Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The Focus Group Method and Contemporary French Sociology

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

The Focus Group Method and Contemporary French Sociology

Article excerpt

Introduction

According to the classic definition (Morgan, 1988), the focus group represents a qualitative method of social research which consists in recruiting one or more groups of six to twelve individuals selected from criteria of homogeneity, initiating open discussion of topics under consideration and then producing an immediate analysis by collating the viewpoints of the participants (Morgan and Krueger, 1993).

The focus group method is widely used in the United States and Canada in social marketing, the field from which it emerged in the early 1950s. It was designed to ascertain consumers' reactions and the reasons for their enthusiasm for or indifference to a product, film or television programme. During the 1960s, demographers used the method for family planning studies in Third World countries. More recently, starting in 1980, it was used in the field of applied anthropology, developed at UCLA, to gauge the efficiency of nutrition and health care programmes in Latin America.

From this perspective the focus group is tied to social innovation, meaning any new approach, practice or intervention or any new product developed to improve a situation or solve a social problem and accepted by institutions, organizations or communities. The focus group thus involves:

1 a purpose: to improve an approach, service, process or situation so as to promote individual or community development;

2 diversified actors (individuals, groups, organizations) engaged in a planned social, institutional or organizational process;

3 an innovative practice, meaning one that is new and different from previous practices;

4 an assessment, meaning an ex ante judgement with respect to common practices, beliefs, norms or values or an ex post judgment based on impact evaluation; and

5 espousal or use of the innovative practice.

After fading from sight for a while, the focus group is back in fashion in the social sciences, especially sociology. Though the method remained applicable to that field, mainly in the form of action research, its methodological relevance was very uncertain. Assembling diverse individuals to identify and analyse a problem point-blank in order to take appropriate corrective action raises methodological and practical issues that remain unanswered on many counts. Those issues include, inter alia, the representativeness of the group, the objectivity of the analysis produced with its help, and the sway exerted by the researchers in the group dynamics.

A summary review of the focus group is presented. Its new developments, prompted by the sociological intervention approach devised by French sociologist Alain Touraine, are then described. Once the technicalities of the method have been described to show its functional merits, this method is related to the new epistemology of reception, currently enjoying immense popularity in the French stream of the social sciences. Lastly, sociological intervention will be critiqued, with the comments matching up with previous critiques on many counts.

Summary review of the focus group

Without attempting to reconstruct the precise genealogy of the focus group, it can be described as having received its pedigree in the wake of Kurt Lewin's `group dynamics' (1958), which bears specifically upon social psychology and gives lustre to the action research advocated by the author. Under its aegis, action research refers to a process tied from the outset to therapeutic action or practice targeting individuals, groups or organizations at grips with difficulties which are to be prevented, neutralized or eliminated. The proposed remedies spring from a theory emerging from group discussions moderated by researchers who are able to express that theory clearly and point out its epistemological and practical attributes apt to resolve the difficulties at hand.

In short, the function of group dynamics is to raise the participants' awareness through role-playing and discovery of the situation in which they find themselves in order to minimize tensions among them and optimize the effects of their cooperation. …

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