Neuman (2000) describes focus groups as a special kind of interview situation. The researcher bring 6 to 12 people and a moderator together to discuss a topic. The participants should be sufficiently homogeneous to avoid conflict, but not produce ‘group think’. The moderator introduces the topic, ensures that no one participant dominates the discussion, is flexible but keeps the participants on the topic and encourages discussion. The discussion is either tape recorded or documented by a committee officer or secretary. Focus groups are valuable for exploratory research or to generate hypotheses or questionnaire items, but also for the interpretation of results.
The hallmark of a focus group, according to Morgan (1997), is the explicit use of the interaction of group members to produce data and insights that otherwise would have been less accessible. Morgan (1997) identifies three basic uses for focus groups:
· self-contained, where they serve as primary source of data;
· supplementary source of data in research that rely on another principal method; or
· a multi-method research design that combines two or more data gathering methods.
Morgan (1997, pp. 34 & 38) enlightens that over the years a few ‘rules of thumb’ evolved regarding focus groups:
(i) Use homogeneous strangers as participants (Although acquaintances converse more readily, they may have taken-for-granted assumptions [which may be precisely what the researcher aims to investigate] or worse they may have tacitly agreed boundaries around certain topics)
(ii) Rely on a relatively structured interview with high moderator involvement
(iii) Have 6 to 10 participants per group
(iv) Have a total of three to five groups per project
The moderator would introduce the topic with a brief explanation and typically state “When you think about this issue, what comes to mind?” (Morgan, 1997, p. 19). Avoid a too detailed introduction as it might restrict and channel the discussion. The introduction typically includes setting a few ground rules, e.g. one person to speak at a time, no private conversations, no dominating, everyone participating, etc. (p. 49).
The research purpose determines the degree of structure and data collection varying between data volunteered by participants to data requested by the moderator/researcher. Time and/or budgetary constraints may also impact on the decision. Morgan (1997, p. 39) qualifies that ‘moderator involvement’ is the degree of “management of group dynamics—that is, the extent to which the moderator either controls the discussion or allows relatively free participation”:
(a) More structured focus groups — if there is a strong, pre-existing agenda, the moderator will keep the discussion concentrated on the topic the researcher wishes to explore, rather than any extraneous issues.
(b) Less structured focus groups — especially useful for exploratory research.
(c) The ‘funnel’ focus group, as compromise approach — beginning less structured and then moves the specific issues of interest to the researcher.
The typical focus group lasts 1 to 2 hours. Morgan (1997, p. 47) recommends setting the length for 90 minutes, but tell participants it will last 2 hours. The 30 minute ‘cushion’ avoids disruption of group dynamics, from ‘late arrivers’ or early leavers’.
The moderator may make use of an ice breaker, by asking the participants to share with the group what they like doing for fun. To start the actual discussion each participant may be asked to make an opening statement (Morgan, 1997).
The moderator should make field notes immediately after each focus group session. Field notes already involves interpretation and is thus regarded as part of the analysis rather than data collection (Morgan, 1997).
Krueger (1998) suggests the registration of participants if the researcher may need background information on participants or need to verify that participants meet the selection/screening requirements. Pending the circumstances, the following may be asked: name, gender, age, educational level, occupation, income, marital status, involvement, etc.
Krueger (1998) emphasises the importance of small talk prior to the actual focus group. The moderator must casually and comfortably welcome and engage participants. The function of small talk is to put participants at ease, establishing rapport and create a conducive atmosphere (warm and friendly environment).
With regards to focus group methodology Greenbaum (2000, p. 12) highlights, among others, two issues:
· ‘Safety in Numbers’ — people feel secure when talking about sensitive issues if with others who are similarly affected.
· ‘Controls Over Security’ — a favourite cartoon of Greenbaum shows two dogs sitting in front of a PC, the one saying to the other ‘on the Internet, nobody knows we are dogs’. With proper screening of participants there is question about who is involved in the discussion and there is no uninvited quests.
Greenbuam, T.L. (2000). Moderating focus groups: a practical guide for group facilitation. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Krueger, R.A. (1998). Moderating focus groups. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Morgan, D.L. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Neuman, W.L. (2000). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches. 4th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.