Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Precincts and Prospects in the Use of Focus Groups in Social and Behavioral Science Research

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Precincts and Prospects in the Use of Focus Groups in Social and Behavioral Science Research

Article excerpt

In recent years, the importance of qualitative approaches in understanding social realities has been increasingly recognized by social and behavioural scientists. Many researchers have begun questioning the adequacy of an exclusively quantitative approach in social and behavioural research. Among the various qualitative methods, focus group methodology has become very popular and is being extensively used. Powell and Single (1996) define a focus group as a group of individuals selected and assembled by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the research. Fern (1982) also defines focus groups as small group discussions, addressing a specific topic, which usually involves six to 12 participants, either matched or varied on specific characteristics of interest to the researcher. There are many definitions of a focus group in the literature, but features like organised discussion (Kitzinger, 1994), collective activity (Powell & Single, 1996), social events (Goss & Leinbach, 1996) and interaction (Kitzinger, 1995) identify the contribution that focus groups make to social research.

Some researchers characterize focus groups as group interviews. For instance, Hughes and DuMont (1993) define focus groups as in-depth group interviews employing relatively homogenous groups to provide information around topics specified by the researchers. Others define them as group discussions. For instance, Krueger (1998) defines focus groups as a carefully planned discussion designed to obtain perceptions on a defined environment. It is important that a distinction is made between focus groups and group interviewing. In group interviewing, a number of people are simultaneously interviewed. However, focus groups rely on interaction within the group based on topics that are supplied by the researcher (Morgan, 1997). Thus, the key characteristic that distinguishes focus groups from group interviews is the insight and data produced by the interaction between participants (Gibbs, 1997).

Focus groups originated in sociology (Merton & Kendall, 1946) and were primarily used by market researchers (Templeton, 1987). They have been found to be most effective for learning about opinions and attitudes, pilot testing materials for assessments and generating recommendations (Smithson, 2000). While focus groups are an established method in market research (Templeton, 1987), their use in social science or other related disciplines is relatively new (Smithson, 2000). Khan et al. (1991) suggest that Merton and Kendall's (1946) classic article on the focused interview set the parameters for focus group development. According to Kitzinger (1995), the idea behind focus group methodology is that group processes can help people to explore and clarify their views in ways that would be less easily accessible in a one to one interview. When group dynamics work well, the participants work alongside the researcher, taking the research in new and often unexpected directions. Group work also helps researchers tap into the many different forms of communication that people use in day-to-day interaction, including jokes, anecdotes, teasing, and arguing. Gaining access to such a variety of communication is useful because people's knowledge and attitudes are not entirely encapsulated in reasoned responses to direct questions. In this sense, focus groups often reach aspects of knowledge that other methods cannot reach; this can reveal dimensions of understanding that often remain untapped by more conventional data collection techniques (Kitzinger, 1995).

Although focus groups are gaining prominence as a research tool, they are saddled with many limitations that could confound research outcome if not noticed and addressed. This article discusses theoretical and practical uses of focus group method in social and behavioural science research, its strengths and weaknesses, as well as how this method can be strengthened. …

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