Learning in Focus Groups
Focus groups are small structured groups with selected participants, normally led by a moderator. They are special groups in terms of purpose, size, composition and procedures. As a research method, they present an environment for a focused, in-depth, interactive exploration of a research topic, and individuals' views, perceptions and experiences around a topic (Litosseliti, 2003). Learning is a substantial component of such exploration, for both the researcher/moderator and the participants. This is because groups are 'focused', i.e. they involve some kind of collective activity, such as debating particular questions, reading a text etc., and interactive, i.e. the group forces and dynamics of the interaction are of utmost importance. Participants respond to and build on the views expressed by others in the group — a synergistic approach that produces a range of opinions and ideas, and thus generates insightful information. It is these elements of a collective activity or socially oriented event, together with the centrality of interaction, that make focus group methodology potentially invaluable for many social research projects (Gibbs 1997, Kitzinger 1994, Catterall & Maclaren 1997). This paper takes a step-by-step look at focus group research, with an emphasis on the learning that happens within such groups. It first provides a background to the use of focus groups as a qualitative research method in the social sciences, including education. It outlines the benefits and limitations of this methodology, in terms of the questions focus groups can suitably address, and the types of learning they can foster. The paper then focuses on ways of developing and asking questions in focus groups, with the aim to limit potential bias in responses and create an open, collaborative environment for the exchange and learning of ideas. This paper draws on and develops parts of the author's 2003 monograph, entitled 'Using Focus Groups in Research'.
Keywords: Learning, Focus Groups, Research Methods
Dr Lia Litosseliti
Lecturer in Linguistics, Department of Language and Communication Science, City University, Northampton Square, London EC1V 0HB, U.K. , City University