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Data collection techniques: Focus group

What is a focus group?

‘A way of collecting qualitative data which involves engaging a small number of people in an informal group discussion (or discussions) ‘focused’ around a particular topic or set of issues. The discussion is usually based on a series of questions (‘the schedule’) which are used to prompt discussion among the group, and the researcher generally acts as a ‘moderator’ for the group: posing the questions, keeping the discussion flowing, and enabling group members to participate fully.’ (Wilkinson, 2004) The moderator facilitates group discussion, and actively encourages group members to interact with each other. Focus groups allow a range of perspectives or understandings of an issue to be elicited.

Social interaction among group members is central to the method, and distinguishes focus groups from methods such as interviews and surveys . Group members can discuss, debate, disagree with each other and challenge each other. There is the possibility of synergism as respondents react to and build upon the responses of other group members.

Typically a focus group lasts for 1.5 hours. As well as discussion, stimulus materials may be introduced to support discussion e.g. objects, advertisements, film clips, and activities may be used (e.g. pen and pencil exercises)

Practice shows an optimum of 6 to 12 participants per focus group. Small groups are easy to manage, but fewer viewpoints will be expressed. Large groups, though capturing a wider range of viewpoints, can be difficult to manage, and there is more chance that some individuals won’t contribute, especially if there are 1 or 2 dominant personalities in the group.

Generally several focus groups are conducted. Group composition may be fairly homogeneous (e.g. young unemployed men; women with professional jobs etc) or may deliberately include a range of divergent ‘types’. The number of focus groups which are held may be determined by when saturation is reached: that is, when extra focus groups no longer generate new perspectives. However, focus groups are fairly resource-intensive as they take a long time to organise and to transcribe the audio recording, so in practice budget constraints may come into play.

Data Typically an audio recording is made and transcribed. May be supported by note-taking, video recording and outputs from pen and paper exercises and the like.


  1. The conversation is often more ‘natural’ than experienced with an interview. Participants may be more willing to talk to other people like themselves than with researchers. Also the focus is on discussing a topic, rather than answering a researcher’s questions.
  2. Flexibility in exploring unanticipated issues and gathering new knowledge.
  3. A more realistic account of individuals can be obtained as participants may modify (or qualify / strengthen) their views as a result of listening to the arguments articulated by others or if they are .challenged by others who disagree.
  4. The conversation can reveal the way that people make sense of a phenomenon and construct meanings around it. This reflects ‘real life’ more naturalistically.
  5. Participants may talk in-depth on quite sensitive topics if a supportive environment is provided. On the other hand, for very sensitive subjects requiring self-revelation, or for topics where views are likely to be polarised (possibly reducing the meeting to a long argument), an interview may be more appropriate.


  1. Very time-consuming to organise, with a lack of complete control over critical success factors e.g. whether people will actually attend at the agreed time.
  2. Moderator has less control over the proceedings than in an individual interview.
  3. Group dynamics may create problems, such that stereotypically quiet people say too little and loud opinionated people say too much. Good moderation is essential to ensure everyone has their fair ‘say’, and there is no collusion or intimidation.
  4. Views expressed in a group situation may differ from those expressed in an individual interview. For example, participants may conform to the view of a dominant individual or one perceived as higher in a hierarchy.
  5. Transcription can be difficult as it is difficult to optimise the recording of each participant’s voice and to differentiate between 2 people speaking at the same time.

It may be difficult to recruit busy people as there is less flexibility in scheduling a group activity compared to an individual interview. This is especially so if they are geographically dispersed.

This paper is based entirely on the following sources:

  1. Braun V. & Clarke V. (2013) Successful Qualitative Research. A practical guide for beginners. London, Sage.
  2. Bryman A. (2012) Social Research methods. 4th ed. Oxford, OUP.
  3. Wilkinson S. (2004) Focus group research. Chapter 10 in ed. Silvermann D., Qualitative Research. Theory Methods and Practice. London, Sage.
focus_groups.txt · Last modified: 2015/02/18 17:02 (external edit)