Much of qualitative research involves looking deep for meaning that is not immediately apparent. As we worked on this book, we were reminded of the long ago practice of hiding messages in quilt designs as a means of providing directions to slaves trying to escape from slavery in the South via the underground railroad —a covert way of travel to freedom in the North. The slave owners saw the quilts as an everyday sight, without recognizing the invisible codes that the slaves learned to read (Tobin and Dobard, 1999). We believe that focus groups are analogous to those historic quilts; they are an effective method of looking deeper when conducting social science research.

Focus groups have been used very widely—from market research to rigorous social science research. The apparent ease of using focus groups can lead some to underestimate the challenges and pitfalls. This book provides the knowledge needed to plan and implement rigorous, high quality data collection, analyze that data, interpret the findings, and report the results of the group studies for optimal validity and usefulness.

The intended audience for this book is researchers who have some familiarity with qualitative research methods but may be new to focus group research. This text would also be useful to graduate students taking a course in qualitative methods. Topics include a brief description of the background and history of focus groups, the conceptual framework that informs this method, the basic elements for developing a research plan, guidance for planning and conducting sessions, considerations for special populations, and  recommendations for data analysis and reporting findings. Attention to ethics and rigor is essential throughout research, and these concerns are addressed throughout the book. Each chapter begins with questions to alert you to key concepts.

Our objective for this book is provide the insight necessary for you to think through and plan your study in ways that improve your research question, data collection and analysis, and credibility of findings. The usefulness of your study will be improved by understanding the logical links between the conceptual framework (sociology, psychology, and psychosocial concepts) and good qualitative research design.

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