Nikki Gambles is a third year PhD student studying at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University. In this article, she reflects on some of her experiences of using focus groups in her PhD research.
For this month’s blog, I take time to reflect on my recent experiences conducting focus group (FG) interviews with young adults and share the challenges that I faced along the way. Beginning my first qualitative research project was a daunting experience. When it came to planning the FG study, I was met by a plethora of conflicting research outlining the dos and don’ts of FG practice. I found it difficult at times to understand which of the practices would do my research justice and which recommendations I should adhere to. Here, I share my own experiences of the challenges I was faced with and reflect on what did and did not work.
FG interviews are common tool often utilised in public health and prevention research. They feature as ‘carefully planned discussions, designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment’ (Krueger, 1994: 6) and are based on the synergy of group interaction. For my research, I conducted several FGs with prospective university students (high school and college students) to explore current perceptions of the university drinking culture and explore what factors contribute to the construction of these expectations.
The first challenge I was faced with was recruiting my target population. Educational institutions are notoriously difficult to recruit. Schools are often inundated with academic research invitations and the varying examination periods and school holidays mean that there is limited time to undertake research. Because of these challenges, recruitment was a protracted process that took longer than initially anticipated, therefore my advice would be to start recruiting as early as possible. Also, where you can be persistent, I found schools were willing to participate but often hadn’t got back to me with it being a ‘busy time of year’. Schools are however a great recruitment source as they allow you to collect data from multiple sources and tap into pre-existing groups, which means less organising on your part!
Young adults as participants
The young adults partaking in the FGs placed great emphasis on the opinions of their peers and at times appeared unengaged giving short and non-descriptive answers. Although this is something that cannot be prevented, I utilised several techniques to try and overcome these challenges. I would highly recommend the inclusion of stimulus material, such as introductory icebreaker activities or vignettes as these appeared to reduce participants’ initial apprehension and commence discussion and group interaction. Additionally, directed questions drew out the opinions of subdued participants who did not involve themselves in the naturally occurring conversations.
The composition of the group is key
Of all the different components to consider when planning FGs, the composition of the group is key. When reading the literature around group formation, recommendations for group size vary from four (Krueger, 1994) to sixteen (Braithwaite et al., 2004). Personally, I found groups that were smaller in size (five to six participants) produced a rich exchange of ideas and were easier to moderate. With some of the larger groups (eight participants), it was more difficult to manage dominant group members and often multiple conversations would occur, which at times created challenges.
Where possible I used pre-existing friendship groups that were homogenous in nature. Again, there is debate around whether groups should consist of strangers, acquaintances or peers. In my opinion the groups that utilised pre-existing friendships allowed for fluid discussion, where participants challenged but also built on each other’s perceptions and ideas. At times, they were difficult to manage as shared experiences and stories often led to discourse that went off topic. On the other hand, the group that were only acquainted with each other were reluctant to share their opinions and were more likely to conform to a collective consensus.
Prepare for the unexpected
FG studies have the potential to provide you with rich data which elicits a range of ideas, feelings and opinions. Moderating FGs, however, is not an easy task and is often fraught with challenges. I have read very few accounts that prepare you for the pitfalls you will face along the way, here I list just some of the challenges I encountered.
Table 1: Challenges and Recommendations for Focus Group Research
|Participants that do not show up on the day||Over-recruit FGs|
|Late arrivals||Although disruptive, pause the FG and go through the aims, ethics and FG ground rules with the late arrival (alternatively you could turn them away!)|
|Room layout||When recruiting through schools you may get located into a room which is not appropriate to conduct FGs. Where possible let the school know in advance what type of layout would be best suited|
|Groups that didn’t talk and groups that talked too much||This is a moderating issue, and can be managed through non-verbal and verbal indications. Try and prevent multiple participants talking at once as this can be a nightmare to transcribe.|
|Overrunning||Where possible take a second researcher to time keep and note take|
|Disruptive or disengaged participants||Set some ground rules at the beginning of the FG e.g. no mobile phones|
These challenges should not deter you from conducting FGs, but being aware of what can go wrong allows you to prepare for every eventuality and reduce the likelihood of it occurring. The FGs generated interesting, original and rich data, I found moderating the FGs to be a fantastic and enjoyable experience and hope to conduct more studies like this in the future.
About the Author
My name is Nikki Gambles and I am a third year PhD student studying at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University. My research interests focus on drinking behaviours and the cultural backdrop in which they lie. My PhD programme of study explores the impact of the transition to university on students’ drinking behaviours through a mixed method approach. I am particularly interested in perceptions that are constructed around student drinking and how they can influence behaviour. You can read more about my work here: http://www.cph.org.uk/people/nikkigambles/ or email her at: N.H.Gambles[at]2015.ljmu.ac.uk
Braithwaite, J., Hindle, D., Finnegan, T. P., Graham, E. M., Degeling, P. J., and Westbrook, M. T. (2004) “How important are quality and safety for clinician managers? Evidence from triangulated studies.”Clinical Governance: An International Journal 9, (1) 34-41
Krueger, R. A. (1994). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.