Focus Group Research
If you are interested in collecting a broad range of opinions on a certain topic, you may consider using a focus group discussion.
A focus group discussion allows you to identify a range of different views and perspectives of people on a certain research topic. You can gain insights and understanding of the topic from the perspective of the participants themselves.
Select the participants on the basis of similar characteristics (e.g. a profession) or a common interest in the research topic. Typically, a focus group consists of six to eight participants. It is important that participants feel safe and comfortable in sharing their experiences and views. This requires a permissive, non-threatening and positive environment. In the introduction, you should provide information about the study and its aims, the ethical issues and explain how the discussion will take place. To break the ice, you can ask the participants one or two introductory questions.
A focus group discussion needs to be well-structured and organised. Your questions need to stimulate the discussion. They should be short, simple and open. Personal questions are not suitable for a focus group discussion.
The discussion taking place between participants is a key element of the focus group, because it allows you to increase your understanding of the attitudes, behaviour, opinions or perceptions of participants on the research topic. The aim of the focus group discussion is therefore not to reach consensus between the participants, but to collect a broad range of views. During the discussion, new issues may emerge that you did not anticipate.
If you consider having a focus group with people from a vulnerable population, you may consider the following issues. To create a comfortable atmosphere, it is important to understand which categories of participants feel free to interact together. For example, certain topics are strongly gendered in certain communities and cannot be discussed in groups with men and women together. Also, you should be aware of the status and hierarchy of participants coming from the same community. Advice from a key informant from the community could be helpful.
When you do research with children, generally it is advised to use focus groups for those who are seven years or older and to engage children of the same age. Also, groups should be smaller (four to six participants) and shorter in time (45 to 60 minutes). Recruitment has to go through parents, since they have to give their informed consent. With regard to adolescents, it is more common to work with single sex groups, because of the gender division in friendships in this age group. To have a lively exchange the moderator should have considerable experience in working with adolescents, in order to gain their trust.
When to use focus group discussions
When to use in-depth interviews
To identity a range of views and experiences, including community experiences
To identify individual perspectives and experiences, including sensitive topics
To generate more creative insights and hypotheses thanks to group dynamics
For participants that are hard to reach
To provoke discussion and explanation of issues
For detailed, in-depth and descriptive information
Source: Adapted from Hennink, 2007, p. 10.
Guest, G. et al. (2015). How Many Focus Groups are Enough? 29 Field Methods. Sage Publications.
Munday, J. (2014). The Practice of Feminist Focus Groups. In: Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber (ed), Feminist Research Practice: a Primer. Sage Publications.
Hennink, M. (2007). International Focus Group Research. A handbook for the health and social sciences. Cambridge University Press.
The handbook provides a comprehensive overview of how to conduct focus group research in Western and Non-Western countries. It will take you through all the steps that are needed to design, implement and analyse a focus group discussion.
Morgan, D.L. (2019). Basic and Advanced Focus Groups. Sage Publications.
In this book a variety of approaches to doing research with focus groups are provided, by taking a practical, applied approach. Topics such as moderating focus groups, using mixed methods, and working with different sizes of groups are covered.