Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Qualitative Research and Consumer Policy: Focus Group Discussions as a Form of Consumer Participation

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Qualitative Research and Consumer Policy: Focus Group Discussions as a Form of Consumer Participation

Article excerpt

This paper describes our ongoing attempts to involve consumers in innovation and technology policy by means of a national Consumer Panel, using focus group discussions as the primary method of consumer participation. We evaluate our experiences of the usefulness of focus group discussions in this context by considering two examples of studies focused on product safety. We evaluate the usefulness of this method in promoting consumer empowerment, deliberation, and multivocality in the assessment of new technologies and innovations. We also raised some critical questions that require further analysis and discussion. Key Words: Focus Group Discussions, Consumer Participation, Empowerment, and Multivocality


Modern Western societies are increasingly defined by consumption. Over the past decade, growth in the EU and North America has been driven largely by consumer demand. The consumer is at the heart of political thinking in the EU, and policy makers assert that consumer participation enhances the economy. This argument is supported by marketing and business gurus, who argue that modern demanding consumers force markets to become more competitive (Inglehart, 1997; Pine & Gilmore, 1999; Porter, 1990). Moreover, consumers have been recognized as a source of many economically and socially significant innovations (Leadbeater & Miller, 2004). Within consumer research, as well, interest has grown in the role of consumers as initiators, drivers, and shapers of innovation (Firat & Dholakia, 1998; Wikstrom, 1996).

Apart from consumer protection, consumer policy is today also targeted at consumer involvement in technology assessment and product innovation. An EU study on how public policy could improve customer involvement in the innovation process (Ballantine, Devonald, & Meads, 2003) indicated that companies view consumers as the most important single driver of innovation. Companies considered that most influential obstacles to innovation were consumers' uncertainties about safety issues, low awareness about new products, and high price compared to alternatives. The study highlighted the role of public initiatives to strengthen the demand-side factors, including the enhancement of companies' capacities to involve consumers in the "innovation chain." It is in this context that the consumer becomes important. One target in innovation policy has been to create new ways to achieve greater public involvement in decision-making (EC, 2002; Hagendijk & Kallerud, 2003). Consumer participation is needed at early stages of the innovation process. For example the UK government has emphasized the need to involve consumer bodies more in policy making, and to empower consumers by improving consumer education to create "demanding customers." However, at the same time most academic and policy experts interviewed for this purpose (Bush, 2004) complained that, in fact, consumer bodies had not been linked in the innovation process in any meaningful way. There is a clear need to take consumer concerns into account more seriously and anticipatorily. Consumers should be able to influence the innovation process at its early stages, and not merely by avoiding unsuccessful product introductions or by complaining about substandard products.

The political pressure to increase public participation in consumer research raises questions about good approaches and methods. Public participation is a complex concept, involving difficult questions of group interaction, representativeness, impact on the sponsor, and impact on the public debate (Rowe & Frewer, 2004). In this article we will describe how we have attempted to create a new form of consumer participation in Finland using a national Consumer Panel.

Focus group discussions have been our primary method to involve consumers in technology assessment and innovation, yet there is an ongoing debate in the qualitative research community on whether focus groups are participatory and empowering. …

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