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A focus group is a group interview involving a small number of people that share certain similar characteristics. Focus groups are generally used to identify and evaluate participants reactions and opinions toward a certain issue. It allows researchers to identify how the participants think and behave.
In this chapter, we will look at two different ways in which focus groups have been used in public opinion research. We will first take a look at focus groups as the preliminary step in the development of questionnaires and will then consider focus groups as a self-sufficient source of data on public opinion.
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In this section, we will examine focus groups as a step in the development of surveys. There are three broad categories of the uses of focus groups in creating public opinion surveys; discovery, development, and definition.
When used with the purpose of discovery, focus groups reveal the fundamental content that needs to be covered to measure a topic. This highlights the inductive and exploratory nature of focus groups.
When used with the purpose of development, focus groups reveal the kinds of questions that will help capture the content required. This highlights the subjective and interpretive nature of focus groups.
When used with the purpose of definition, focus groups can help reveal the actual definition of the item wording. This highlights the importance of a contextual understanding when using focus groups.
At the discovery level, focus groups facilitate the exploration of participants’ range of thinking when they consider a certain domain of public opinion. It can be used to understand topics that address issues that are poorly understood or unfamiliar. At this level, focus groups help a researcher highlight the areas they need to ask about in order to acquire useful findings on the issue.
At the design level, discovery-oriented groups are generally loosely structured and have less moderator control so that participants have more freedom to pursue their own lines of thought. This gives the focus group participants the space to share and compare their various viewpoints.
When focus groups are employed for development-oriented goals, there is already a clearly established sense of the dimensions and domains that must be included and therefore the focus is on identifying the best types of questions that can be asked on the issue. At this level, the focus groups should be able to operationalize an existing set of concepts to seek the concrete elements of a given topic that will help summarize the ways respondents perceive and think about an issue.
At the procedure level, development-oriented focus groups rely on an intermediate level structure that provides participants with the freedom to express their own perspectives while simultaneously helping the researchers pursue their own specific interests.
When focus groups are employed for definition-oriented goals, researchers already have a clear idea of the topic areas that need to be covered within the survey as well as the kinds of questions that need to be included to capture this content. At this level, the focus is on the way the questions are asked so as to stay in tune with the way respondents think and speak about the issue.
Definition-oriented focus groups typically employ a more structured style of moderating. At this point in the process, the researcher must already be familiar with the subject at hand and should focus on investigating the alternative ways in which the questions can be framed.
In this section, we will examine focus groups as a self-sufficient source of data for measuring public opinion. We will study its uses by considering the aforementioned groups; discovery, development, and definition.
Discovery-oriented focus groups are useful for understanding the reaction to new issues or for hearing from segments of the public that haven’t been covered in previous research. This is an early stage of exploratory research where the researcher may not even be aware of the questions they need to ask. Therefore, at this level, the researcher must ask the participants for help in identifying the range of issues, feelings, and experiences that shape their opinions on this topic.
A pivotal purpose of stand-alone focus groups is to emphasise the development goals that provide a deeper understanding of an issue. In this stage, the researcher has a clear idea of what questions to ask but wants to gain an understanding of participants’ perspectives on these questions and topics.
A useful application of definition-oriented focus groups is within well-defined research areas or within the later stages of a multi-part project. The goal in definition-oriented groups is to gain a detailed understanding of specific issues, including the issues regarding language and nuance that can influence the way participants interpret topics and questions.
Focus groups refer to group interviews that involve a small number of people that share certain similar characteristics. Focus groups are generally used to identify and evaluate participants reactions and opinions toward a certain issue.
The key uses of focus groups in public opinion research can be categorized into the following three groups; discovery, development, and definition.