Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Friends or Strangers? A Feasibility Study of an Innovative Focus Group Methodology

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Friends or Strangers? A Feasibility Study of an Innovative Focus Group Methodology

Article excerpt

Introduction

Focus groups are an excellent technique to capture users' perceptions, feelings, and suggestions about a topic, product, or issue (Krueger & Casey, 2009; Ritchie, Lewis, NcNoughton-Nicoholls, & Ormston, 2014). These groups typically consist of a small number of participants who are guided through a discussion by a moderator using a structured interview protocol. Moderators are trained to obtain input from all participants, which provides a breadth of information that can help guide the next steps in the research process (e.g., developing a questionnaire, designing health communication materials). Moreover, the focus groups often consist of strangers. Researchers have argued that familiarity tends to inhibit disclosure and that previously established relationships could influence the discussion and group dynamics in ways that negatively impact the results (Krueger & Casey, 2009; Smith, 1972; Templeton, 1994). However, participants typically share a common set of characteristics determined by the purpose of the research study (e.g., social media users, cancer survivors, breastfeeding mothers). Recruiters typically employ purposive sampling to target respondents with these desired characteristics, often seeking demographic diversity within those constraints. Focus groups are usually held in formal facilities, which offer a controlled data collection environment. While focus groups are a well-established methodology for collecting qualitative data, the process of recruiting participants and securing suitable focus group facilities can be expensive and time-consuming.

Recently, a new methodology, called "friendship groups" or "friendship cells," has emerged in the market research area (Motivate Design, 2015). In this approach, researchers recruit a single "source participant" who in turn recruits friends or acquaintances possessing the characteristics desired for the research. An added element for friendship groups is that the source participant can host the group in his or her home. The group itself is conducted by a trained moderator, often accompanied by a note taker. In this environment, while the same protocol is administered as it would be in a traditional focus group, the less-structured venue may permit more open conversation, allowing for the natural banter, use of humor, and conversational style that unfolds among friends. The recruitment approach and the use of a home as a facility also have the potential to save time and costs.

Although some researchers caution against conducting groups with those who know one another, it is occasionally done in qualitative research. In fact, it has been suggested that acquaintanceship in focus groups does not necessarily have an adverse effect on the data generated, depending on the skill set of the group moderator (Fern, 1982). Pre-existing groups comprising people who know each other could be argued to have already passed through the early stages of the group process, thus facilitating the free expression of ideas (Lewis, 1992). Some studies have found that groups of acquaintances required less intervention and direction from the moderator than groups of strangers (David & Jones, 1996; Watson & Robertson, 1996). However, it is not clear from the published literature whether participants in groups who know each other feel comfortable discussing certain topics (especially sensitive ones) or opening up about personal experiences (e.g., divorce, cancer). In fact, researchers suggest that greater levels of intimacy among members who know one another may pose an additional burden on the moderator to try to ensure confidentiality among the group members and to try to protect the friendship dynamic (Bender & Ewbanks, 1994; Kidd & Parshall, 2000).

The purpose of the current paper is to examine the feasibility of using the friendship group methodology as an alternative to traditional focus groups for collecting qualitative data. …

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