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A partial, commented bibliography on focus groups

I have taught qualitative methods and written about them for a very long while, and I frequently feel like there’s a substantive misunderstanding of what a focus group is. It’s not a “collective interview”, nor “a way to save time and money on interview because we have them all in one place”. The focus group explicitly looks at the relationships WITHIN and interactions among the members of the group.

Focus Group

Focus group. Credit: Dave Shea on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

What is a focus group? I really enjoyed how Dr. Jennifer Cyr (Universidad Torcuato Di Tella) describes the portrayal of focus groups in multiple media (television, print materials):

“Focus groups bring individuals together to discuss a set of questions. These conversations typically take place around a table, and they include a moderator who guides and nurtures the discussion.”

Cyr, Jennifer. 2019. Focus Groups for the Social Science Researcher Methods for Social Inquiry. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, New Delhi, Singapore: Cambridge University Press, p. 1.

Dr. Cyr refers to David L. Morgan’s definition of focus groups as:

“… a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic determind by the researcher. This definition has three essential components. First, it clearly states that focus groups are a research method devoted to data collection. Second, it locates the interaction in a group discussion as the source of the data. Third, it acknowledges the researcher’s active role in creating the group discussion for data collection purposes” (Morgan 1996, p. 130)

Morgan, David L. 1996. “Focus Groups.” Annual Review of Sociology 22(August 1996): 129–152.

I have this nagging feeling that the relational nature of a focus group gets lost in how we teach focus as part of a suite of qualitative methods. I may be wrong, but it’s what I perceive from how some scholars report their use of focus groups in research. And from the replies to my Twitter thread, it looks like I am not wrong.

So, what if you DO want to compare how individual interviews would perform against focus groups? Well, my dear friend Dr. Amber Wutich (Arizona State University) and her collaborators have just the perfect paper for you: Wutich, Amber et al. 2010. “Comparing Focus Group and Individual Responses on Sensitive Topics: A Study of Water Decision Makers in a Desert City.” Field Methods 22(1): 88–110.

If you want to delve deeper into focus groups as a qualitative research method you can peruse my partial, commented bibliography on the topic. (Click on the hyperlink to go to the PDF file).

Hope this post and the partial, commented bibliography I compiled help those looking for some guidance on how to design and implement focus groups as a qualitative data gathering technique.

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Posted in academia, qualitative methods, research methods.

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