Focus Groups Essay

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A focus group includes either strangers or acquaintances and typically 8 to 12 participants. Focus group interviewing is a valuable method for studying how particular categories of people think about social issues and social problems. The goal in such research is often to examine how claims making in the public arena influences the consciousness of particular categories of people.

As a research technique, the focus group has advantages and disadvantages relative to alternative approaches to the study of public opinion. In contrast to random sample surveys, focus groups (like other qualitative methods) enable the researcher to observe not just what people think and say but also how they think and say it. Thus, transcripts of focus group discussions can be analyzed for the constituent elements of everyday social problems talk, including media imagery, popular wisdom, and everyday personal experience. The technique thus permits analysis of how claims making in the public arena interacts with other factors in shaping how people think and feel relative to particular problems. However, focus groups do not constitute a random sample and therefore cannot be reliably generalized to total populations.

The focus group also has advantages and disadvantages relative to its qualitative cousins, the intensive interview and the ethnography. Ethnographies provide more naturalistic observations but are more time-consuming to conduct and provide fewer instances of relevant social problems talk. Intensive interviews enable greater attention to the views and experiences of particular individuals but serve as weaker indicators of how people talk in their everyday social groups. Located at a conceptual midpoint between the intensive interview and the ethnography, the focus group enables researchers to exercise control over the topic of conversation, while preserving certain elements of the naturally occurring social environment, including the gallery of peers.

In studies that do not compare subgroups, focus groups involve individuals with a particular trait or characteristic, for example, elementary school teachers, parents of young children, or baseball coaches. In studies that compare subgroups, the focus groups are generally homogeneous with respect to the variable under examination (e.g., race, marital status) and heterogeneous in relation to other variables. In general, groups should be added within each subcategory until the point of theoretical saturation (i.e., the point at which adding groups yields little additional information). To preserve the “insider” character of the discussion group, the moderator is typically attached to the group in relation to the critical research variable. The interview format tends to include relatively few open-ended questions (e.g., 4-6 questions for an hour-long discussion) rather than many short-answer questions. The interview format design also encourages free-flowing conversation among the discussion participants rather than between the moderator and the individuals in the group. Discussion prompts from the public discourse (i.e., campaign advertisements, political cartoons or posters) can help sharpen and focus the discussion. Discussions are typically recorded or videotaped and transcribed for subsequent analysis.


  1. Gamson, William. 1992. Talking Politics. New York:
  2. Cambridge University Press. Morgan, David. 1996. “Focus Groups.” Annual Review of Sociology 22:129-52.

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