensity of an individual interview with an adult researcher. By allowing them to be part of a group, the pressure is eased and everyone can talk a little more freely. If they don’t know the answer to one of your questions – someone else might be able to help them out!

Focus groups are a great way to find out how people work in a society, to cover new and interesting topics and to get teenagers chatting to qualitative researchers. They run the risk of ‘group think’ or ‘domineering’ types turning a discussion, and need skill and close attention to keep running smoothly and effectively. For some topics, they may be downright unhelpful compared to individual interviews (imagine the topic is ‘experience of STI testing‘ and you’re sat in a group with your peers from work), but for the right question, they are a powerful tool that will illuminate much more than a one-to-one or questionnaire ever could.

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