One of our goals in the book has been to provide information about how to appropriately use focus groups as a research tool. We hope that by defining what is the proper use of focus groups, we have, by default, also defined what is not. We have both encountered examples of data collection strategies that are called ‘focus group’, but do not meet the spirit or the letter of what we have outlined here. We realize that the method seems deceptively simple, which undoubtedly contributes to its misuse, on occasion. Our hope is that we have provided the structure necessary to use the technique effectively while also providing enough depth to allow you to be flexible as the situation warrants.
A second goal for this book was to communicate the value of focus group as a research approach. We both come to this work from rather traditional backgrounds in quantitative methodologies, and we respect those approaches when used properly. Nonetheless, we have come to understand the value of qualitative approaches in general and focus groups in particular, in relation to certain research questions. By now, it should be clear that we believe focus groups to be a technique that yields rich data that could not be obtained through other means.
That being said, we do not believe this book to be the end of the discussion needed on focus groups. While it is well documented that focus groups can be a very useful tool for research in many settings, most of the literature on guidelines and recommendations — including much of this book — is based on experiences rather than empirical research that provides a rational for those guidelines. Although many of the recommendations in this book are informed by a psychosocial context, in order to move the method forward, more research is needed (Heary & Hennessy, 2002).
Future research should focus on the impact of various data elicitation stimulus techniques (drawing a picture, watching a movie, etc.) in relation to the common practice of only using guideline questions. Research is also needed on the impact of different group sizes, composition of session participants (homogenous vs. mixed groups in terms of roles and socioeconomic status), prior familiarity among members, and multiple sessions for a group. The outcomes to be explored could include the evaluation of the quality and comprehensiveness of information in relation to the study purpose. Findings could compare results across the above dimensions and also compare with information collected with interviews. However, comparison with quantitative approaches (e.g. questionnaire) would not be appropriate as study purposes would differ.
We began this book by comparing the hidden codes in some quilts created during the era of slavery with the ability to ferret out deeper meanings in social science research by using focus groups. We hope that this book has provided the background and insight needed to guide your future efforts in finding the hidden meanings. May you have gained as much by reading this book as we have by writing it.