Focus Group as a Qualitative Research Method

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Focus group is a unique qualitative research method introduced by Emory Bogardus in early 1926. The core aim of this social psychologist was to develop a method that will offer a way to listen to people and learn from them. Over the past years, focus groups have been utilized by community health workers, Marxist revolutionaries, feminist activists and social activists in advancing their causes and concerns (Wilkinson, 2004). Many social science researchers go for focus group methods due to its ability to offer quick results with a dependable generation of complex information at a low cost within a less time. Furthermore, they have a collective nature that suits people who are unable to articulate their experiences thereby providing a collective power to marginalized members of the community such as women and the youth (Morgan, 2009). Due to its foundational involvement in social sciences, this paper explores the advantages and disadvantages of focus group while highlighting the most appropriate context where it could be used in community work and youth.

The Nature and Context of the Focus Group Method

According to Williams, Clausen, Robertson, Peacock & McPherson (2012), at its lowest levels, a focus group may be described as an informal discussion among a selected group of individuals about a specific theme. For example, a group of youths in a community social hall involved in a discussion on the effects of gambling, women waiting for a health care provider to discuss the contraceptives as a family planning option. From a community perspective, good examples include a group of community members gathered in a school field and discussing the impacts of alcoholism in their families. As seen in above examples, group focus is a collective conversation that may include small or large groups of people and arranged to evaluate specific sets of community-influencing topics (Williams, Clausen, Robertson, Peacock & McPherson, 2012). As highlighted by Krueger & Casey (2000), the primary goal of a focus group is to describe the meaning of a specific group of individuals and to gain an understanding of a specific inflicting issue from their perspective. However, it important highlighting that focus groups do not aim at reaching a consensus on the disused subjects, they only encourage diverse responses that offer a better understanding of perceptions, opinions, attitudes, and behavior of the involved participants in relation to the specific research issues (Krueger & Casey, 2000).

Practically, focus groups research method shifts the control of interaction form the researcher into the hands of the community members or participants. The interaction between the involved members substitutes the interaction between the moderator and the participants hence offering a good platform for understanding the viewpoints and perception of the community hence providing a societal voice to the voiceless. In so doing, the focus group methodology reflects aa useful strategy for examining and exploring what community members think, why they think they way they do, how they do it and their expectation. This is achieved without coercing them into reaching a consensus of making tough decisions. In that way, a focus group is regarded as the ideal approach for examining and examining points of view, beliefs, community stories and concerns of people in a given setup.

Advantages of Focus Group

Socially-Oriented

Focus groups are socially-orientated research method. According to Wilkinson (2004), focus groups help in capturing real-life information from a social setting hence giving the moderator a better opportunity to understand the community needs and vulnerabilities. The intercommunication between members in the group provides an overview of the real issues in the society (Wilkinson, 2004). For example, if the topic is on crime, the community members are willing to highlight different areas in the community that are prone to crimes while offering examples of incidents that have happened in the past. In real life situations, focus groups helped social workers in unearthing youth criminal activities in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The research proved that unemployment and high school dropouts were the primary catalysts of crime among the youths. Crime is a social problem that should be approached through a socially-oriented research approach such as focus groups.

High Validity

Redmond & Curtis (2009) highlights that focus groups have high face validity. This implies that they are accurate in measuring what they are intended to evaluate. Focus group enables the research to gain insight on a wider array of views regarding the people and the specific topic. Furthermore, the moderator has an opportunity to assess how the community members are handling the issue at hand. For example, there has been controversy on impacts of contraceptives and family planning pills on the health of women. Therefore, community health workers may hold focus groups to understand how both women and men in the society perceive the family planning strategy (Redmond & Curtis, 2009). In this exercise, researchers are offered with rich and detailed information about the impression, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and understanding of people on the specific issue. The interaction provides accuracy in the information and concerns being evaluated.

Flexible and Quick Results

Focus groups provide researchers with the ability to evaluate why community members hold certain views in regard to a particular topic. Additionally, it creates a ground for comparing diverse views held by community members. For example, if the community is affected by youth crime, some may suggest that placement of a police patrol station in the area would lower the vices. However, another group in the same gathering may feel that presence of police will escalate the issue and many youths will be incarcerated for no good reason. The flexibility of tilting perception to have a good understanding of the core problem makes focus group method an important choice when it comes to dealing with social science topics.

Major problems in research originate from scenarios where the conducted exploration cannot feel the gap in the study group. However, focus groups have the ability to explore the gap between what the community members say and what they do. From a community perspective, a social research may intend to survey the effects of placing a sugarcane processing plant in a given area in the community. However, due to environmental and health effects associated with air pollution, the society may be against it. Nevertheless, with focus group methodology, the researchers are given the nitty gritty of why the community is opposing the project. For example, issues related to skin itching, skin cancer or respiratory difficulties may originate from the plan waste materials hence resulting in more social problems such as disability and dependence. For that, focus groups provide quick results without taking corners on social related issues hence boosting faster reactions from policymakers.

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According to Morgan (2009), focus groups allow diverse lines of communication among involved participants that entirely save time and money for the researcher. Many people find face-to-face or one-on-one interaction scary and intimidating, however, focus group creates a safe environment where such people can confidently share their beliefs, perceptions, ideas, and attitudes in the face of other people. Short time is used in interacting with a large group of people hence lowering the costs that would be incurred in interviewing or interacting with everyone one individual at a time.

The foundational platform of the focus group is an idea for individuals from ethnic minority groups that may feel intimated by race, ethnicity or voiceless nature in the community (Morgan, 2009). To that end, the inclusivity of focus group research method reveals information and ideas that the moderator or the researcher would have missed from individual interviews.

Disadvantages of Focus Groups

Less Control by the Moderator

In focus groups, the researcher has less or no control over the discussion. Once the discussion is stated, community members take up the control and drive the conversation to their wish. The activity mutes the position of the moderator as the connection between the participants is influenced social cues that are well-known to them. For example, if youths are talking about ghetto crime, they may use a language or body expressions that make it had for the researcher to control the discussion.

Difficulty in Data Analysis

As seen above, focus groups are created by individuals who originate in the same environment. Therefore, their expression of data and some ideas may be difficult for the research to interpret and analyze. For example, some language cues may have diverse meaning in different societies; therefore, one interpretation may mean a completely different thing in another community. For example, some communities perceive family planning contraceptives as fertility blockage pills to their women. Others perceive them as unethical actions against God’s reproduction ability. Finally, health practitioners see it as a way of controlling population based on social issues in the affected family. Thus, the indifferent styles of delivering ideas make it difficult for the research to analyze the information and make effective reports.

Krueger & Casey (2000) presents that focus groups are not effective on some research topics. For example, topics that touch on too personal topics such as financial status, domestic violence, infertility, sexuality and HIV/AIDS may be difficult to analyze using this method. People are reluctant in expressing opinions or even discussing topics that touch on personal issues and experiences in front of other community members. For that reason, focus groups may get ineffective in studying in-depth topics such personal experiences with illness or infertility before a group of other colleagues. In this context, group dynamics take a position in determining the free flow of information between the members (Krueger & Casey, 2000). For example, if dealing with a women alone group, there is a high possibility of information flow being achieved without barriers as opposed to involving a gender missed discussion group.

Shallow Understanding of Personal Issues

Williams, Clausen, Robertson, Peacock & McPherson (2012) argues that focus groups are criticized for providing a shallow conception of personal issues when compared with other methods such as individual interviews. As noted above, personal experiences and experiences may not be exposed during focus group discussion; however, if the same is tried in individual interviews, a respondent will be free to share personal experiences (Williams, Clausen, Robertson, Peacock & McPherson, 2012). For example, a qualitative study on the life and experiences of Muslim youths in the United States proved that individual interviews were more effective than focus group discussions.

The core reason was based on the fact that participants were capable of expressing their emotional experiences as far as racial segregation is concerned. However, in the focus group discussion, most of them were not comfortable as some members were more likely to create a chain of rumors from the ideas dispersed by one community member.

Intimidation of Members

Focus groups may be created from diverse personality, race, and status in the society. However, the presence of authoritative bodies or aggressive personalities may negatively influence the expression of other group members. Additionally, the social context of the involved focus group may have a significant influence on the issues related to social conformity, desirability, and disclosure of some community secrets. Similarly, the presence of some group members may make some members too intimidated to speak. For example, having a friend of a local chief or police officer in the group may affect the ability of youths to unleash the truths about criminal activities in the society. For that reason, the quality of data or information acquired from focus group discussion is negatively affected by the context and characteristic of the focus group members.

Conclusion

Despite the criticism explored with regard to focus group, a social cost-benefit analysis proves that they are more effective in understanding the thoughts, the perception, beliefs, practices, and norms of the community. Consequently, the research is given the opportunity to generate evidence-based interventions and recommendations that have the ability to solve the social vices experienced by the group. Therefore, social workers, community health workers, and government social league departments should consider focus group methodology as an effective option in examining and understanding their communities.

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