Facilitating Focus Groups

I am beginning to work with and facilitate focus groups at my work, and wanted to share a resource I found to be rather helpful. While the book Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research is probably the best text on the logistical practices of preparing for, facilitating, and analyzing focus groups, it can be a bit tough to use for a quick, need-to-know reference.

Enter the Richard Krueger, the author of the above-mentioned book, who also freely makes his Focus Group Interviewing website information freely available. While the website materials are bare-bones, they are an excellent primer and ready-reference for those involved in focus group work. While this often includes market researchers, those of us within organizations who are trying to better understand the “whats” and “whys”  behind the numbers can make wonderful use of this form of data gathering and organizational feedback.

Focus Groups: Inquiry, Pedagogy, and Praxis

I am attending a pre-conference workshop at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ICQI10) on Focus Groups presented by Greg Dimitriadis and George Kamberelis. Nice that we are going around the room and introducing ourselves and mentioning what our experiences are. I mentioned that I am doing some organizational focus group work within an organization, and I want to better target my questions and how to engage my population, as well as how to better write up the results.

Goodness, the slides are being presented in Normal View, and not in full-screen presentation mode. Eeeeccckkkk! Somebody just asked about showing this in slide show format, and alas there are some difficulties making this full-screen. Perhaps it is just a borrowed Mac and projector issue (benefit of the doubt?).

The nature of focus groups:

  • collective conversations or group interviews
  • small or large
  • can be “managed” or “self-organizing”

The emphasis of the presenters is to focus about strategic uses of focus groups, namely depending on if the reviewer has an agenda and uses strict questionning to follow that agenda, or if it is more open-ended to allow for the population to go where it develops.

As part of the introduction, there is a summary of who has used focus groups, and Freire was mentioned (as a Marxist revolutionary). Hmm, not quite how I would describe him.

There is also some talk about focus groups that allow researchers to “explore constitutive power of discourse in people’s lives.” Interesting perspective. Will have to think about this more.

Interesting discussion about similarities and differences between focus groups and interviews. They both have value for different purposes. Reminds me of issues of incommensurability.

The presenters are talking about focus groups being increasingly scrutinized by institutional (ethical) review boards. This may be partly since people in review boards do not understand what focus groups are all about (e.g., the perspective that this may be a privacy issue since there is a perspective that focus groups are used to save time by not intervieiwing people in individual interviews). Some of the reasons for this seem to include:

  • fears of violation of privacy (cannot guarantee privacy that participants will leave and externally discuss what others have said)
  • fear of generating dangerous knowledge (this can lead to the possibility of violence over what internal members have said)
  • fear of collective action

This research at times has to be defended because:

  • data affords insights not afforded other data
  • pedagogical value (for participants)
  • invite / cite political action (for participants)

I just asked a question about privacy concerns, such as how to handle it when the participants will not consent to be recorded out of fear of retribution. One of the presenters has not encountered this, though the other one mentioned that it is impportant to do whatever the population being studied feeld comfortable with. Thus, I will continue to take hand-notes depending on if my population declines being recorded.

It seems one of the major issues is over how participatns and other people envision and imagine risk (even for the people involved), and not just on the perspective of the IRB).

Somebody is sharing an interesting strategy that is being used about how the intended population to be studied has a unique body of knowledge or experiences that we cannot get to in any other way than by speaking to these people. Good way of using this reason to convince an IRB to approve this sort of research if there is value in getting these experiences.

One of the ways of getting focus groups to work is when the facilitator strategically decides how much or how little to participate.

Paulo Freire (Reading the Word / Reading the World) is an example of the focus on pedagogy (as pedagogy and politics are linked):

  • Goal is praxis (to help people interrogate and change the conditions of their lives)
  • Use of “generative” words and phrases (examples) – usually a small number of these to help participants generate other words to counter the prevailng narrative
  • Cultivation of conscientization (moments for the group to move beyond)

Collective testimony leads to personal and collective empowerment:

  • authority of the researcher decentralized
  • safe spaces to talk about shared, real-life struggles
  • colleactive identity helps people “reclaim their humanity”
  • what seems uniquely personal gets theorized and validated
  • power (and its abuse)  is made visible
  • subjugation is given a face (not just a knot in the stomach)
  • individuals and collectives are given a voice
  • survival and resistance strategies are generated
  • new narratives are generated (equipment for living) — based on Freud’s notion that what happened is not as important as the stories we generate about what happened — very useful concept
  • complexity and contradiction or experience made visible

There seems to be some agreement amongst the participants that this approach to focus groups, namely around issues of creating safe spaces for the participants and a flattening of the power relationships is quite interesting.

Ahh, the Internet wifi service now appears to be working. Hurray! Glad I asked about this this morning before the sessions started and found somebody who could contact the university IS group to solve this issue.

General advice:

  • create safe and comfortable spaces “of” the people
  • create a sense of the festive (pizza, potluck dinners)
  • exploit pre-existing networks (e.g., Radway)
  • encourage collegiality, solidarity
  • use prompts not questions (open ended)
  • encourage (and allow) participants to “take over”

The concept of community can be a challenge in focus groups, as that may encourage groupthink or inclusion / exclusion depending on the issue at hand.

I asked about how to handle the issue in a focus group if the facilitator allows the participants to discuss and move along as they feel comfortable, and in the process a few dominant voices tend to control the conversation or otherwise silence other discussion. It was suggested that there then be a conversation about the reason for the focus group and how it is valuable to hear from all members of the group as that allows for a wider perspective of experiences to be expressed. I am thinking especially about how to implement this in the work that I am doing. My experiences have at times been when people tend to become very vociferous within the session, and that does not as easily allow for diversity, equality of voice, and perspective to be raised (and thus allowing the discussion to develop in other and quite interesting ways).

There is some interesting work over what does not get said. I asked about this and if the presenters can speak about how to write this up. They will come back to this topic.

There are some really interesting examples of the findings and how they wrote these up from the examples of real interview transcripts that they shared. This section was titled “Indexicality, Complexity, Nuanced, Contradictory” with the findings as “Emerging Patterns.”

There was a fascinating example of when what appears to be background chatter in one focus group, after it was analyzed, demonstrated that there was more that was occurring at the time than the researcher was initially aware. This is the example of how the silence in the focus group really points to the need for interpretation and explanatory understanding that the researcher brings to the experience.

I asked another question about how to organize the discussion / findings (such as by thematic analysis, areas that were not discussed, conclusions, etc.); is there a standard way they conceive of presenting the findings? There was an example of straight findings that were responded to from 3 distinct audience groups in very different ways from their own narratives. It seemed that however the findings were initially presented, there would still be different audience responses to the results that could bring the researcher back into the raw data to reinterpret it again in a newly-informed perspective.

I feel like I got everything I wanted to get from this discussion; this was extremely helpful for my theory as well as practice. Excellent session.