Powell, Single and Lloyd define a focus group as, ‘a group of individuals selected and assembled by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is the subject of the research’ (1996, 499). The focus group technique has been used in social research since the late 1930s (Kreuger, 1988), but possibly the most obvious use of the technique has been in market research, where it is applied to investigate consumer preferences and habits. This technique is not usually recommended to new, inexperienced researchers as it demands a relatively high level of understanding.
In focus group research the researcher acts as a mediator between the question and the group and between the individual members of the group. Depending on their level of involvement in the topic this can be a rather difficult role. However, focus groups are becoming increasingly popular in qualitative research as a means of gathering data from a number of sources at the same time. A focus group allows ‘a variety of perspectives and explanations [to] be obtained from a single data-gathering session’ (Gorman and Clayton, 2005, 143).
Every researcher has to start somewhere and a number of my former students have conducted focus groups very successfully even though it was the first time they had attempted the technique and they were sometimes very nervous. As with every data collection technique, if it fits the purpose then I would recommend you go for it but not without testing your ability as a moderator first, and not without immersing yourself in the topic and being very clear about why you are there. You must remain in control of the situation and ensure that your research goals are achieved; you may be confronted with some strong characters and you must stay focused and keep the session on track.
Purpose of a focus group
There are many reasons for selecting focus groups as a data collection technique in qualitative research.