Focus Groups

A focus group exercise consists in a facilitated discussion on a focal topic among a small group of people (6-12) and lasts for about one and a half to two hours. The discussion is moderated by a trained person giving key questions called facilitator. He seeks a focused interaction which is audio and/or video recorded. The aim is to gain insight into the group’s norms, meanings and values, as well as the underlying factors that may shape them and even engage the group with a participative research of policy process.

Ideally a full range of viewpoints should be raised within the group. Those aims and the way of achieving them differ articulately from survey methods:
Insight not rules
Social not individual
Homogeneous not diverse
Flexible not standardized
Warm not hot
Words not numbers

Of course this matter of fact restricts the possibilities of focus groups. But, if applied correctly, they can implicate some advantages, e.g. when it comes to modern market analysis. Thus the technique has been widely used in marketing since the 70s just to elicit people preferences. Other variants are e-focus groups (via internet) and Integrated Assessment (IA)-focus groups, a more policy-oriented procedure.
To understand the basics of the method it is important to see that there may be a thought that differs from the spoken words. Opinions are frequently more complex than quantitative methods can reflex: context-dependent, ambiguous, multi-layered... Often, they are even shaped in the very act of thinking with others. Focus Groups (FG) allows to deal with this interactive nature of process of opinion building and helps to articulate what is underlying of implicit; to explore how people think and why they think as they do. Furthermore, since it is the very respondent who identifies the processes at work in independently driving interaction with peers, FG prevents against researchers’ artefacts.

This methodology implies some advantages:

- Documenting the processes through which groups meanings are shaped, elaborated and applied, as an alternative to ethnography
- Let room for unanticipated topics or arguments, and new research concepts

And some disadvantages:

- Representativity as such cannot be claimed, but saturation by widening the diversity of participants and conducting additional FG may be envisioned
- Individual behaviour and groups’ deviances are more likely underreported than, for example, in in-depth interviews

Fields of applicability:

FGs are usually found in a multi-method design, to complement, prepare for, or extend other work. They have, for example, the functions of generating preliminary information on new or under-researched norms, concepts and values, interpretative aid or test of survey findings, extended peer review, critical reappraisal and public perceptions of complex issues.

One of the major footholds of the method is the facilitator. Different to a controller or an ethnographer, the facilitator encourages and allows to express and clarify the different positions. He promotes deeper exploration with the respondents own categorisations. The facilitator should avoid over-domination by particular individual members and introduce and debrief the experience. Prompts serve as an ice-breaker, but mainly to keep on focus. The application of open-ended questions like: “What did you think of the programme”?, “Where do you get new information?” or “What do you like best about the proposed programme?” is one of the facilitators’ tasks. Ranking exercises, describing cards, comment on news or other media support, vignette, photos interpretations are other possibilities serving this aim.

· Attached you will find the download of a poster on Focus Groups

An example

The EU-funded project PABE (Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe) used two-rounds FGs as part of a multi-method design including in-depth interviews and national workshops with key actors. At the bottom of this page you will find an abridged version of a protocol taken in one of these FGs. The main purpose was to study underlying frameworks of meaning and interconnections through which members of the public shape their views of GMOs. The research reveals what usually remains invisible or under-researched when using solely quantitative methods like Eurobarometer (where surface expressions of acceptance, for instance, hides underlying concerns).

The project shows how wider social dimensions, such as lifestyle orientations or institutional contexts are entangled with risk perception. Institutional behaviour appears to be a crucial factor. The researchers found, unexpectedly, few differences between the countries studied, since sharing a similar institutional approach to GMOs at the time.


- A pilot FG can be useful in order to pre-test the exercise and even to construct or rerain the prompts.

- FGs are a rather time consuming and labour intensive procedure. A 90-minutes standard FG means 8 hours for audio-transcription and 100 pages to be analysed. Therefore it is expedient, to limit the number of groups and participants to the bare minimum. The more segmented the groups, the more groups will be necessary.

- Payment: at least an attendance allowance (25-40 euro), and/or psychological incentives.

- Reconvening exactly the same group may be difficult but later groups can also be informed by experiences in earlier ones and different groups can intervene and inform at different level.

- Deliberate over-recruitment must be considered. Think also to reminders.

As an example you will find an abridged version of the first-round FG protocol of the PABE project:

Part 1 - INTRODUCTION (10 minutes)

1.1 Introduction by moderator

1.2 Warm-up question to participants: "Will you each introduce yourself and say a little about who is responsible for buying and preparing food in your household."

Part 2 - FOOD (15-20 minutes)

"Thinking about the changes that have taken place in the way food is produced, would you each think of on way in which food has changed for the better and one aspect that you are not happy about or which has caused you concern. (Go around the room)

What do you feel has been gained and what has been lost as a result of these changes?". "Where do you see these changes heading? Where do you think the food industry will be in ten years time?"

Part 3 - GM CRPOPS AND FOODS (15 minutes)

"What images or associations does the term 'genetically modified food' raise in you?" Make a list and probe to find out what associations and meanings images have.

Part 4 - EXAMPLES OF GM FOODS (35-40 minutes)

"Let’s look at some of the food products that might use these genetically crops." Show examples on display board and discussion.

Probe: If labelling not raised spontaneously move onto labelling by asking: Do you think such products should be labelled? Why?

Part 5 - TRUST (20 minutes)

"Now we are going to talk about genetically modified maize again: the type that has been modified to resistant to an insect pest. This is how some people might talk about the new product." General discussion.


"Do you feel that, at present, members of the public have any role or influence in making decisions about these new developments?"

Part 7 – FEEDBACK AND CLOSE (5 minutes)

To go further...

PABE:;; R. Barbour and J. Kitzinger (eds.)(1999): Developing Focus Groups Research: Politics, Theory and Practice, London: Sage; M. Bloor, J. Frankland, M. Thomas and K. Robson (2001): Focus Groups in Social Research, London: Sage

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