The notion of 'focus groups' is one of the clichés of our time, a term used by many who are probably not precisely clear as to what they are or how they work in the interviewing sense. Focus groups can be one method of data collection for the main empirical study but, as with other kinds of group interviews, they may be more useful in the early, exploratory phase of a research programme.
They are usually focused in two ways: a tightly defined topic for discussion (the content focus) and a specifically defined group of individuals (the group composition focus). So, for example, if the topic is the provision of nursery education for children under three, you might have several small groups composed differently: parents with children aged two to three years; nursery nurses; nursery teachers; pre-school educationists. For each group the focus is the same but the groups are differently composed. One can vary the composition focus: in the case of the nursery provision topic, for example, having different groups of parents: those with partners, and those without; those in employment and those who are not, and so on.
On the other hand, group interviews as we choose to define them here, and to contrast and distinguish them from focus groups, have a much wider spread of both content and composition. The open, trawling nature of group interviews indicates their main use as an exploratory study. They are particularly useful for the researcher who is entering a setting where they are unknown and which is relatively unknown to them. Here a group interview sometimes provides an early indication of issues that run deep – conflicts, grievances and the like – which may not surface in the more controlled context of an individual interview. Which brings us to the distinctive elements and characteristics of a group interview, however constituted.