Focus Groups are We Stuck in a Rut?

Categories: Qualitative


I put this blog posting (“Focus Groups are We Stuck in a Rut?”) on the wall in the new group on “Focus Groups” so that we can keep all the comments in one place.

One of my goals in this section of Methodspace is to set up a blog, and add to it on a more or less monthly basis. Of course, I want this section be more than just my own ideas. So, there is lots of room for questions, comments, and other content here — and even more room for discussion of those issues. In other words, I hope my blog will “anchor” this section without dominating it.


With regard to my goals for the blog, like most bloggers I want to draw a number of comments and responses to what I write. I expect this to be more like an open discussion rather than a solo effort. As a step in that direction, I thought I would try to stir up some controversy with this first posting.


By saying that we are “stuck in a rut” I am arguing that we do too much of the same thing — that we are too comfortable within our comfort zone. To be more specific, I would argue that a substantial majority of the papers I read have the following basic design:


  — The size is 4-8 participants

  — The group composition uses participants who are homogenous with regard to the topic

  — The interview questions are organized into a semi-structured funnel

  — The research design is fixed at the beginning of the project and does not “evolve” from there


I am not saying that there is a problem with any of these design elements, or even that using all of them together in a study is “wrong.” Instead, I think that we over use this particular approach and that we’ve haven’t been very innovative in our use of focus groups since they re-emerged within the social sciences back around 1985.  Twenty-five years is a long time to be using essentially the same design, so I’m calling for more innovation in our approach to focus groups.


Or, in the spirit of an active and interactive blog, I’d like to hear about you are doing that is more innovative than the design I just described.


My sense is that there probably is plenty of innovative work out there, but it is scattered across a wide variety of substantive fields, rather than collected in any discussion about methodological issues in focus groups. That’s one of the major reasons why I chose this particular topic. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for you to share your ideas with other colleagues who can benefit from the work that you’ve done. On the other hand it is an opportunity to read about interesting alternatives that might be useful in your own research.


Finally I should note that there is also a completely different response to what I just said: You may disagree with my fundamental premise that we are “stuck in a rut.” And if you do feel that way, I definitely want to hear your opinion