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The location of the group discussion is an important consideration in planning focus group research. Both the physical venue and the internal environment are important in fostering a productive group discussion. Many aspects of the location will influence the progress of the discussion and participants' willingness to openly contribute to the discussion (Stewart and Shamdasani 1990; Vaughn et al. 1996). The group location needs to set a positive tone for the group discussion, and provide a comfortable, relaxed and informal environment which is conducive to a productive discussion.
Ideally, the location of a focus group discussion should be quiet, private, comfortable, spacious, free from distractions and in a neutral venue. However, in some research contexts, particularly when conducting research in rural areas and in resource-poor communities, these characteristics may be compromised. Therefore, researchers need to strike a balance between the ideal type of location for a group discussion and what is available at the field site. However, it should be remembered that successful focus group discussions can be conducted in a wide variety of locations, ranging from purpose-built rooms for discussion, to improvised locations at the study site and even in outdoor locations. Some compromises will inevitably need to be made when selecting a group location, particularly when holding group discussions in outdoor locations; however, of prime importance is whether and how these compromises will affect the group discussion and the quality of the information received. This chapter discusses important aspects of the location of group discussions.
Focus group discussions have been in the toolkit of social scientists for some time now. In more recent decades the use of focus group discussions has increased amongst the health and social sciences as a tool to inform policy and practice. For example, focus group discussions have been used in health and behavioural research, strategic planning, health promotion, policy development and programme evaluation. The increased use of focus group discussions is partly due to a broader acceptability of qualitative methods in these disciplines, but also due to a greater emphasis on the inclusion of qualitative methods in mixed-method research designs, to respond to research issues not accessible by quantitative approaches. This more recent emphasis on integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches has been encouraged by research funding bodies and has led to a renewed focus on training in mixed-method research design for post-graduates in academic institutions.
The increased use of focus group discussions has led to a greater number and variety of researchers using the method. Focus group discussions are also being applied in a greater variety of settings than in the past. In particular, focus group discussions are often used in international research, particularly in developing country contexts. For example, health research on issues such as family planning, HIV/AIDS and the development of social and community initiatives now often include focus group discussions in the research methodology.
Recruiting participants for the group discussions is one of the fundamental tasks of focus group research. Participants in focus group research are recruited non-randomly (sometimes referred to as ‘purposive’ recruitment), according to criteria specific to the research objectives. There are a wide variety of participant recruitment strategies for focus group research; the most appropriate strategy to adopt will be influenced by the characteristics of the study population and the context of the research. The process of participant recruitment will be determined by whether the study participants are members of the general community or represent specific sub-groups of the population. The research context will also determine the most appropriate recruitment strategy to adopt. For example, participant recruitment in developing country contexts typically involves following local protocol to seek endorsement for the research and seeking assistance from local ‘gatekeepers’ in gaining access to community members. Recruitment in developing country contexts also makes use of the often close-knit social structures, which can be beneficial in quickly identifying appropriate participants. This chapter describes a range of strategies to recruit focus group participants and the situations in which each strategy is most applicable.
What is participant recruitment?
Participant recruitment refers to the process of identifying individuals with certain characteristics and inviting them to participate in the group discussion. Careful selection of participants is essential to create an environment suitable for productive discussion. Participants in focus group research are typically selected non-randomly, and according to certain criteria specific to the research objectives.
The optimum size of a focus group discussion is determined by the topic of discussion, the type of participants and the level of detail required in the discussion. The number of group discussions to conduct will vary by research project and is influenced by the nature and scope of the research topic, the level of segmentation of the study population and by the resources available for the research. The number of group discussions will also determine the size of the research project, as it will directly influence the volume of data generated and the complexity of the data analysis, and will determine the resources required for data collection and analysis. Therefore, the number of focus groups to conduct needs to be given careful consideration. Essentially the number of groups to conduct will be a balance between the resources available and gaining the information necessary to adequately address the research question. However, regardless of resources, it is important to make informed and justified decisions about the number of groups to conduct and the group size. This chapter identifies the range of methodological and practical issues which influence decisions on group size and the number of focus groups to conduct in a study. It also highlights common situations that arise during the fieldwork which may compromise the desired group size for the research project, and how to manage these situations.
Typically a focus group discussion will comprise between six and ten participants, with an average of eight.
Group composition refers to the characteristics of participants in the group discussion, and how these characteristics may affect group cohesion and productive group discussion. The composition of individuals in a focus group discussion has a significant effect on the group dynamics and can therefore aid or inhibit productive discussion. Group interaction is vital in focus group research, therefore careful attention to the composition of the group is important (Bloor et al. 2001; Fern 2001). Good group composition will generate a productive discussion with useful data to meet the research objectives, while poor group composition may lead to little or irrelevant discussion or at worst conflict between participants.
There are two aspects of group composition which are likely to impact on the group dynamics: the level of acquaintance between participants and the level of homogeneity in participant characteristics. This chapter discusses how each of these issues influence the group discussion for research in both developed and developing country contexts. The key issues for consideration are highlighted as well as strategies to achieve the optimum group composition. It is important to highlight that there is no rigid formula for group composition, and the most effective group composition will differ by the research context and the type of study participants. The primary influence on group composition will be creating an environment which fosters an effective discussion, the components of which are likely to vary by the context of the research.
There exist a large number of books on conducting focus group discussions, however, most texts have an implicit assumption that the focus group research will be conducted in western settings. These texts provide little guidance for those embarking on focus group research in developing countries. While many of the principles of focus group research remain the same despite the context, the practical application will often differ. Existing texts provide no guidance on conducting focus groups in another language, developing a culturally appropriate discussion guide, translation issues, training a field team, seeking research permissions, using tape-recorders in culturally conservative settings and a range of other practical issues. As a result novice users of the method remain uncertain of how to apply the principles of focus group research to developing country settings. Unfortunately, this uncertainty often leads to the absence of rigorous science with inevitably poor quality outcomes.
There exists a great deal of experiential knowledge amongst those who have conducted international focus group research, there are accepted procedures and common strategies that we use for applying the method and for managing difficult situations, but little of this knowledge is published to assist those embarking on focus group research in developing countries for the first time. Therefore, this book is written in response to frequent requests from researchers and research students for advice on how to conduct focus group discussions, particularly in developing country contexts, and to respond to the common concern ‘Am I doing it right?’
International focus group research is often conducted in contexts where the research investigators do not speak the language of the study participants, for example, research conducted in another country or in regions of the country with different linguistic traditions. In these situations it is necessary to train a field team to conduct the focus group discussions. In many instances those who become part of the field team will have the necessary language skills for the research, but may have limited research experience or exposure to qualitative methods. The ultimate goal of training the field team is to transfer the skills of conducting focus group discussions to individuals with the linguistic proficiency to communicate with the study participants. Training the field team is essential, however it is often a forgotten element when planning focus group fieldwork, and research proposals often neglect to include time and resources for in-country training of field staff. This chapter describes the components of a training schedule for field staff, which includes role-play sessions to enable experiential learning of the various roles of the focus group team.
The importance of training
One thing I really learnt, that I didn't find in any book, was about training … I realise now that this is very important.
The importance of providing training to the field team cannot be overstated. In an ideal situation field staff would be proficient in the language(s) of the study participants and have experience in qualitative research and group facilitation.
Data analysis involves synthesising the focus group data in a systematic manner to provide information that effectively responds to the research questions. Analysis of textual data can be a challenging task, as it involves identifying the meaning of information which is often in an unstructured and fragmented format because it originated from a group discussion. The large volume of textual data also poses a challenge to the analyst to identify how to segment the data into smaller, manageable parts for analysis. In essence, data analysis ‘is the process of moving from raw interviews to evidence-based interpretations that are the foundation for published reports’ (Rubin and Rubin 2005: 201). Textual data analysis needs to be conducted in a systematic, structured manner so that the conclusions reached are reliable and can be verified. This chapter describes the systematic process of textual data analysis from focus group discussions.
The data from focus group discussions are distinct from other types of qualitative data, because the information is collected from a discussion amongst a group of people. Therefore, the group context and the dynamic nature of a discussion need to be taken into consideration during analysis of the data. There are particular challenges in the analysis of data from a group discussion. First, the interaction between participants in a group discussion often leads to interrupted speech, contradictions of opinion, unfinished ideas, disagreements and misinterpretations between participants.
Conducting the group discussion is the central activity in focus group research. The central figure in the group discussion is the moderator who is responsible for managing the group discussion using a pre-prepared discussion guide. Effective moderation of the group discussion is a challenging but critical task, as the group discussion needs to be carefully managed to provide sufficient information to respond to the research questions. This chapter describes the roles of each member of the focus group team during the group discussion, with particular emphasis on the tasks of the moderator. The process of focus group moderation is described, highlighting the various stages of a discussion and the role of the moderator during each stage. A range of moderation techniques is described in this chapter to assist in promoting an effective and productive group discussion and to identify and manage difficult group dynamics.
Roles of the focus group team
A focus group team typically comprises the moderator, a note-taker and occasionally an assistant. The common role for all team members during the group discussion is to create a friendly and welcoming environment for participants. If participants feel uneasy during the discussion this may affect their contribution to the discussion and therefore the quality of the data. Serving refreshments before or during the group discussion is a common way to promote social cohesion amongst group members. The specific roles of each member of the focus group team are described in turn below.
Focus group research produces a large amount of information and it is often difficult to determine what should be reported, how to structure the information and how to utilise data extracts most effectively when reporting the research findings. As with all research reports, the structure and content of the report will be determined by the purpose of the study, the audience(s) and the key messages to be conveyed. Reporting the findings of focus group research involves identifying the core findings from the data and developing a narrative to communicate these findings to the target audience(s). The challenge is to develop a narrative that both integrates the central findings and provides sufficient depth and context to the issues reported. Qualitative researchers often focus on identifying the context surrounding the research issues, but then neglect to adequately report contextual issues in the study report. One of the traditions of reporting qualitative research is to use data extracts when reporting the study findings, by including quotations from participants. However, there is little guidance on the effective use of data extracts or on how to report study findings without the use of data extracts. This chapter discusses the fundamental issues in reporting focus group research, highlighting how to focus the research findings, effectively integrate data extracts and convey context in the report. In addition, the chapter discusses reporting the findings of focus group discussions in mixed-method research.
The main data collection tool in focus group research is the discussion guide. If well developed, this research tool can elicit the type of information from a group discussion to meet the research objectives. The quality of the information received will be a direct reflection of the forethought given to the design of the discussion guide and the question strategy, therefore sufficient time and careful attention need to be given to developing the discussion guide. The development of the discussion guide is one of the crucial tasks in focus group research. This chapter outlines the purpose of a discussion guide, the different types of discussion guides, the structure and function of each part of the instrument, and effective questioning strategies. For international focus group research, it is often necessary to translate the discussion guide into the language of the study population. This chapter also discusses language and translation issues as well as sensitivity to the development of culturally appropriate questioning strategies. A checklist of issues for designing the discussion guide is given at the end of the chapter.
Purpose of the discussion guide
A discussion guide is a pre-prepared list of discussion topics or actual questions used by a moderator to facilitate the group discussion. The main function of the discussion guide is to act as a memory aid for the moderator to assist in managing the discussion around a range of key topics.
I think that seventy percent of the effort for focus group discussions is in the planning, because once you have planned everything you are able to better control when things go wrong.
This chapter outlines the range of issues to be considered in planning international focus group research, highlighting the issues to be considered prior to beginning the fieldwork and once at the field location. Careful planning is fundamental to the successful implementation of focus group research, particularly when it is conducted in another country. The initial tasks involve clarifying the basic research issues, such as the research objectives, target population and utilisation of the research findings. Planning focus group research also involves seeking appropriate permissions, establishing local contacts, developing a suitable field team, providing training and organising logistics. All of these activities need to be conducted with sensitivity to local protocols, respect for cultural differences and a continued application of ethical principles. In addition, planning the research involves developing a realistic timetable and seeking an adequate budget. Conducting international focus group research also requires flexibility to meet the challenges that arise during the fieldwork process. However, with effective planning researchers can anticipate some of the difficulties that may occur and be in a better position to manage unexpected situations that may influence the quality of the research outcomes.
The systematic analysis of the information gained through focus group discussions is what distinguishes the academic use of focus group discussions from market research approaches (Bloor et al. 2001). Obtaining an accurate record of the group discussion is therefore critical. Focus group discussions are typically recorded in two ways, by using a tape recorder and by taking written notes during the session. Tape-recording the group discussion is most preferred, as it provides a verbatim record of the issues discussed and greatly increases the data quality. Tape-recording the discussion also overcomes the shortcomings of relying on written notes from the discussion, which may be incomplete, inaccurate or selectively recorded. Although tape-recording the group discussion remains the ideal, not all participants may give consent for tape-recording the discussion and therefore note-taking remains an important back-up. This chapter describes the methods of recording the information from focus group discussions, and highlights common issues with recording the discussion, particularly in international focus group research. The chapter also describes methods of collecting additional information about participants through pre- and post-session questionnaires.
Each group discussion should have a note-taker in attendance whose role is to make a written record of the key issues raised in the discussion. A note-taker should always be present even if the discussion is being tape-recorded, as the notes will be critical if the recording equipment fails, the recording is inaudible or the tapes are lost.
A practical and authoritative guide to conducting focus group discussions in health and social science research, with particular emphasis on using focus groups in developing country settings. Monique M. Hennink describes the procedures and challenges of each stage of international focus group research. This book demonstrates how to balance scientific rigour with the challenges of the research context, and guides readers to make informed research decisions. It includes unique field perspectives and case study examples of research in practice. Topics covered include: planning international field research; developing a fieldwork timetable and budget; seeking research permissions; translating research instruments; training a field team; developing a culturally appropriate discussion guide; participant recruitment strategies; conducting focus groups in another language; managing discussions in outdoor locations; group size and composition issues; transcription and translation of the group discussions; data analysis and reporting focus group research.
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