The Lived Experience: A PhD student’s journey through the TQ2014 Workshop – Day 5

TQ2014 Blog Entry #5 

Christina Grant is a U of A instructor who will begin her PhD studies in Secondary Education under supervisor Dr. Olenka Bilash in fall, 2014.  A longtime journalist, she is keen to start her mixed methods longitudinal dissertation project exploring writing studies knowledge transfer in ESL learners who take WRS 101—Exploring Writing, a U of A course unique in Canada. Each night for the next five days, Christina will post a blog entry that captures snippets of thoughts and ideas from the TQ workshop.

Friday, June 20:  Focused on Focus Groups… and Farewell!

The end of the TQ Workshop Series has arrived—and what a whirlwind week it has been. I’ve learned so much that I can take into my PhD studies (and my own dissertation research project) which begins this fall. A month ago someone asked me why I was attending the TQ Workshops when I would be taking a full-blown qualitative research course in Winter term, 2015. I didn’t really know the answer then, but I know now: This has given me a remarkably solid base in some key forms of qualitative research and a newfound ease with terminology (grounded theory, phenomenography, case studies, and so much more) that will allow me to sail into my qualitative survey course with confidence. It’s a kick start if there ever was one. Copious notes in hand, I’m now ready to genuinely contribute to my upcoming class with many experts’ ideas, anecdotes, and even little bits of practice under my belt.  And besides that outcome, I’ve met new friends and forged invaluable contacts from around the world. What a gift this week has been. I would recommend the TQ Workshop Series to anyone at any stage of their research careers—but especially to new graduate students like me, for we are the future of qualitative research, and this is the conference that will make that future happen.

Rosaline Barbour

Presenter Dr. Rosaline Barbour discusses Focus Groups with Rebeccah Marsh, Director of Evaluation and Research with CASA: Child, Adolescent, and Family Mental Health.

But now, for the rest of my final blog installment, I want to share a few things that I discovered about Focus Groups—also known, delightfully, as “structured eavesdropping” —during my all-day session with multiply published medical sociologist Dr. Rosaline Barbour, Professor of Health Care at the Open University in the UK.

When many people think of Focus Groups, Rosaline observed, they conjure various “confusingly different models” such as the goal-oriented “marketing research” form that seeks most often not to analyze the data it generates but simply to answer questions such as “which confectionary product” to manufacture.

But over the course of the six hour session, Rosaline inculcated the 25 or so of us in the room to a much more rigorous form that has gained a solid footing in the qualitative research arena because of its effectiveness in exploring complex questions such group processes, decision making, and how views are formed within groups.

“People get anxious about running focus groups,” Rosaline noted. “They worry about whether or not they’re doing it right. But there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ focus group. It either works well or not so well in generating the data you are after. Sometimes they gel or don’t gel; that’s the exhilaration and frustration of them. I’ve not found the magic bullet yet.”

So what are they, exactly? They are carefully planned sessions in which the researcher brings together a group of people with a moderator to talk about a pre-determined topic or issue. A moderator—either the researcher or someone else, handles introductions, gets the tape recorder going, and incites conversation among the participants, possibly by providing a “stimulus” such as hypothetical scenarios or a set of images. After that the moderator simply provides the occasional prompt to elicit more (or more focused) data from the group or to encourage the quieter ones to speak, but mostly he or she stays out of the way, letting the participants have the floor.

I’ve been a journalist all my life, so I’m well versed in the one-on-one interview which I love for the way it digs deeply into individuals’ ideas, opinions, and lives. Because of these features, Rosaline said, “interviews tend to be the ‘go-to’ standard in qualitative research,” but she has made me question my faith in this method as a method of enquiry: “I see them as problematic. This one-on-one happens in therapy session but not in real life. When we talk about things, we usually talk in groups.”

I’d never thought about that!  “It really puts people on the spot,” she said, and my mind flashed back to the hundreds of journalistic interviews I’ve done in which I tossed out questions then waited, pen poised, for my subjects’ answers which they knew (surely with some nervousness) that I might quote verbatim. “Focus groups,” Rosaline explained, “gives people permission to sit there and formulate their views.” They can relax and listen for awhile and then jump in if and when they are ready. Much less pressure, I had to agree.

Here are some of Rosaline’s keys to effective Focus Groups:

  1. Learn from, but don’t be constrained by, previous FG models. “They are there to be adapted. Beg and borrow. You have the license to make it up as you go along.”
  2. Do your homework. “If you put in the work up front to pilot your materials, if you’ve made sure they will elicit the sort of data you want— which is lively discussion amount participants— the moderator can really take a back seat.”
  3. Consider focus groups even for special or vulnerable populations, such as people with dementia or children dealing with trauma—though take special precautions such as involving mental health nurses to co-facilitate.
  4. Control the size of your groups. “The smallest I’ve done is 3, the biggest is 14—I don’t recommend it. If you want a nuanced look at something, about 8 people are ideal. With that size group you can pay close attention and make sure everyone is engaged.” A related tip: “Over-recruit, but not by too much because they might all show up!”
  5. Carefully consider the composition of your groups. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but people will say different things in groups of peers than with their manager there.”
  6. Have an assistant FG moderator whose job it is to record who says what and non-verbal interactions. “You are really missing a resource if you don’t do that.”
  7. Avoid too many cooks in the kitchen in the form of observers because “they are a bit invasive and intimidating for the participants.” If there must be one or two observers, seat them in the back corners of the room, explain that they are observing, and keep them quiet. “They don’t interact— I always forbid them to do that.” Hopefully the participants will soon forget they’re there.
  8. Write up your Focus Group plan generally enough to allow for “wild card groups” that you may decide to assemble midway into the research. “That way you won’t have to go back to ethics committee.”
  9. As a moderator, cultivate your ability to “think on your feet” and “keep a lot of balls in the air” during the group conversation. “Be attentive to interaction and patterning. Anticipate analysis even as you are generating data.”
  10. Trust the group to manage itself with only minimal prompting and guiding. “We think we are all powerful as researchers, but in many cases they are used to interacting in groups. They’re skilled; they can defuse tension and challenge each other. Don’t infantilize them.” Ideally, “people start asking each other questions—even some you wouldn’t dare ask as a moderator.”
  11. When writing up your data, don’t generalize. “We have to be very careful not to say anything is representative in qualitative research.” Rather, use your rich FG data to do things like develop a questionnaire that might yield more generalizable data.
  12. Be responsible for what deep discussion on topics—especially sensitive ones—can do to people. “Don’t just take the data and run. Hang around afterwards, offer help lines and other resources.”
  13. To manage the data, develop a “provisional coding frame” in collaboration with other FG researchers, and adjust and hone it as you go.
  14. Don’t consider Focus Groups as  “method of second choice”—a cheaper or easier alternative to multiple one-on-one interviews, for example. That’s just not true (good ones are very involved). A weak reason for choosing a method often leads to weak final results.

Just before Rosaline bid everyone goodbye, she said, “ I hope this session has encouraged you to dip your toe further into the water and consider using Focus Groups.” Absolutely, I say. Absolutely.



About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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