Qualitative research methods covered in the course: Focus Groups

Social research cannot be understood outside of the social world that it studies, Hammersley (2000) argues. He maintains that it does not exist in some autonomous realm, but affects, and is affected by other factors in society. Hammersley maintains that even before a researcher frames a research question they have to contend with the powerful discourses that state that social research should be undertaken in a scientific manner if it is to produce meaningful data, i.e. data that is objective and value free. The sociologist C Wright Mills was not in complete agreement with this, he maintained that sociology was about taking individual experiences and relating them to the social structures that human beings inhabit. Mills argued that the methods that researchers use to study society are not neutral, rather they are tied to understandings of what constitutes reality and how best that reality might be studied. There is a clear difference between science and the scientific method and the methods that are needed to investigate the social world. For human beings, human action is meaningful and they act on the basis of that meaning. The sociologist’s job is to interpret the social world from the research subject’s point of view. What this means is that far from research being objective and knowledge being objective and value free, they are in fact marked by the stamp of their producers. Research methods and practice also need to relate to the wider social reality in order to be of any use so data is collected in relation to other things, theory for example or a social problem (Bryman, 2004).

Whether a researcher uses a quantitative or a qualitative approach is known as a particular research strategy and should not be confused with research methods. It has already been established that the strategy here is a qualitative approach. The method on the other hand is the use of focus groups. Bryman (2004) says that:

The focus group method is an interviewwith several people on a specific topic or issue. It has been used extensively in market research but has only relatively recently made inroads into social research (Bryman, 2004:345).

This paper, after a general introduction to qualitative research, will describe and assess the use of focus groups (essentially a group interview) as a particular qualitative research method. Attention will also be paid to the ethical concerns that are a part of every research project.

Qualitative Research

In any research project the researcher constantly has to decide what is the best way of collecting the information that will answer the research question. This happens in what is regarded as scientific and value free social research just as much as it does in social research that does not claim to be objective and value free. All researchers, as Gouldner (1971) points out have to make choices about their ‘domain of enquiry’ i.e. when, where, how, and from whom they are going to obtain their data.

Research is usually a messy business, and often its conduct relies on external factors such as availability of research participants, the demands of funding bodies, and the time available in which to conduct the research. That is without taking into consideration the researcher’s own capabilities in managing a project and carrying it out to successful completion. In qualitative research the researcher often embarks on a voyage of discovery (Denscombe, 1998:215) that is not to say that the researcher starts out with nothing on his/her mind.

To be sure one goes out and studies an area with a particular…perspective, and with a focus, a general question or a problem in mind. But the researcher can, (and we believe should)also study an area without any preconceived theory that dictates, prior to the research’relevancies’ in concepts and hypotheses (Glaser and Strauss, 1967:33).

The qualitative researcher does not just describe how people deal with and interpret their world, the researcher necessarily has to give a sociological interpretation of people’s own interpretations and these have to be further understood in connection with the literature and existing theories of the discipline (Bryman, 2004). It is not easy to give a definition of what qualitative research is as it is best understood by its methods. Lofland and Lofland are of the opinion that:

Social science is a terminological jungle where many labels compete, and no single lable has been able to command the particular domain before us. Often…researchers simply do it without worrying about giving it a name (Lofland and Lofland, 1984:3).

Qualitative Research

  • Predominantly emphasises an inductive approach to the relationship between theory and research, in which the emphasis is placed on the generation of theories

  • Has rejected the practices and norms of the natural scientific model and of positivism in particular in preference for an emphasis on the ways in which individuals interpret their social world; and

  • Embodies a view of social reality as a constantly shifting emergent property of individual’s creation. (Bryman, 2004:19-20).

Qualitative researchers tend to make use of unstructured interviews, case study research, participant observation and focus groups. Qualitative research is generally concerned with researcher involvement and the researcher’s self, in terms of his/her background and assumptions will have significant influence on the way in which data is collected and analysed. The qualitative researcher has to make this involvement specific when writing up the research. Sociological research is not the clearly defined process that the textbooks would have us believe. It can be a messy business and is fraught with pitfalls so the researcher needs to be flexible in his/her approach to the project. Power relationships emerge as an issue right from the beginning. There are the power relations contained within social institutions and in personal relationships. The relationship between the researcher and the researched is generally thought of as one of unequal power relations where the researcher is the custodian of expertise concerning the meaning of a research subject’s experiences. Power relationships also pertain to focus groups interviewing, not just between the researcher and the research participants but between members of the focus group itself.

Focus Groups

Interviews, as most of us would agree, are usually an exchange that takes place between two people, the interviewer and the interviewee. The focus group on the other hand, as it has already been established, is a group interview that involves the researcher in interviewing more than one person at the same time. Focus groups also require a moderator or facilitator who will ask the questions and then allow the discussion to develop. Generally the moderator’s role is to be as non-intrusive as possible but he/she will need to intervene, prompt, probe, or bring the group back to the subject in hand, as they would in any unstructured but focussed interview. The moderator has to be aware of power issues and to be ready to relinquish control in order to allow meanings that are important to the participants to emerge (Bryman, 2004). Some researchers differentiate between what is simply a group interview and what is a focus group. Brymen (2004) maintains that there are several reasons as to why this might be the case and these are listed below.

  • Focus groups typically emphasise a specific theme or topic that is explored in depth, whereas group interviews often span very widely.

  • Sometimes group interviews are carried out so that the researcher is able to save time and money by carrying out interviews with a number of individuals simultaneously. However, focus groups are not carried out for this reason.

  • The foucs group practitioner is invariably interested in the ways in which individuals discuss a certain issue as members of a group, rather than simply as individuals. In other words, with a focus group the researcher will be interested in such things as how people respond to each other’s views and build up a view out of the interaction that takes place within the group (Bryman, 2004:346).

As Bryman observes within the field of market research there has been extensive use of focus groups to assess reactions to a new product or to advertising techniques. There is a considerable body of literature concerned with focus groups in market research and in this context the issue or topic tends to be very clearly defned (Merton et al, 1956). It is form of the group interview but differs from ordinary group interviews at a number of levels the accent is also on interaction within the group and how group, as well as individual meaning is constructed.

The focus group contains different elements therefore, it is a group interview, it is also a focussed interview. In the focussed interview a particular topic is chosen, this may be a researcher’s way of obtaining more information on a topic originally chosen as part of a survey. The participants are carefully chosen in the sense that they are known to have some association with the topic, perhaps the original survey. Part of the original idea of focus groups was the interviewing of people who had used a particular product or had a particular experience and could be interviewed in an unstructured way about that experience (Merton, 1956). The person interviewing or facilitating the group will discreetly draw attention back to the major topic under discussion when debate becomes too generalised and wanders off the point. The focus group became popular among researchers for examining the ways in which people as a group, understand the topics that the researcher is interested in (Bryman, 2004).

Focus groups were used in research by the Pre-School Learning Alliance on how parent involvement in pre-schools can lead them into further education and training. A specific emphasis was on the experiences of Black and minority ethnic groups. The method was useful because under-represented groups often find it difficult to speak to an interviewer on a one to one basis. In a group of the peers people are often far more forthcoming in what they really feel and think. The focussed interview can be used with individuals as well as with groups and it is this subject concentration in the context of a group interview that makes focus groups different from ordinary group interviews (Merton, et al 1956).

Group interviews were used by Willis’ (1977) in his study of working class lads and the ways in which the education system attempts to prepares them for the labour market. He used both individual and group interviews to obtain his data. Willis’s work has been criticised due to the size of the sample but other commentators take the view that group interviews gave a more rounded picture of the boy’s lives and gave some indication of how the interacted with others.. Holstein and Gubrium (1995) maintain that group interviews are useful, while they may start off slowly once members warm to a subject useful insights can be obtained as to how a certain issue might have bearing on other issues in the participant’s lives. Having other viewpoints on a subject can result in group members being more reflexive and critical of their own, as well as the stances of others and this can result in some useful data. Interviews in this sense are not just a simple revealing of the facts, as they can tend to be in structured interviewing of the kind usually employed by quantitative researchers.

Group interviews are becoming a lot more common among social researchers, and more recently the use of focus groups has increased dramatically. Focus group research is particularly associated nowadays with cultural and media studies and concentrates on what is known as ‘audience reception’ or how people respond to the newspapers they read or the television programmes they watch (Morley, 1990 and Fenton et al, 1998). In his research into a particular television programme Morley used a number of groups from different backgrounds. He found that responses to the programme differed considerably. His findings indicated that the meanings that people took from a particular television programme were not restricted to the programme itself but relied on a number of other factors associated with people’s lives (Morley, 1990). As Bryman (2004) notes,

This research and the increasing attention paid to audience reception set in motion a growth of interest in the use of the focus group method for the study of audience interpretations of cultural and media ‘texts’ (Bryman, 2004:348).

One of the most valuable contributions of the focus group is that it does not just ask people what they think or feel about a certain experience of subject, it gives them time to examine why they feel as they do and whether examining it in a group context has changed the way they feel about the subject. Focus groups are not only valuable in answering the researcher’s questions therefore, but may contribute to a participant’s wider understanding of a subject and of their personal way of understanding that issue. Within the focus group setting the researcher is not simply listening to what participants say, but in how they say it. The researcher will also be concerned with how other group members receive what a person has to say (May, 2001).

Focus groups are not always easy to convene. They involve the researcher in finding a suitable number of participants and obtaining informed consent to the interview (this is in accordance with the British Sociological Association’s research guidelines). The researcher may also have to book a room at an agreed time for the focus group to take place. There are also issues concerned with the size of groups and the fact that som participants may not show up. Some researchers e.g. Morgan (1998 cited in Bryman, 2004) recommend smaller groups because they may have more to say on the topic. A lot of this depends on the researcher’s particular investigation. Bryman (2004) maintains that if a group is too large it may not be easy to sustain conversation..

The focus group, therefore, takes considerably more time and trouble to arrange than does an individual interview which can, ostensibly, be undertaken anywhere. It is often the case that researchers will use the services of another facilitator to take notes and to ensure that the interview proceeds smoothly. Another problem for the researcher is in deciding whether one focus group will suffice or whether he/she needs to interview a number of different groups. This will depend very much on individual projects and the researcher’s reasons for choosing focus groups as a method. In market research researchers may need to interview groups in a number of different settings and over a period of time. It can prove problematic if whoever has commissioned the research takes a certain view of the findings and neglects unresolved questions. This was the case with testing a new brand of Coca-Cola. Consumers liked the new brand but the boss decided to go ahead with his plans for replacing the old brand with the new, a question which consumers had not been asked (Greissing, 1998). In social research (as opposed to market research) the number of groups interviewed are far more likely to depend on time and money available. Calder (1977) has said that the time to stop is when the researcher feels they can predict what the next group is going to say.

Transcribing focus groups interviews can also be a problem because you need to take account of who is speaking as well as what is being said. It is worth quoting Bryman at length here:

…people’s voices are not always easy to distinguish. Also people sometimes talk over each other, which can make transcription even more difficult. In addition, it is extremely important to ensure that you equip yourself with a very high-quality microphone which is capable of picking up voices….from many directions. Focus group transcripts always seem to have more missing bits due to lack of audibility than transcrips from conventional interviews (Bryman, 2004:349).

These things can of course prove problematic when it comes to analysing the data gained from focus group interviews. Some researchers feel that it is not always appropriate to transcribe all the data but will pull out those extracts which are most pertinent to what the researcher has found and to what he/she is asking in the first place. As with other research method ethical considerations also need to be taken into account.


It is becoming more general practice nowadays to ask research participants to sign a form of consent, there is usually a clause which states that they may withdraw from the study at any time. Confidentiality should also be assured and participants informed as to how the data will be used.At the very least ethics are concerned with protecting the anonymity of those who are participating in the research. This is vital if for example the participants are women who have experienced rape or domestic abuse as any such exposure of their true identity could put them at further risk. Many researchers, not just feminist researchers, also regard the use of non-sexist language as an ethical principle. Sexist language is exclusionary and denotes the power relationships that have for centuries existed in patriarchal society. This is relevant to focus group research as it is a method often favoured by feminists (Stanley and Wise, 1993).


As already stated focus groups are increasing in popularity as a research method and this is especially so with feminist research. There are problems associated with the method as outlined above and the researcher needs to bear these things in mind when undertaking focus group research. Focus groups are more problematic to organise and the researcher may run the risk of no-one turning up and if a room has been booked etc this can make research more expensive. There is also the question of group dynamics and the fact that there are occasions when participants can become aggressive in group discussion. Morgan (2002 cited in Bryman, 2000) maintains that this does not mean that the focus group should not have been used, it can be useful in assessing the research question in terms of the dynamics of the group. On the other hand there may be areas that may not be suitable for using focus groups I do not think however that the problems associated with focus groups are such that they undermine the potential of focus groups as a research method. It is arguably the case that focussed, group interviews can yield rich data and bring surprising results for the researcher.


  • Bryman, A 2nd ed. 2004 Social Research Methods Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • Denscombe, M. 1998. The Good Research Guide Buckingham, Open University Press
  • Gilbert, N. 1994 Researching Social Life, London: Sage
  • Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. The Discovery of Grounded Theory Chicago, Aldine
  • Gouldner, A. 1971. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology London, Heinemann
  • Guba, E and Lincoln, Y 1989 Fourth Generation Evaluation, Sage, Newbury Park, CA
  • Hammersley, M. 1992 What's Wrong with Ethnography? Routledge, London
  • Hammersley, M. 1995 The Politics of Social Research London, Sage
  • Haralambos et al. 2000. 5th ed. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives London, Collins.
  • May, T. (2001) Social Research: Issues, Methods & Process, Buckingham: Open University Press
  • Merton, R. 1967 On Theoretical Sociology New York, Free Press
  • Mills, Wright C. 1970 The Sociological Imagination New York, Cornell University Press
  • Stanley, L & Wise, S 1993 Breaking Out Again, Routledge, London

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