The Strengths and Weaknesses of Focus Group Research

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Focus groups are a prominent method of enquiry, regularly used within the field of social science and in particular, qualitative research. The focus group practice involves a number of participants having an open discussion on a specific topic, set by a researcher. The researcher acts as a moderator to aid discussion by using probes to collect desirable data. This process is recorded and transcripts are used to interpret and analyse given information. Carson et al (2001, p.114) refers to focus groups as “A research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic or topics”. They also suggest that the central distinctive characteristic of focus groups is group interaction, which generates a mass of data, which would be inaccessible without using focus groups. Focus groups are used in many industries to collect ideas and understanding. Carson et al (pg 8) suggest that groups as a social research tool have been used for some time but the term ‘focus group’ was established in the classic study, The Focused Interview by Merton et al (1956). Merton’s study influenced the creation of the procedures that are now accepted as common practice in focus groups. Although this particular method possesses a substantial number of strengths, focus groups also occupy a number of weaknesses that disadvantage the researcher and limit findings which can be discussed in relevance to theories.

Firstly, Dawn Snape and Liz Spencer (2003, p.3) propose that it is important to define the practice of qualitative data before discussing the implications of it. They also suggest that qualitative research is difficult to define and can never entirely be classified. They infer that there is a wide consensus that qualitative research is a naturalistic and interpretive approach, with an emphasis on the understanding of the meanings which people attach to phenomena. This point is supported by Alan Bryman, he comments: “The way in which people being studied understand and interpret their social reality is one of the central motifs of qualitative research.” (Bryman, 1998, P.8) Snape and Spencer refer to qualitative research as a complex, subjective and observational approach which takes focus on participant’s frames of reference. There are no rules or single accepted way of exerting qualitative research, the methods are dependent on; ontology, the beliefs regarding the social world and epistemology, the beliefs regarding the nature of knowledge. In addition, qualitative research draws on philosophical, psychological and sociological ideas in order to search for in-depth data to aid the explanation of social phenomena. The key argument of qualitative research is that human behaviour is not simply driven by external forces; humans actively contribute to the construction of their own social world. The central purpose of qualitative research is to explore meanings by interpreting data, rather than searching for specific answers by quantifying empirical data. A major critique of qualitative research is the fact that everyone is different and holds and creates their own schemas, so therefore there can be no definitive answer or explanation.

The history of qualitative research is also important to acknowledge, in order to place focus groups into context. Traditionally, social science research imitated natural science methods in an attempt to create universally accepted laws. Social science suppresses many philosophical underpinnings, which influenced this consensus. There were three key people implicated in these underpinnings, each pursuing the idea of the previous. The first key philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650), an empirical researcher. In his book, Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes suggested that the search for the truth could be completed by using methods of objectivity, in order to accumulate observable evidence. Following Descartes was another key philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), also an empirical researcher. Hume...
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