Conducting Focus Groups

Categories: Data Collection, Online Research, Research, Research Design, Research Roles

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We will define our April focus broadly to include any qualitative or quantitative methods that involve questioning, prompting, or working with participants to collect or generate data. Find the unfolding series here.


While we can ask individual participants questions or prompt them to discuss experiences in one-one interviews, focus groups allow us to hear what participants say to each other. We can conduct focus groups in-person, or online.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Research Design (Salkind, 2017) explains:

A focus group is a form of qualitative research conducted in a group interview format. The focus group typically consists of a group of participants and a researcher who serves as the moderator for discussions among the group members. In focus groups, there is not always the usual exchange of questions and answers between the researcher and the group that one would commonly envision in an interview setting. Rather, the researcher often ensures that specific topics of research interest are discussed by the entire group in hopes of extracting data and self-disclosure that might otherwise be withheld in the traditional researcher-interviewee environment. In this entry, the purpose, history, format, advantages and disadvantages, and future direction of focus groups are discussed.Purpose

The purpose of focus groups varies depending on the topic under investigation. In some studies, a focus group serves as the primary means of collecting data via a strictly qualitative approach. In other studies, a group discussion or focus group is used as a preliminary step before proceeding to quantitative data collection, usually known as a mixed-method approach. In still other studies, a focus group is employed in conjunction with individual interviews, participant observation, and other qualitative forms of data collection. Thus, focus groups are used to complement a mixed-method study or they have a self-contained function, given their ability to function independently or be combined with other qualitative or quantitative approaches. As a result of their versatility, focus groups serve the needs of many researchers in the social sciences.

Salkind, N. J. (2010). Encyclopedia of research design (Vols. 1-0). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412961288


Open-Access Articles about Focus Group Methods

Adler, K., Salanterä, S., & Zumstein-Shaha, M. (2019). Focus Group Interviews in Child, Youth, and Parent Research: An Integrative Literature Review. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919887274

Abstract. Focus groups are becoming increasingly popular in research, especially in parent and child research. Focus group interviews allow participants to tell their own stories, express their opinions, and even draw pictures without having to adhere to a strict sequence of questions. This method is very suitable for collecting data from children, youths, and parents. However, focus group interviews must be carefully planned and conducted. The literature on focus group interviews with adult participants is extensive, but there are no current summaries of the most important issues to consider when conducting focus group interviews with children, youths, or parents. This article outlines the use of focus groups in child, youth, and parent research and the important factors to be considered when planning, conducting, and analyzing focus groups with children, youths, or parents.

Brown, C. A., Revette, A. C., de Ferranti, S. D., Fontenot, H. B., & Gooding, H. C. (2021). Conducting Web-Based Focus Groups With Adolescents and Young Adults. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406921996872

Abstract. This methodologic paper aims to update researchers working with adolescents and young adults on the potentials and pitfalls associated with web-based qualitative research. We present a case study of synchronous web-based focus groups with 35 adolescents and young women ages 15–24 years old recruited from a clinical sample for a mixed methods study of heart disease awareness. We contrast this with two other studies, one using asynchronous web-based focus groups with 30 transgender youth ages 13 to 24 years old and another using synchronous web-based focus groups with 48 young men who have sex with men ages 18 to 26 years old, both recruited via social media. We describe general and logistical considerations, technical platform considerations, and ethical, regulatory, and research considerations associated with web-based qualitative research. In an era of technology ubiquity and dependence, researchers should consider web-based focus groups a potential qualitative research tool, especially when working with youth.

Chen, J., & Neo, P. (2019). Texting the waters: An assessment of focus groups conducted via the WhatsApp smartphone messaging application. Methodological Innovations. https://doi.org/10.1177/2059799119884276

Abstract. Focus groups are a well-used research method in the social sciences. Typically, they are conducted in person to generate research insights through group discussion and interaction. As digital technologies advance, there have been efforts to consider how to conduct focus groups in an online format, often using computer-based tools such as email, chat and videoconferencing. In this article, we test the potential of smartphone-based mobile messaging as a new method to elicit group-level insights. Based on empirical analysis and comparison of in-person and WhatsApp group chat focus groups conducted in Singapore, we find that WhatsApp group chat does have the potential to generate well-elaborated responses and group interaction, particularly among younger, digitally fluent participants. However, the quantity and richness of the conversation still do not match that of the in-person focus groups, and further innovation may be needed to improve mobile messaging as a qualitative research method.

Flynn, R., Albrecht, L., & Scott, S. D. (2018). Two Approaches to Focus Group Data Collection for Qualitative Health Research: Maximizing Resources and Data Quality. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406917750781

Abstract. This article discusses four challenges to conducting qualitative focus groups: (1) maximizing research budgets through innovative methodological approaches, (2) recruiting health-care professionals for qualitative health research, (3) conducting focus groups with health-care professionals across geographically dispersed areas, and (4) taking into consideration data richness when using different focus group data collection methods. In light of these challenges, we propose two alternative approaches for collecting focus group data: (a) extended period of quantitative data collection that facilitated relationship building in the sites prior to qualitative focus groups and (b) focus groups by videoconference. We share our experiences on employing both of these approaches in two national research programs.

Li, B. Y., & Ho, R. T. H. (2019). Unveiling the Unspeakable: Integrating Video Elicitation Focus Group Interviews and Participatory Video in an Action Research Project on Dementia Care Development. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919830561

Abstract. With the intention to comprehensively reflect the reality, foster interactions between researchers and participants, and empower the marginalized groups to be heard, videos are increasingly used in health studies. The findings of an action research project that integrates video-based methods into the development of dementia care in an aged care home in Hong Kong are reported. A working alliance consisted of practitioners, community-dwelling volunteers, service managers, university educators, and researchers was formed to develop a sustainable, need-based play program for the institutionalized elderly with dementia (EWD). Two innovative methods, namely, video elicitation focus group interview (VEFI) and participatory video (PV), were applied. Data analyses were collaboratively conducted by all practitioner-researchers during eight reflexive sessions. Several short films were made through PV for institutional training and community education. VEFI effectively enhanced the practitioners’ understanding of the embodied expressions of the EWD and provided a reflexive, democratic environment to generate knowledge among practitioner-researchers. Counter-narratives of the EWD and educational materials on dementia care were generated through PV. The study demonstrates how innovative video-based methods may enable participatory health research to be more inclusive, engaging, and empowering, and how these methods may provide new perspectives on the ethics of researching vulnerable populations.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Dickinson, W. B., Leech, N. L., & Zoran, A. G. (2009). A Qualitative Framework for Collecting and Analyzing Data in Focus Group Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940690900800301

Abstract. Despite the abundance of published material on conducting focus groups, scant specific information exists on how to analyze focus group data in social science research. Thus, the authors provide a new qualitative framework for collecting and analyzing focus group data. First, they identify types of data that can be collected during focus groups. Second, they identify the qualitative data analysis techniques best suited for analyzing these data. Third, they introduce what they term as a micro-interlocutor analysis, wherein meticulous information about which participant responds to each question, the order in which each participant responds, response characteristics, the nonverbal communication used, and the like is collected, analyzed, and interpreted. They conceptualize how conversation analysis offers great potential for analyzing focus group data. They believe that their framework goes far beyond analyzing only the verbal communication of focus group participants, thereby increasing the rigor of focus group analyses in social science research.

Peterson, M. (2020). Objects in focus groups: Materiality and shaping multicultural research encounters. Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794120968735

Abstract. This paper discusses some opportunities and challenges of using objects in focus groups, to explore multicultural encounters and experiences of living together. Drawing on feminist approaches to human embodiment, it argues that material approaches hold the potential to investigate the embodied and relational experiences of encounters with/across difference of diverse participants in sensitive ways. The materials were touchable objects such as pens and papers that help connect across differences in identity, experience and opinion, share experiences and stories with unknown others, communicate across (non)verbal barriers, misunderstandings and tensions, and accommodate moments of silence and reflection. Originally meant to ease and structure discussion, objects emerged as a central ‘medium’ or ‘instrument’ of research encounters through which participants can capture, express and share complex narratives about encountering others and multicultural living, underscoring the use of objects as an impactful method in feminist and participatory research.

Yaylacı, Ş. (2020). Utility of Focus Groups in Retrospective Analysis of Conflict Contexts. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406920922735

Abstract. This article addresses the challenges of conducting retrospective qualitative research in conflict contexts, particularly those stemming from the susceptibility of retrospective accounts to present narratives and contextual variations in the experience and interpretations of war. This article shows how focus groups combined with in-depth interviews can be used as a strategy to overcome these challenges. Drawing on empirical examples from research conducted in conflict settings, the article shows how focus groups can be instrumental in culturally anchoring the researcher and accessing the most reliable accounts of the past via unearthing the locally relevant wartime events and war-induced dynamics.

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