The Strengths and Weaknesses of Focus Group Research

Focus groups are a prominent method of enquiry, regularly used within the field of social science and in particular, qualitative research. The focus group practice involves a number of participants having an open discussion on a specific topic, set by a researcher. The researcher acts as a moderator to aid discussion by using probes to collect desirable data. This process is recorded and transcripts are used to interpret and analyse given information. Carson et al (2001, p. 114) refers to focus groups as “A research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic or topics”.

They also suggest that the central distinctive characteristic of focus groups is group interaction, which generates a mass of data, which would be inaccessible without using focus groups. Focus groups are used in many industries to collect ideas and understanding. Carson et al (pg 8) suggest that groups as a social research tool have been used for some time but the term ‘focus group’ was established in the classic study, The Focused Interview by Merton et al (1956). Merton’s study influenced the creation of the procedures that are now accepted as common practice in focus groups.

Although this particular method possesses a substantial number of strengths, focus groups also occupy a number of weaknesses that disadvantage the researcher and limit findings which can be discussed in relevance to theories. Firstly, Dawn Snape and Liz Spencer (2003, p. 3) propose that it is important to define the practice of qualitative data before discussing the implications of it. They also suggest that qualitative research is difficult to define and can never entirely be classified.

They infer that there is a wide consensus that qualitative research is a naturalistic and interpretive approach, with an emphasis on the understanding of the meanings which people attach to phenomena. This point is supported by Alan Bryman, he comments: “The way in which people being studied understand and interpret their social reality is one of the central motifs of qualitative research. ” (Bryman, 1998, P. 8) Snape and Spencer refer to qualitative research as a complex, subjective and observational approach which takes focus on participant’s frames of reference.

There are no rules or single accepted way of exerting qualitative research, the methods are dependent on; ontology, the beliefs regarding the social world and epistemology, the beliefs regarding the nature of knowledge. In addition, qualitative research draws on philosophical, psychological and sociological ideas in order to search for in-depth data to aid the explanation of social phenomena. The key argument of qualitative research is that human behaviour is not simply driven by external forces; humans actively contribute to the construction of their own social world.

The central purpose of qualitative research is to explore meanings by interpreting data, rather than searching for specific answers by quantifying empirical data. A major critique of qualitative research is the fact that everyone is different and holds and creates their own schemas, so therefore there can be no definitive answer or explanation. The history of qualitative research is also important to acknowledge, in order to place focus groups into context. Traditionally, social science research imitated natural science methods in an attempt to create universally accepted laws.

Social science suppresses many philosophical underpinnings, which influenced this consensus. There were three key people implicated in these underpinnings, each pursuing the idea of the previous. The first key philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650), an empirical researcher. In his book, Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes suggested that the search for the truth could be completed by using methods of objectivity, in order to accumulate observable evidence. Following Descartes was another key philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), also an empirical researcher.

Hume also believed that objectivity, as well as unbiased and direct observation, could produce substantial empirical evidence. Lastly, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a sociologist and empirical researcher, proposed that the invariant laws apparent in natural science were also present in matters of social science. Comte implied that research methods used in natural science were also appropriate to the study of social science and phenomena. Comte influenced 20th Century research paradigms, which resulted in a school of thought called positivism. Positivism states that only observable phenomena count as knowledge.

Positivism also promotes scientific research methods and empirical testing of hypotheses. Positivism encouraged the formalising of quantitative research methods, collecting numerical data. However, other philosophical perspectives challenged positivism. Immanuel Kant, (1724-1804), a philosopher, suggested that there were other ways to understand the world. He believed knowledge could be acquired through interpretations and experiences. Other perspectives, such as that of Kant, consequently led to the employment of another school of thought called interpretivism.

Interpretivism promotes subjective understanding of meaningful experiences. Interpretivism encouraged the formalising of Qualitative research methods to overcome the limitations that quantitative research possessed. The use of focus groups as a qualitative and interpretive method of enquiry comprises of a number of strengths and weaknesses. One of the most prominent strength of focus groups is the ability to collect both new and rich information. Carson et al (p. 114) suggest that the new results that focus groups produce could not be possible with other methods of enquiry as they do not allow the same sense of exploration.

They argue that focus groups are an exploratory and developmental method of enquiry, not limited to just listening to what people have to say but by using interpretation skills, generates insights into the sources of certain behaviours and perceptions. Furthermore, Carson et al (p. 115) argue that focus groups can contribute information that may help to; obtain pre-conceived ideas and stimulate new ideas on, help to diagnose former or potential problems, generate further research ideas and establish how participants discuss and construct their own schema of phenomena.

Additionally, they believe that meaningful construct is interpreted from the highlighting, exchanging and revising of opinions, perceptions and differences. Another strength of focus groups is the depth of understanding of the generated information. Carson et al (p. 115-116) imply that depth of understanding enabled by focus group allows a deeper appreciation of the phenomenon. They also outline the fact that focus groups bring together and allow the analysis of diverse opinions rather than a single one, which would generate from other methods of enquiry.

The discussion of these opinions, which allow participants to share their own ideas and listen to others, creates a type of forum. This allows the researcher to note the response of one participant to another. As a result, the researcher is at an advantage as they have no need to speculate about differences in participants and data as this is evident within the focus group transcript. Ritchie and Lewis (2003, p. 87) agree with this theory as they imply that allowing the participants of a focus group to refer to their own personal experiences influences them to build upon what other participants have said and refine their own view, this creates a more in depth discussion and findings. However, Silverman (2001, p. 221) argues that researchers should not rely on experience to count as knowledge: “The assumption that ‘experience’ is paramount is not at all new…to focus on ‘experience’ alone undermines what we know about the cultural and linguistic forms which structure what we count as ‘experience’. Furthermore, another prominent strength of focus groups as a research tool is flexibility and group interaction. Flexibility and group interaction is the most fundamental and unique aspect of focus groups. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 175) suggest that group interaction is a major strength of focus groups as it allows an open and energetic discussion built on motivation and enjoyment. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 188) also propose that these conditions allow a more truthful debate, which are more in depth and passionate.

Ritchie and Lewis explain that group interaction enables participants to work together, quickly developing a ‘synergy’ which allows greater depth of insight into even the most challenging of subjects. This confidence allows the participants to dominate the focus group procedure thus allowing them to determine their own narrative, helping to expose the culture and values of each individual. Ritchie and Lewis describe this strength as “the most productive phase of the group process. ”(Ritchie and Lewis J, 2003, p. 176) Carson et al (p. 16) agree with Ritchie and Lewis by suggesting that “interaction is a unique strength of focus groups and should improve the quality of the ideas and opinions generated”. They propose that the participants act upon their own comparisons and ideas rather than relying on the moderator as a medium of discussion or speculation. Carson et al further their explanation by emphasizing that the vital strength of focus groups, as a qualitative and interpretive research tool, is its capacity to expose intricate behaviours and motivations.

Carson et al infer that this strength is a simultaneous reaction to group interaction. Furthermore, the role of the researcher within this interaction is also advantaged. Ritchie and Lewis highlight the fact that the role of the researcher in the group is more active and physical than in interviews. Denzin and Lincoln (1994, unknown source) agree by stating: “Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. ” This quote infers that they believe that focus groups allow the researcher to situate themselves and get involved.

This is a significant strength of focus groups as it allows the researcher to actively listen then act upon given information by using appropriate probes to gain further or richer information. However, this theory is over shadowed by a weakness of focus groups, the lack of control and high level of unpredictability. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 116) state that sometimes it is difficult for the researcher to dominate a focus group. Participants can easily move from the focal topic of discussion to a topic that they would prefer to talk about; this may have no relevance to the phenomena being researched.

Never the less, group interaction, according to Ritchie and Lewis ( p. 175), allows prominent socially accepted views, behaviours and norms to be revealed to the researcher. Ritchie and Lewis refer to this feature as a potentially valuable aspect of data as it allows the researcher to assess the context and vulnerability of the participant’s ideas. However, it is important to note that this data must be monitored and compared to transcripts later on, as the participants generally become more comfortable with expressing less confirming views.

This is evident in a prominent weakness of focus groups called demand characteristics. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 185) suggest that participants may realise the intentions of the researcher and as a result give them information that they think they want, instead of their true opinions. This can cause false interpretations and therefore invalid information. Furthermore, Ritchie and Lewis discuss real or imaginary pressure, which can also cause problems; “a common criticism of focus groups is that the group exerts a pressure on its participants. ” (Ritchie. R and Lewis, J, 2003, p. 88). Participants may feel the need to give politically acceptable answers, feel under pressure to conform to other participants or adjust their views to fulfil social norms; this can cause inconsistency in the findings. None the less, another suggestion of why group interaction is a primary strength of focus groups is it allows the advantage of group diversity. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 188) consider that group discussion can reveal differences and diversities between participants which awards the researcher with a key opportunity to explore group diversity.

Ritchie and Lewis believe that delving into diversity and dimensions of difference can both explain and explore causes, effects and consequences. Additionally, they suggest that by using heterogeneous rather than homogeneous participants, the resulted discussion can provide different perspective and views, which should need no persuasion by the moderator to be aired. However, too much diversity can result in weak data. Ritchie and Lewis (p. 190-191) also discuss that too much diversity can actually inhibit discussion.

For example, major diversities in socio-demographic makeup, such as social status, of a group of participants can influence how open the group are. Participants may feel uncomfortable, threatened by others or anxious about the response they may receive. This weakness may make it difficult for the researcher to cover key topics in depth. Ritchie and Lewis emphasise the need for a balance in diversity of the participants Another strength of focus groups is the advantage of a good sample. By using certain participants within a focus group a researcher can gain strong results.

Ritchie and Lewis (p. 192) suggest that using participants, who know each other or hold some type of relationship, can trigger pre existing memories which are extremely valuable for exploring and interpreting shared meanings. Furthermore, this set up can create a feeling of a safer atmosphere for participants to air their views or opinions. In comparison, using a sample of strangers can also be comforting for the individuals as they feel they may never see the other participants again therefore feel no need to hold back. However, a weakness in sampling is also present.

Ritchie and Lewis (p. 192) note that a substantial problem with using a preconceived group of participants is group norms may dominate, limiting the openness of discussion. Furthermore, they state that any shared meanings may not be expanded on enough, as they may be taken for granted. This may result in the meanings having no value at all. Additionally, strangers may hold back discussion too much and fail to develop a ‘synergy’. The last strength of focus groups as a qualitative and interpretive method of enquiry is the advantage of saving time and money.

Carson et al (p. 116) explain that the same number of participants used in other methods of research, such as interviews, can contribute information in the same or less time within a focus group as the latter are conducted in a group setting, rather than in repetitive and tedious, individual settings. Additionally, analysing and transcripts of information only need to be completed once. Consequently, this also saves the researcher money too. All fees are only payable once, such as room hire, or recording equipment.

However, Morgan and Krueger (1993) criticise this account by stating that recruiting willing participants for focus groups can be both time consuming and costly unless participants are easily accessible. Many people are reluctant to take part without an incentive, refreshments and even paid travel, which can also be costly. In conclusion, focus groups as a qualitative and interpretive method of enquiry possess a substantial number of strengths and weaknesses. The main advantages are the collection of new information, the depth of understanding, group interaction, strong samples and savings in time and money.

However, these strengths are also over shadowed by a number of weaknesses which could interrupt the consistency of data. However, as Carson et al (p. 117) suggest, the mass of advantages of focus groups easily outweigh the disadvantages. This may be because it is evident that focus groups as a method of enquiry, achieve more insight and depth of understanding than would individually be generated. Furthermore focus groups hold a unique strength, group interaction, not found in any other method.

Finally, when evaluating the quality of results from a focus group, it is important to remember, as Ritchie and Lewis (p. 196) explain, that the most stimulating and successful focus groups come with experience.