By Martin Tolich
Merton and colleagues (Merton, Kendal, and Fiske, 1990) may have developed focus groups as a bona fide research technique, but it is understanding the psychosocial “group effect” that provides the explanation for how focus groups work so well to elicit reliable information from semistructured, informal groups. “A group session has chemistry and dynamic that is more than the sum of its members’ comments.” Carey and Asbury’s concise book, Focus Group Research, draws on decades of their research using focus groups in a vast array of settings.
Focus Group Research delves into the dynamics of focus groups: how informants could censor themselves, how group members might conform to the group expectations, and how synergies between members unwittingly transform the flow of conversation. Together these group dynamics paradoxically realize both the strength of focus groups and their potential weakness. “The apparent ease of use can lead researchers to underestimate the challenges and pitfalls.” Carey and Asbury’s chapter on analyzing focus group data is unique in the literature and particularly helpful. This chapter not only reviews a range of theoretical perspectives—thematic analysis, discourse analysis, content analysis, narrative analysis, and grounded theory—but also gives a sound basis for understanding data within the group setting.
Focus Group Research is the first book to provide a critical reflexive account of focus group ethics at all stages of the research. Central to this reflexivity is how Carey and Asbury isolate the ethics staple confidentiality as potentially problematic for focus group researchers: confidentiality is not a given in focus group research. Whereas a researcher may promise to keep all informants’ information confidential, the researcher cannot assure confidentiality. That is, the researcher cannot guarantee the research participants that other focus group members will not make public the statements others made inside the focus group session. In addition, participants may disclose more than they intended. This ethical reflexivity represents a coming of age for this previously considered innocuous data collection technique.
While vulnerable groups (children, the elderly, LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered], those with cognitive disability) have traditionally been viewed as not appropriate participants for focus groups, Carey and Asbury target these groups as quite appropriate participants. Focus groups reduce power imbalances between researcher and participant, thereby empowering them and facilitating research with them, rather than on them. Carey and Asbury give specific and valuable advice on how to maximize results from vulnerable groups. For the elderly, logistical planning should involve access to the focus group, physical comfort and their auditory acuity. This chapter provides nuanced advice for some of the perennial problems of working with children, including issues of optimal group size, the duration of the session, and how gender differences function at different ages. The final chapter is one of the few descriptions of how to communicate focus group research findings.
Focus Group Research is essential reading for postgraduates in health, the social sciences, and education. The size of the book belies how much information is packed between its covers. It is a quick how-to read, yet the reader will want to spend considerable time to digest the vast array of information provided. Guides to further reading are included within each chapter. The book gives novice researchers and experienced qualitative researchers (using focus groups for the first time) sound guidance on how to utilize focus groups effectively.